JERUSALEM -- They buried Israeli army Staff Sgt. Ori Biton beside his best friend in the cemetery of the town of their youth. Eight months after a guerrilla ambush killed his boyhood pal in southern Lebanon, Biton died in the same quagmire that has bedeviled Israel for more than a decade.
Biton, a 21-year-old Israeli from the West Bank settlement of Kedumim, is the first Israeli army casuality of the new year. But if the clashes between Arab guerrillas and Israeli forces in southern Lebanon intensify as some military observers fear, the number of casualties will grow.
Biton was killed Wednesday in an ambush that also wounded five other Israeli soldiers. It was one of the largest engagements in the past month in the strip of southern Lebanon that Israel calls its "security zone."
Followed by rocket attack
Later Wednesday, at least one Katyusha rocket was fired from southern Lebanon into Israel, an attack that caused no injury. It was the second rocket attack since a cease-fire ended an intensive Israeli bombardment in April 1996.
The five-nation group monitoring the cease-fire confirmed the rocket attack but did not reprimand Lebanon. In a statement issued at the end of last week, the group -- whose members are the United States, France, Syria, Lebanon and Israel -- said the attack violated the U.S.-brokered cease-fire, which bans firing at civilians in either Israel or Lebanon.
Lebanese officials were quoted by wire services as saying that authorities had arrested two members of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine on suspicion of firing the rocket.
The Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia and Lebanon's Amal movement, both of which oppose Israel's control of the security zone, have denied any link to the rocket attack.
But Israeli officials remain concerned about the mix of forces at work.
Syria is the power broker in Lebanon, and maintains 35,000 troops there. And since the breaking off of formal peace talks last year, Syria and Israel have been locked in a war of words.
Syria's surrogate army
Israeli analysts say that that Syria has continued to use Hezbollah as a surrogate army, encouraging or discouraging attacks as political conditions change. Israel, meanwhile, equips and trains a Lebanese militia of its own, the South Lebanese Army, which operates in the security zone.
"Lebanon is effectively an intifada turned up or turned down depending on the circumstances," said Martin Kramer, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, referring to the Palestinian uprising.
"There has been an intensification in Hezbollah. They can get past the South Lebanese Army to get to the Israeli forces," Kramer said. "There is no Syrian-Israel [peace] process, and if you go back to my original analogy of surrogate intifada, this is one of the few forms of leverage that Syria has."
Uri Lubrani, Israel's coordinator of policy in Lebanon, sees the recent skirmishes as provocations to lure Israel into making a large-scale military response that would violate the cease-fire agreement reached in April.
"All this in my view is part of a pattern which is based on the fact Syria considers Lebanon its own fiefdom," Lubrani said.
Lubrani said Israel must keep its forces in the security zone, "with all the difficulties, with all the tribulations, with all the pressures, with all the sacrifices." To withdraw, he said, "is a very clear and sure recipe for a new confrontation which would have the terrorist organizations on our international border."
Violence is downplayed
Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University, downplayed the violence of the past two weeks, characterizing them as "seasonal" changes and "not necessarily of political significance."
He doubted that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would launch a major military response there as long as negotiations continue on Israel's withdrawal from the West Bank city of Hebron.
"The fact is the Israelis and Hezbollah have been locked in trouble for a long time," said Yossi Olmert, a former professor at Hebrew University and a former government spokesman.
"There is no solution in sight, no political solution because all of the Israeli initiatives have been rejected by Hezbollah's sponsor, the Syrians."
Pub Date: 1/14/97