Throughout the 13-month trial, the 15 Israeli defendants had worn self-assured smiles. The men described themselves as defenders of Jewish rights in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Although many of them admitted their guilt, they seemed confident that they would be acquitted by an Israeli court. The crimes of which they stood accused, they declared, had been committed in response to terrorist acts by Arabs. But last week, when a three-judge panel found the 15 guilty on charges ranging from murder and attempted murder to conspiracy and possession of arms, their certainty gave way to shock and anger. Three of the defendants, including Menachem Livni, leader of the Jewish underground terrorist organization to which most of the defendants belonged, were convicted of murdering three Arab students at the Islamic College in Hebron in 1983. They face mandatory life imprisonment. The other twelve defendants were convicted of crimes committed between 1980 and 1984, and could receive prison terms of up to 20 years when they are sentenced this week. The verdicts promptly heightened public debate in Israel. Some people demanded immediate clemency for the underground members, while others pressed for severe sentences.
The dispute in Israel, however, paled beside the renewed violence that erupted last week in Lebanon. On Tuesday suicide attackers detonated two car bombs in separate sections of Israel's "security zone" in southern Lebanon. There, five weeks after Israel's formal withdrawal, more than 500 Israeli soldiers continue to patrol the area. Seventeen people were killed, among them the two attackers and two soldiers of the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army. Six were reported injured, including two Israeli soldiers. Responsibility for the attack was claimed by a pro-Syrian Lebanese group called the Syrian National Social Party.
The next day Israel sent its jets and helicopter gunships to bomb three Palestinian bases, including two refugee camps, outside Tripoli in northern Lebanon. Lebanese officials said 15 people were killed and 29 wounded. Some analysts suggested that the air raids came in response to recent bombings inside Israel, including attacks in two Tel Aviv suburbs; others viewed the Israeli strikes as a direct reprisal for the Tuesday car bombings. Israeli officials denied that the air attacks and the suicide bombings were linked.
Even as the suicide drivers brought more terror to a long-suffering area, a Syrian-sponsored meeting of Lebanese Muslim leaders was gathering in Damascus to hammer out a new peace plan for Lebanon. After more than eleven hours of talks, Shi'ite, Sunni and Druze leaders announced a 16-point agreement. The accord was significant in that for the first time it proposed power sharing between Muslims and Christians on an equal basis. The agreement also promised to tighten security at the Beirut airport, a pledge that received warm approval from the Reagan Administration.
While the Damascus declaration is laced with good intentions, Western diplomats said that it is unlikely to fare much better than any of the other attempts to broker peace in Lebanon. Several Christian Lebanese leaders, who were not invited to attend the Damascus meeting, have already attacked the plan. "Lebanon's future cannot be determined by Muslims alone," warned al Amal, a Christian newspaper in East Beirut.