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Bush Backs Israel, With Proviso

In reaction to the bold strike on Syria, the president says Israel has a right to defend itself but should avoid escalating the conflict.

October 07, 2003|Robin Wright and Henry Chu | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — President Bush on Monday firmly backed Israel's right to defend itself against the "needless murder of innocent civilians," but said he had cautioned Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon against actions that would escalate tensions in the Middle East after Israel's bold attack on what it said was a Palestinian camp inside Syria.

U.S. hopes that the latest cycle of violence would dissipate were undermined Monday when the conflict erupted across the Israeli-Lebanese border, leading to the death of an Israeli soldier.

In Damascus, Syria charged that Washington had condoned the Israeli airstrike in Syria -- and additional future attacks -- by failing to rein in its closest regional ally.

"The American bias to this aggression, which represents the worst kind of state terrorism practiced, makes Israel regard the American stance as a ... green light to continue the policy of violating international law," reported SANA, the state-controlled Syrian news agency.

The bombing raid on Syria -- sparked by a suicide bombing Saturday in Israel that killed 19 people -- drew condemnation from the international community, which labeled the attack an unacceptable violation of international law and Syria's sovereignty.

Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign minister, said: "The fight against terrorism, in which the EU is fully engaged, has to take place within the rules of international law."

For now, the Bush administration appeared to be sending two messages: Israel could retaliate to protect itself but should not go too far.

Bush said he had told Sharon that Israel "must not feel constrained in terms of defending the homeland. However, I said that it's very important that any action that Israel take should avoid escalation and creating higher tensions," the president said during a joint press conference with visiting Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki.

But senior U.S. officials said Bush had not been tough in his telephone call with Sharon.

At the news conference, Bush once again called on the Palestinian leadership to rein in militants linked to dozens of suicide attacks over the last three years. "In order for there to be a Palestinian state, the Palestinian Authority must fight terror and must use whatever means is necessary to fight terror," he told reporters.

U.S. officials said the strike on Syria, the most serious escalation of cross-border attacks in years, had not produced serious alarm within the administration -- in part because Israel retaliated on a facility that had been linked by U.S. and Israeli intelligence with the training of Palestinian groups rather than on targets in Palestinian civilian areas.

"There's a lack of panic over this attack, or vexation or anger, as in this instance there seems to be a conscious effort by Israelis to strike a target that made sense and where there was some equivalence. They didn't hit civilian targets but a facility linked to attacks against Israelis," said a State Department official who requested anonymity.

"So we're hoping that the impact is limited and [the attack] doesn't spark a new cycle of trouble," he added.

There has "long been the risk" of an Israeli attack against Syria, which was a "legitimate target" because it aided and abetted a wide range of Palestinian hard-line and religious extremist groups, he said.

Located about 14 miles northwest of Damascus, the attacked Ein el Saheb camp had first been used by two branches of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and more recently in the training of members of Islamic Jihad as well as Hezbollah, U.S. officials said.

"In some ways the attack was not surprising. The Syrians had been playing dangerously lately," said an administration official who requested anonymity. "While they had been helpful on Al Qaeda, they were unhelpful on everyone else."

For their part, Syrian officials denied that a camp operated at the bombed-out site, saying it was a piece of privately owned land. Islamic Jihad also denied training there.

Although Israel was largely quiet Monday because of the Yom Kippur holiday, tensions heated up on the border after a comparatively long period of calm between Israel and Lebanon's Hezbollah fighters, who receive backing from both Syria and Iran. Accounts varied on what happened.

Israeli soldiers came under fire about 4 p.m. Monday from several Hezbollah snipers along the eastern side of the border with Lebanon; one soldier was hit in the neck and killed, according to an Israeli army spokesman.

Israeli forces returned light fire, without resorting to artillery or helicopters, the army spokesman said. "We hold Syria and Lebanon responsible for the escalation in that place," he added.

But Lebanese security sources were quoted as saying that Israeli forces had launched mortar shells and fired across the border.

The incident came as Israel and Hezbollah were in the midst of sensitive and protracted negotiations over a possible prisoner swap.

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