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An Overdose of Retaliation

July 30, 1993

The Israeli government has legitimate security reasons for wanting to clear radical anti-Israel guerrillas out of southern Lebanon. From villages there, groups like the notorious Hezbollah (Party of God), a particularly violent faction sponsored by Iran, launch rocket attacks and terrorist raids against border outposts and settlement towns in northern Israel. But the strategy the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has adopted to reach that utterly reasonable goal is starting to look less like a measured defensive strike than a policy in need of closer scrutiny.

When the Israeli offensive began on Sunday, the Rabin government said its aim was to pressure Lebanon and Syria, which with 40,000 troops in that country is the real power in southern Lebanon, to crack down on Hezbollah. And after five days of Israeli shelling and air attacks on southern Lebanese villages, Hezbollah and other terrorists have been set back--but not in the way officials in Jerusalem had hoped. Lebanon and Syria have done little more than criticize Israel's actions, which are now seen as so harsh that even friendly nations like the United States are starting to protest.

The Israeli shelling has been so relentless and methodical that anywhere from 350,000 (one Lebanese estimate) to 500,000 people (according to some U.N. observers) have fled southern Lebanon for the comparative safety of Beirut and other cities. Wednesday one Israeli military source said the aim of the offensive was "to damage the infrastructure" that the guerrillas had used to launch their attacks on Israel--meaning that entire villages were going to be bombarded until they were uninhabitable. If so, that is a most troubling escalation that would create thousands of new refugees in a region that already has far too many displaced people.

President Clinton called Wednesday for Syria to take a more active role in controlling Hezbollah, but also called on the Rabin government to halt the latest Israeli offensive. Criticism of Israel by Washington is almost unheard of, especially in a time of crisis. It should be heeded in Jerusalem, which must halt this latest offensive before it does permanent damage not just to southern Lebanon but the stalled peace process in the Middle East.

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