When I left Lebanon last week a few hours before the Israeli military strikes began, it was a country making its way back to recovery. International flights were going in and out, wealthy Lebanese were returning to the country, and tourists lingered in the street cafes of Beirut's shopping avenues and seaside coffee houses. Spring flowers and colorful Easter displays filled the streets.

I returned to Washington feeling confident, for the first time in two decades, that despite all we'd been through, things were all right now -- there would be a home to go back to. My elderly mother, who had been hospitalized for five weeks, was in a safe place where dialysis machines and elevators worked without interruption. Local newspapers offered advice on what it would cost to get on the Internet.

Yesterday, in the eighth day of the Israeli strikes, a refugee shelter at a U.N. base south of the port city of Tyre was reduced to a smoldering mass of charred bodies and beds. The civilian death toll was climbing much faster than that of the Iran-back militia Israel was hunting, and Lebanon was in torment once again.

Israel had knocked out three power stations in Christian areas northeast of Beirut, seeking to cripple Lebanon's effort to rebuild and bring banks and businesses back. It vowed that its operation would continue, even after yesterday's disaster, and said it is holding out for a written agreement with Lebanon on the rocketing of civilian areas along Israel's border with Lebanon.

Considering that this is a place where both Syria and Israel have regularly flouted U.N. resolutions and other internationally sponsored agreements, this latest demand by Israel seems a hollow and purposeless request with a devastating cost in human life.

The United States and France have been seeking Syrian guarantees of an end to the new fighting on what press dispatch\es love to call the Middle East's last active war front. Volleys of rockets have been fired across Lebanon's southern border for months now. A U.S.-brokered verbal agreement, guaranteed by Syria in 1993, that committed both the Iran-backed Hezbollah fighters and Israel to stop shelling or firing rockets on civilian areas has been repeatedly violated. Yet only now has Israel decided to respond with a show of force and high-tech bravura.

The Clinton administration, meanwhile, simply stands by, and hopes that Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres can win in next month's elections. How much more cynical can electoral politics be?

Lebanon is always the one that has to pay, it seems, for either war or peace in the region. For guarantees and two-faced promises, the world turns to Syria. When it's time for punishment and revenge, Israel comes to Lebanon.

Israel's disproportionate venting of its national frustrations on Lebanon and its still fragile postwar economic structure in the wake of tragic bus bombings on its own soil is like missing the wolf and swatting a butterfly with a sledgehammer. What does a power station in East Beirut have to do with guerrilla warfare in South Lebanon? If the Lebanese government moves to extend its authority in South Lebanon, it will not only provoke its masters in Damascus, it will appear to be subjugating a local force on its own land facing an outside occupier.

Hezbollah is not an instrument of the Lebanese state, and it is neither supplied, helped nor supported by the Beirut government. It is merely tolerated, under orders and pain of severe penalty from Damascus.

When Prime Minister Rafik Hariri sent the Lebanese Army south in 1993 to disarm Hezbollah at the request of the local population, he, his president and house speaker were summoned to Damascus and reprimanded by Syrian President Hafez Assad. Over the years, mysterious car bombs have killed presidents, prime ministers and grand muftis in Lebanon when their will countermanded the wishes of Syria or its Iranian-armed proxies.

The subjugation of Hezbollah is a task the Lebanese government is not allowed to undertake until Syria has finished its business of negotiating peace or tiptoeing around it with Israel. Earlier this year, when Israeli Ambassador Itamar Rabinovich wanted to sound hopeful about the peace process with Syria, he cited a pledge from Damascus -- not from the Beirut government -- that Hezbollah activity would stop. He also said that Syria insisted that Lebanon not attend any peace negotiations on its own -- the very thing Israel is now demanding of Lebanon.

It is a travesty and a crime to inflict such pain on the vulnerable and helpless Lebanese, while extending solicitude to Syria. When a Syrian soldier was killed last week, the Israeli army command fumbled with an apology, saying the death was unintentional. When Lebanese civilians were killed in an ambulance, the Israelis refused even to concede that they'd made a mistake.

Under Prime Minister Hariri, Lebanon and its industrious people had begun the making of a miracle: a drive to rebuild in five years what it took 20 years to destroy. They were moving ahead with housing, roads, hospitals, universities, schools, convention centers. Now schools are filled with destitute refugees fleeing Israel's "Grapes of Wrath" operation.

For all practical purposes, the sovereignty of this small nation that has been trying to resurrect itself from the ashes is gone. Lebanon has no political will of its own. The vicious chain of violence has come to wreck yet another spring and to keep Lebanon on its knees. Nora Boustany covered the Lebanon War and the Middle East for The Post from 1979 to 1995. She is now a staff writer in the Style section.