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Regional Outlook : An Exercise in Middle East Macho : * Israeli-Lebanese border battles send tough messages. But no one wants to replay the 1982 invasion.

February 25, 1992|DANIEL WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — Sometimes the verbal prelude to the exchange of fire across Israel's northern border was expressed in terms of the macabre. "Whoever's hands are stained with Israeli blood will roll in his own blood," predicted an Israeli newspaper.

Sometimes the violence was heralded by dry euphemisms, as if the conflict was over a billing error. "Anyone who opens an account with us must know that we will close the account," declared Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens on the eve of one of Israel's retaliatory strikes into Lebanon.

Other times, the urge to educate took over. "We will teach them a lesson," predicted a Shiite Muslim guerrilla as he picked among the ruins of a Lebanese village bombarded by the Israelis.

So went the language of Mideast macho that accompanied last week's battles along the border between Israel and Lebanon. Just days before the scheduled resumption of Middle East peace talks, the outbreak was a reminder of how volatile the region remains, despite the promise of a "new world order" in the wake of the Persian Gulf War.

This round of fighting was very much of the old order. It was punishing, without clear lines and with muddled aims--message-sending of the most primitive sort.

For its part, Israel sought to let Lebanese adversaries know, in case they had forgotten, that the Israeli army and air force can inflict heavy damage on a moment's notice. In Lebanon, fighters of the extremist Shiite Muslim Hezbollah movement proved once again--did anyone have any doubt?--that they can pester but bring no fundamental changes to their fight with Israel.

In the end, however, it also seemed clear that both sides are anxious to keep the hostilities at relatively low intensity. Neither wants a repeat of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

A slight novelty in the latest message sent by Israel was the clear threat to civilian Lebanese who were made to pay for actions of Shiite militias under the command of Hezbollah, the Party of God. "I hope and expect that the Lebanese population will understand that it is forbidden for it to cooperate with terrorists," explained Defense Minister Arens. "If (Hezbollah) disturbs the tranquillity of the residents here (in Israel), we will disturb the residents on the Lebanese side of the border."

While focusing on the Hezbollah threat, Arens was being selective in his memory of how the whole week of conflict began. Two Saturdays ago, Palestinians armed with knives, hatchets and a pitchfork crept into a lightly guarded Israeli military base and slew two neophyte soldiers and a veteran.

Although the perpetrators came from the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Israel took revenge on Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon--the type of attack usually reserved for Palestinian assaults that originate north of the border. But Arens was under criticism for failing to maintain order in the West Bank, and as defense minister he was also held indirectly responsible for the lax security at the victimized army base.

In an added surprise, Israeli helicopters fired rockets on a car carrying Hezbollah leader Abbas Moussawi, killing him, his wife, Siham, and their 5-year-old son, Hussein.

Timing was the only connection between the Moussawi assassination and the Palestinian raid on the Israeli army base. Israel held the Muslim leader responsible for the breakdown of negotiations aimed at gaining the release of a missing Israeli air force navigator believed held in Lebanon. The Israelis had been tailing Moussawi for months and kept tabs on his movements by intercepting telephone conversations.

In any event, Hezbollah, which had mainly devoted itself to harassing Israel and its Lebanese allies in the Israeli-controlled buffer zone in southern Lebanon, targeted Israel with its feeble but noisy rocket fire.

Hezbollah guerrillas, distinguished by the black headbands they wear, began to rain Katyusha rockets on the frontier. By week's end, about 100 had been launched; a third of the notoriously inaccurate missiles reached Israel.

The Israelis mounted an armored assault on two Shiite villages, quickly withdrew and declared the thrust a success. Hezbollah, for good measure, fired a dozen more Katyushas. Three landed in Israel, and one exploded near a 5-year-old girl, killing her.

With the campaign for June elections already under way here, controversy erupted over both the readiness of the military and the assassination of Moussawi.

Some observers forecast that the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, running on a security platform, may be quick to pull the trigger when any conflict breaks out.

"We can also expect to see more strikes, like the one that killed Sheik Abbas Moussawi . . . against terrorist targets in Lebanon," said Hirsh Goodman, editor of the Jerusalem Report magazine. "The rationale will be that the orders behind the escalating violence in the (West Bank and Gaza Strip) are coming from there."

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