The Israeli military command said tonight that Syria has moved SA2 surface-to-air missile batteries close to the Syrian-Lebanese border, seriously impairing the ability of Israeli jets to conduct reconnaissance flights over Lebanon.
In a warning to Syria, the Army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Levy, noted that shortly before the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, a similar redeployment of missile batteries resulted in Israeli air strikes against the installations.
"We require freedom of flight over Lebanon because there is no government there that is capable of ensuring what every sovereign state must assure in its territory. And if there are terrorists there, we must maintain the capacity to attack them and to know whether they are there," Levy said on state television.
Prime Minister Shimon Peres warned tonight that "Syria is seeking a confrontation with Israel and does not want to talk peace," Israeli radio reported.
Peres, speaking at a ceremony honoring Israeli soldiers killed in wars with Arabs, said that Israel "wants neither a confrontation nor an escalation," but he added that Israel has to prepare itself to face Syrian challenges.
The Army command said that Syria had deployed "concentrations" of fixed-place, medium-range SA2s in three locations, each several miles from the Lebanese border. They are:
The Zabadani Heights, about 20 miles northwest of Damascus, providing a protective cover for the central Bekaa Valley; south of the city of Homs, covering the northern Bekaa, and south of the port city of Tartus, covering northern Lebanon.
The Army command said the missiles were deployed about three weeks ago. This would coincide with an air battle on Nov. 19 in which two Syrian MiG19 jets were shot down by Israeli warplanes that had been conducting a reconnaissance flight over Lebanon.
The Army command said that the Syrians also deployed some SA6 and SA8 mobile missile batteries in Lebanon, around the Beirut-Damascus highway and around Baalbek, but that they were withdrawn after "a number of days." Israeli official sources said that missiles were withdrawn after Israeli threats to attack them were conveyed to Damascus through U.S. diplomatic channels.
Army command sources said efforts also had been made through U.S. diplomatic channels to persuade Syria to remove the SA2 missile batteries. "We don't want to say they were a failure, but they didn't bring the result that we wanted, and the missiles are still there," one said.
Levy said tonight that the deployment of the SA6s and SA8s in the Bekaa was "a process that is the preparation of a reaction to the fact that Syrian aircraft were downed by our aircraft."
The Soviet-supplied SA2s were installed in protective trenches built about 1 1/2 years ago, an Army command official said. He said that with a range of 40 miles, the missiles can cover airspace over most of central and northern Lebanon.
Each of the "concentrations" of missiles contains at least three SA2 batteries, officials said.
"It almost neutralizes our air operations over Lebanon. Any aircraft that flies into the range of the SAMs is in a dangerous situation," the Army command official said.
The tone of statements by Levy and other Army officials was similar to that during the "missile crisis" of the spring of 1982, shortly before Israeli warplanes destroyed SA2 missile batteries that had been redeployed inside Lebanon.
Levy, warning that Israel will insist on maintaining the capability of conducting air surveillance of pro-Syrian Palestinian guerrilla bases in Lebanon, said that "the advancement of the missiles to the Lebanon border is a fundamental process that alters the entire picture."
An Israeli military spokesman, asked whether Israel would continue flights into Lebanese airspace, replied, "One of the main reasons we are calling attention to this is to bring about an awareness by the Syrians that this is a dangerous situation that might cause them some discomfort. We just want to remind them that the last war began with a similar act."
He added, "For us, it is a very crucial situation, and we just hope they will listen to us . . . . We feel that after a war like that, we can't allow them to bring about a reestablishment of a terrorist infrastructure in Lebanon."
Peres, talking with reporters in Jerusalem, said: "I don't look for any declaration that sounds like a threat or that will contribute to an escalation in the area. Israel is interested in maintaining the status quo and avoiding any confrontation or escalation. I do hope the Syrians will follow suit."