Israel slows bombing of Lebanon Hezbollah calls for cease-fire

THE BALTIMORE SUN

METULLA, Israel -- The F-16 snarled down the runway of an air base in northern Israel, wingtips bristling at takeoff with 500-pound bombs and sidewinder missiles. A few minutes later, another jet landed, wings bare, its explosives purged over Lebanon.

Traffic at this base remained busy yesterday, despite signs that Israel's bombardment of Lebanon might be nearing an end.

Rumors of a cease-fire abounded last night, and a lull came in the constant artillery barrage that Israel has showered on southern Lebanon for six days. Israel denied that any agreement had been reached, despite an unusual -- and toughly worded -- call for a cease-fire from Hezbollah, Israel's chief foe in Lebanon.

"The action is continuing as planned," a military spokesman said last night. "We have not stopped anything officially." But he acknowledged that the Israeli firing "has slowed down."

He would not say whether this was a diplomatic signal from Israel or simply a lull caused by the start of the Jewish Sabbath. Four more Katyusha rockets fell on Israeli-held land in Lebanon last night, the last at 12:25 this morning.

Civilian exodus

Since it started Sunday, the Israeli barrage has created an exodus of civilians from southern Lebanon and resulted in an estimated 117 deaths. Three Israelis also have died.

Hezbollah, a radical Shiite Muslim group, made its cease-fire proposal in Beirut, although it was couched in terms that the Israeli government was certain to reject.

The statement vowed that Hezbollah would continue firing rockets unless there is a "complete and permanent halt of aggression against villages and civilians" in Lebanon.

This was rejected by Uri Dromi, a spokesman for the Israeli government: "If they want to stop shooting, that is fine, but it is not enough." Israel must have guarantees from the governments of Lebanon and Syria, he said. "We are not negotiating with the Hezbollah," a group "that wants to wipe us off the map."

The United States added pressure for a cease-fire. Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher postponed his planned trip today to the Middle East. It was unclear when he would make the trip, although Israeli officials said the delay would be for only one or two days.

The thunder of Israeli artillery continued yesterday, each shot warbling as it rent the air, arriving with the muffled rumble of an explosion. But in Metulla, Israel's northernmost city, the firing slackened in the evening. Reports from Lebanon indicated a similar lull elsewhere.

Yesterday, about 20 Katyusha rockets fell on Israel, causing only property damage. According to Israeli accounts, 225 Katyushas have been fired since Sunday.

Shelters and adjustments

Because of those rockets, Yaffa Magera has been cooped up in a concrete bomb shelter for nearly a week with her 10 children. The shelter is austere, but clean. Steel-frame bunk beds are bolted in the walls, and Mrs. Magera, 35, has brought colorful mattresses and blankets to relieve the drab gray of the place.

The door and ventilation windows were open, offering a whisper of the pleasant sunny day outside. Mrs. Magera said she has to corral her children to keep them from going out to play.

"It's difficult to live like this," she said. "It's not good."

None of the three other families who use the shelter are there in the day. Most go to their homes or work and return to the shelter only to sleep.

Not everybody uses the shelters.

"Who wants to be there with all the people all the time?" said Harry Chaim, 42, who stayed with his wife in their home.

Ranan Eliaha, 25, was waxing his brilliant-red new car outside his home, indifferent to the danger. "I stayed in a bomb shelter for a half hour in 1982," he said. "That's the last time. I don't like it."

"There really is very little chance of getting hit by a Katyusha," said a young soldier.

But two people were killed in Kiryat Shemona on Sunday.

Taking no chances

Rather than take chances, most of the 20,000 residents of this working-class town near the border have left, taking their families farther south.

"I sent my 11-year-old daughter down south to a camp" set up by the army for children, Weitzman Kalifa said. "I will stay. I'm not scared. But she was nervous and crying."

The welfare of the 100,000 to 150,000 residents of northern towns in Israel has become the rallying cry for Israel's military campaign. The government rarely mentions the killing of seven soldiers earlier this month -- what many consider the impetus for the action. In part, this is because their killings occurred on Lebanese territory in land occupied by Israel since its 1982 invasion.

"I am defending those children who are sleeping in the shelters tonight, and those people in northern Israel who might be killed tomorrow," said a 23-year-old helicopter pilot. "I am shooting at Hezbollah warriors because they are shooting at men and women and children."

Israeli approval

The Israeli public agrees, according to results of two opinion surveys released in Jerusalem yesterday. A poll for the newspaper Yediot Ahranov found that 97 percent of Israelis support the bombardment.

Another poll, for the newspaper Ma'ariv, found 54 percent willing to support a ground invasion of Lebanon if Katyushas continue falling on Israel. The finding contradicts an oft-repeated assumption that the brutal war in Lebanon in 1982 had made Israelis loath to send troops further into the country.

That war accelerated Lebanon's spiral into political chaos. Since the end of the Lebanese civil war, however, the government has gradually strengthened and has disarmed the militias that had divided the country.

It has not disarmed the Hezbollah, although Lebanese troops operate roadblocks to try to reduce the munitions flowing to the Hezbollah areas in the south.

The government has been wary of confronting the powerful Hezbollah, which is said to be backed by Iran and Syria. It has said that Hezbollah is fighting a legitimate resistance movement to oust Israel from Lebanon, although government officials have sometimes noted cautiously that "attacks on Israel do not help" the situation.

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