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Rabin Refrains From Counterattack in Lebanon : Mideast: Israeli leader holds to pact with Syria. Many had feared retaliation for nine soldiers' deaths.

August 21, 1993|MICHAEL PARKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — Despite a surge of bitter anger among Israelis over the loss of nine soldiers in southern Lebanon, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin held fast Friday to an agreement reached with Syria and did not send forces to flush Iranian-backed guerrillas from Lebanese villages.

Rabin also reaffirmed Israel's commitment to peace negotiations with Syria in the face of demands by the right-wing opposition that it break off the talks following the deadliest attack on Israeli troops in southern Lebanon since 1985. Israel views Syria as the paramount power in Lebanon.

"The way to avert such tragedies in the future is a peace agreement," a senior Rabin adviser said. "That is a strategic decision we made, and we will not be forced out of it by terrorist attacks in southern Lebanon or political posturing at home."

The popular response would have been a massive Israeli counterattack in Lebanon on Friday as the soldiers were buried amid national mourning. Political sentiment was for an ultimatum to Syria to disarm Hezbollah, the fundamentalist, pro-Iranian Party of God, which had ambushed the soldiers in Israel's self-declared "security zone" in southern Lebanon.

"The government must come to the conclusion that there is no value to the agreements reached (on Lebanon) with Syria," said Benjamin Netanyahu, chairman of the opposition Likud Party. "We must clearly demand that Syria stop the Hezbollah terror. It must be made clear to them that the blood of our soldiers is not for the taking."

As they buried their dead from the two ambushes, both within a mile of the country's northern border, many Israelis expressed a sense of betrayal. Most had thought that the agreement reached with Syria last month ending Israel's weeklong air, artillery and naval bombardment of Lebanon was intended to curtail, if not halt entirely, the Hezbollah attacks.

"What was the point?" demanded Haim Ben-Zvi, a Jerusalem shopkeeper. "Why did we try to bomb half of Lebanon to smithereens, why did we drive half a million people from their homes, why did we go through all that if not to achieve quiet in southern Lebanon?"

The answer, Rabin told the nation in a radio interview, was that "Operation Accountability," as it was dubbed, was aimed at securing peace for Israel's northern communities, which Hezbollah had been attacking with short-range Katyusha rockets.

The agreement reached with Syria through U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher's mediation was that Hezbollah would not attack northern Israeli settlements if Israel did not attack civilian targets in Lebanon--removing those Israeli towns and farms from what Rabin called the "war of attrition" in southern Lebanon.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, on a visit to Norway, also said the latest clashes did not violate the terms of the cease-fire. "It wasn't a breach of the agreement, it was a breach of peace," he said.

"What we said was, 'Stop shooting over the Galilee and we won't touch you.' But if killing and shooting will be continued, we will have to take the necessary measures," Peres added.

Rabin also warned Hezbollah against transgressing the limits for conflict. "The moment that red line is passed, as we have said, it will not be allowed to go unnoticed," he told Israel Radio. But the "red line" is the security of Israel's northern border settlements, not the security zone that extends nine miles into southern Lebanon.

Hezbollah leaders, proud of the casualties its guerrillas inflicted on Israel, repeated their determination to destroy the peace talks.

"The only language we shall use with the enemy is the language of fire," said Hassan Hobballah, a senior Hezbollah leader, in the southern Lebanese port of Tyre.

But the understanding reached between Israel and Syria--an agreement that could be a starting point for an eventual peace treaty--remained intact Friday.

There were no signs of a military buildup in northern Israel as there were a month ago, before Israel's bombardment of southern Lebanon. The July offensive was triggered by a series of guerrilla attacks that killed seven Israeli soldiers over three weeks.

In its retaliatory raids, Israeli warplanes struck Hezbollah targets outside populated areas, and Rabin reaffirmed his country's adherence to the pact.

Much rests on the understandings with Syria. On the basis of the agreement that ended Israel's bombardment, Rabin and Syrian President Hafez Assad have begun a dialogue through Christopher, and both Jerusalem and Damascus appear more optimistic now than they have ever been about the prospects for peace.

Rabin advisers also said that linking the peace talks with Syria to guerrilla activity in Lebanon would be a cardinal error, giving rejectionists like Hezbollah control of the negotiations.

Rabin, who also serves as defense minister, said the most immediate lesson for Israel was the need to adjust to Hezbollah's new and successful tactics. In both deadly ambushes, shrapnel-filled bombs were detonated as the soldiers approached.

A retired colonel offered this assessment Friday: "These are casualties we should not have taken. Hezbollah has got the drop on us, so to speak, and we need new tactics. This is a war that will have to be fought on the ground."

Other military observers suggested that Israeli forces might undertake more commando missions against Hezbollah outside of southern Lebanon.

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