The sun had just risen over the Golan Heights when the 17 Israeli Merkava tanks, accompanied by 350 infantrymen and helicopter gunships, rumbled northward across the 12-km-deep strip of Lebanese territory that the Israelis established as a buffer zone seven years ago. To the Irish, Nepalese and Finnish troops of the United Nations peacekeeping force policing the border from inside Lebanon proper, Israeli military activity in the zone was not uncommon. But when it became apparent that the oncoming Israelis did not intend to stop at the frontier, the UN soldiers hastily blocked the road with armored personnel carriers. Israeli bulldozers smashed the vehicles aside and, while Israeli and UN troops became embroiled in a fistfight, the tanks drove on northward to engage Iranian-backed Hizbollah (Party of God) guerrillas in a daylong battle. The raid on Feb. 20 left two Israeli soldiers, seven guerrillas and two civilians dead, and at least 34 people, including four peacekeepers caught in the crossfire, wounded.
That deadly strike climaxed a week of military and political skirmishing between Israelis and Arabs that threatened to derail shaky Middle East peace talks. The 70-member Palestinian delegation to those talks, already incensed by Israel’s arrest of two of its members since January, threatened briefly to stay away from this week’s resumption of negotiations in Washington after the Israelis refused to let an additional four delegates leave the occupied West Bank for Jordan. The Palestinians continued their journey only when the U.S. state department agreed to intervene. At the same time, a Jordanian official said that all the Arab states would reassess their continued participation if nothing was accomplished in the scheduled fourth round of the talks. Meanwhile, amid last week’s shellfire, threats and recriminations, Israelis prepared for an election campaign whose outcome may influence whether Israel and her Arab neighbors finally achieve peace.
The Israelis drove into Lebanon to knock out positions held by Hizbollah guerrillas who had
been blasting Jewish settlements in northern Israel with Katyusha rockets. Those attacks were reprisals for the assassination of Hizbollah leader Sheik Abbas Musawi, who was killed on Feb. 16, along with his wife and six-year-old son, when Israeli helicopter gunships blasted his convoy in the southern Lebanese village of Taffahta. Some observers questioned the tim-
ing of the assault on Musawi, coming as it did just eight days before the scheduled resumption of the Washington peace talks. But Yossi Olmert, director of the Israel Government Press Office, defended the action. “When we attack the enemies of peace,” he said, “we are furthering the peace process.”
The invasion four days later provoked a swift reaction. In Egypt, presidential adviser Osama Baz denounced the assault as an obstruction to peace talks. The Iranian response, broadcast by Tehran Radio, was that there would be no peace as long as Israel was “supported by the international terrorism of the United States.” But U.S. Secretary of State James Baker said that the violence “just demonstrates how important the peace talks are.” After the Israelis withdrew 24 hours later, the guerrilla rocket assault resumed, killing a five-year-old girl in northern Israel.
The outcome of the Washington peace
talks—on such topics as an Israeli withdrawal from lands captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and Palestinian self-rule in the occupied territories—may heavily influence the agenda for a regular meeting of Arab League foreign ministers on March 16. Some Arab leaders are said to fear that prolonged discussions with the Israelis that do not produce tangible results would create domestic opposition to the whole peace process.
Amid those concerns, Israelis braced for a potentially fateful election campaign. The opposition Labour Party elected Yitzhak Rabin, 69, a onetime prime minister, defence minister and army general, to lead it into the June general election against Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s right-wing Likud party. Unlike the hard-line 76-year-old Shamir, Rabin is committed to make territorial concessions and to freeze Israeli settlements in the West Bank in
return for a lasting peace with the Arabs. At the same time, Rabin has taken a tougher stance on defence than his predecessor, Shimon Peres. Israeli political pollster Hanoch Smith said that Rabin would bring Labour between 10 and 12 per cent more votes than Peres—clearly improving the party’s chances of forming the next government. Said Smith: “Labour is now headed by a candidate who has broad popular support.”
Among Israel’s war-weary citizens, peace enjoys similar backing. Smith said that a poll in January revealed that 53 per cent of the respondents were ready to trade territory for an end to the fighting, provided that the Jewish state’s security was guaranteed. After 44 years of war and remembrance, it was a sentiment not difficult to understand.
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