Israeli jets hit Lebanon synagogue is rocketed; Israeli woman is hurt; U.S. assails both sides on rising border attacks


JERUSALEM -- New tensions grew in Israel yesterday after rockets fired from Lebanon slammed into a town near the country's northern border after a week of growing attacks between Israeli forces and Hezbollah guerrillas.

The early-morning salvo, which left an Israeli woman slightly wounded and damaged a synagogue, was a clear violation of the April 1996 cease-fire that ended a 17-day Israeli military campaign. The attack came in apparent retaliation for an aggressive new posture shown by Israel in a week in which 13 people have been killed, including seven Lebanese civilians.

And it was quickly followed last night by retaliatory Israeli artillery barrages on Hezbollah targets in southern Lebanon and by an air strike in which Israeli aircraft fired at targets south of Beirut.

The State Department condemned the cross-border attacks by both sides, and its spokesman, James P. Rubin, said the United States had been in touch with all parties to urge "maximum restraint."

Israel had been braced for more violence after the suicide bombings that killed 13 Israelis last week and warnings by the militant Islamic group Hamas of more attacks.

But the rocket strike on the upper Galilee town of Kiryat Shemona has added a new front for Israeli concern before the scheduled arrival today of U.S. mediator Dennis Ross, who will try to defuse a deepening Israeli-Palestinian crisis.

The main reasons for the worsening relations between the two sides are the harsh measures that Israel has imposed onthe Palestinians after the bombing and the Palestinians' refusal to heed Israeli demands to do more to crack down on Islamic militants.

Israel took some small steps yesterday to allow Palestinians to travel more freely within the West Bank, but it otherwise maintained its near-total blockade of Palestinian-ruled territories.

Because Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, has declined to go along with Israel's call for the arrests and disarming of scores of Islamic militants, Israel has cut off payments it owes to the Palestinians and halted shipments of many goods.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has blamed Arafat for the human suffering those actions have caused. The Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot quoted Netanyahu as saying in a closed meeting Thursday that Arafat was acting "like Saddam Hussein" and that "he sacrifices the Palestinian people on the altar of his stubbornness."

Officially, Hezbollah, or Party of God, the pro-Iranian group that has been waging a guerrilla war against Israel's presence in southern Lebanon for 15 years, denied that it had made the attack.

Until now the organization has generally heeded the April 1996 understanding, which prohibited Hezbollah from launching rockets into Israel and barred Israel from attacks on civilian areas.

But the group's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, told reporters in Beirut yesterday that a resumption of Hezbollah's old tactics, which used to send thousands of Israelis in the north scurrying into underground shelters, may now be necessary.

And if Hezbollah did not carry out the attack, United Nations officials in southern Lebanon said, it was likely that an organization closely aligned with it had done so.

Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai visited the town where four rockets landed just after 6 a.m., one of them striking a synagogue just after prayers.

Mordechai, who had issued calming statements only a day earlier, declared yesterday morning that Israel "reserves the right to retaliate at the time and place of our choosing."

The Israeli woman who was wounded yesterday was the first Israeli civilian hurt in a Hezbollah strike since the heavy exchanges of fire across the border in the April 1996 conflict.

More than 200 people, most of them Lebanese civilians, were killed during Israel's air and artillery offensive in April.

On Monday night, an elite Israeli unit went by helicopter into an area well north of the Israeli-held zone, engaged Hezbollah forces in a two-hour firefight, and planted roadside explosives that it later detonated by remote control, killing five guerrillas, including one senior official.

An Israeli air assault Tuesday on suspected Hezbollah targets in the Bekaa region killed two civilians, both of them men in their 70s.

At a huge funeral procession that day for the Hezbollah fighters, the group threatened to retaliate with steps that it said could include suicide bombings within Israel.

Its stepped-up assaults this week have included heavy shelling of Israeli military posts and a car-bomb attack that killed a pro-Israeli Lebanese militiaman Thursday.

Israel has made nearly 50 air strikes into Lebanon this year, and Israeli attacks have killed at least 13 Lebanese civilians.

Pub Date: 8/09/97

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