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THE MIDDLE EAST

Northern Israel Residents Fear a Broader War

Mideast: Many are thinking about leaving as cross-border attacks by guerrillas threaten to spark a conflict with Lebanon and Syria.

April 14, 2002|T. CHRISTIAN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

AVIVIM, Israel — Razor wire curls around the nectarine and almond trees flowering in this tiny farming community a few yards from Israel's border with Lebanon.

Farmers are buying guns. The children spend afternoons in bomb shelters. Bullet holes pockmark the local military base. And many families are thinking of leaving.

"People are terrified now," said Haim Briton, 32, who heard shots whiz by his head last week as he tended his fruit trees growing along the border fence. "All day, every day, we are in great danger."

For the first time in decades, Hezbollah and Palestinian guerrillas are repeatedly attacking small northern Israeli towns and military bases outside the traditionally disputed territory along the frontier.

Launched in response to Israel's offensive in the West Bank, the attacks threaten to broaden the conflict into a wider war with Lebanon and Syria, which back the radical groups.

And they could draw the Israeli army into a demanding, two-front conflict that would drain resources and invite even more intensive terrorist activity by Palestinian militants within the country.

"This place could escalate in minutes," said Maj. Dinor Shavit, an officer in the northern command responsible for the border.

In the last two weeks, Hezbollah batteries have launched Katyusha rockets against several small towns along Israel's borders with Lebanon and Syria. Guerrillas have fired machine guns and launched mortar rounds at Israeli surveillance stations and military outposts.

There have been 23 attacks, including gun and mortar assaults, since January against border areas, including a disputed region that Hezbollah claims belongs to Lebanon. That compares with 19 over the last two years. Mortar and rocket attacks have long taken place in the disputed region, known as Shabaa Farms, but they now occur almost nightly.

So far, the attacks have failed to do serious damage. Several soldiers have been wounded, and some military buildings have been hit. No civilians have been killed or injured.

As a result, many Israeli political and military figures speculate that the attacks are intended to divert Israeli military forces from the West Bank, or are meant as a political gesture by Hezbollah to demonstrate support for the Palestinians.

The danger remains, however, that a stray round or a rogue militant could end up killing a civilian. And that would bring retaliation of some sort against Lebanon, Syria or both.

Yossi Sarid, leader of a left-wing opposition party, is intimately aware of the dangers. During a recent visit to his second home in the northern border town of Margaliyot, he stepped outside his front porch to watch mortar shells burst against a distant mountain.

From his kitchen window, he could see Hezbollah guerrillas at a border post a few hundred yards away prepare their breakfast. Rockets had sailed over his home in recent days.

"One shot through a window, and the Israelis will come. Once a border village is attacked, retaliation will be inevitable," he said. "The whole Middle East will be in a war that no one intended to launch."

One of the sad things about the new wave of attacks is that the border region along Lebanon and Israel has defied expectations since Israeli troops withdrew from southern Lebanon two years ago, ending nearly two decades of occupation.

Instead of renewed border skirmishes, communities on both sides experienced two years of relative calm. Israeli towns saw an influx of tourists. Unemployment dropped, and industry returned. Lebanese families returned to towns abandoned during the occupation and began planting crops along the border again.

But the recent surge in violence has reversed those gains, at least along the Israeli side. Avivim is a case in point.

The town, a collective farm known as a moshav, lies only a few yards from the rusted fence that marks the border with Lebanon, in a remote region of northern Israel. This time of year, bright red poppies and yellow daisies fill broad meadows. The rolling hills are green, filled with the scent of pine and fruit blossoms.

The town is surrounded by orchards, chicken coops and Lebanon. An Israeli military surveillance station sits on one side of the town. Villagers can see Hezbollah guerrillas guarding their own outposts on the hills above.

Two Katyusha rockets and several mortar shells came streaking from those hills April 7 about 6 p.m., according to villagers and military officials. A few moments later, as residents ran with their children to the village's cheerily painted bomb shelters, Hezbollah guerrillas pulled alongside the fence in several cars and opened fire with a machine gun.

The attack seemed directed mostly at the surveillance outpost. A rocket landed close to the guard shack, leaving a black hole in the ground. Bullets nicked holes in the building. At least four soldiers were injured.

The only damage done to the town was in the chicken coops, where eggs were shattered.

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