Israel attacks Lebanese targets, fires off warning to Hezbollah

JERUSALEM — Northern Israelis were forced to live in bomb shelters this week, after government officials declared a formal state of emergency in the region Tuesday.

Israeli officials made the announcement as strikes on Lebanon were escalating and after the sixth Israeli soldier stationed in Israel's security zone was killed in the past two weeks.

Raids began with air attacks late Monday night on transformer stations supplying electricity to Beirut, Tripoli and Baalbek. The attacks left chunks of those cities without power.

On Tuesday night, Israeli planes and helicopter gunships attacked three Hezbollah targets in Lebanon: a radar station in Tyre and two command bases in Ein Bouswa.

The strikes continued Wednesday, as President Clinton publicly stepped in.

"What we need to do is to stop the violence and start the peace process again," Clinton said. "We're doing our best to get it started and we're working very, very hard."

At the same time, Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy warned Hezbollah against firing Katyusha rockets into Israel as a retaliation.

"The soil of Lebanon will burn," he declared. "Let everyone hear: Vital interests of Lebanon will go up in flames and it will take many years to restore them."

Israel's strikes are intended as a message to the Lebanese government and Hezbollah to immediately cease the escalation of fighting that has built up over the past two weeks.

Tuesday's declaration of the state of emergency seemed to imply Israel is prepared to take further action against Lebanon to pressure its government and Syria to force Hezbollah to honor the Grape of Wrath understandings that are meant to keep military activities on both side to minimum.

The state of emergency means that all residents of northern Israel must enter and stay in their air-raid shelters until ordered otherwise by the military.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak visited Kiryat Shmona residents in a bomb shelter and wounded soldiers at Haifa's Rambam Hospital on Tuesday. He indicated that the aims of the operation had not been fully achieved yet and that residents of the north might have to stay in their shelters for several more days.

"Our response was intended as a signal to the Lebanese government, to Hezbollah, and to all those who have brought about this situation — including the Syrians — that Israel cannot tolerate this situation caused by constant unilateral violations of the Grapes of Wrath understandings," Barak said.

On Tuesday, Barak apparently asked for the cabinet's endorsement for the series of attacks more severe than those the night before.

Unusual in such cases, word of Barak's telephone poll of cabinet ministers was leaked to the media as it was taking place. This was believed to be a deliberate move to forewarn Lebanon that further retribution was imminent.

Hezbollah's recent attacks follow last month's freeze on the fledgling Israeli-Syrian peace talks.

The past two weeks have been marked by a cycle of attacks and counterattacks that have made it increasingly difficult for Israel to resume talks with Syria, which is widely believed to have given Hezbollah the go-ahead to launch attacks on Israeli targets.

An IDF spokesman said the anti-tank missile that killed the Israeli soldier Tuesday was fired from inside the Lebanese town of Nabatiyeh. He called the attack an infringement of an April 1996 Grapes of Wrath cease-fire agreement that called on Israel and Hezbollah not to launch attacks on or from civilian areas.

On Sunday, another soldier was killed and seven others were wounded — four seriously — in a combined roadside bomb and mortar and Katyusha rocket attack near the IDF's Karkum outpost.

Military observers said Tuesday's missile firing, and other Hezbollah operations Tuesday, seemed to indicate that the Shi'ite gunmen — and, more significantly, the Syrians who control them — had not heeded the message implied in Israel's air attacks Monday night.

Lebanese ministers assessed the damage at $200 million — which Israeli sources said was exaggerated — and said it would take a year to repair.

While Israel is facing considerable criticism from Arab states, particularly Syria, for the air strikes, Israeli sources claim that U.S. officials hinted ahead of time that they would turn a blind eye to a measured Israeli action.