Hezbollah Raid Opens 2nd Front for Israel
Thursday, July 13, 2006
BEIRUT, July 13 -- The Lebanese Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah infiltrated the Israeli border Wednesday in a brazen raid, capturing two Israeli soldiers, killing three others and prompting Israeli attacks on the airport in Beirut and bridges, roads, power stations and military positions across the hillsides of southern Lebanon. Five more Israeli soldiers were killed after the army entered Lebanon in pursuit, one of the military's highest one-day death tolls in more than four years.
The capture of the soldiers and the fighting effectively opened a second front for Israel, whose troops entered the Gaza Strip last month in search of a soldier seized June 25. Within hours, reverberations rolled across an already tense region. The United States blamed Syria and Iran for the abduction, and Israeli tanks and troops moved toward the Lebanese border throughout the day. In Lebanon and elsewhere, the attack emboldened Hezbollah's supporters, who greeted the news by handing out sweets and setting off fireworks.
The fighting took a dramatic turn early Thursday with Israeli attacks on the Beirut airport and Hezbollah's television station in the capital's predominantly Shiite Muslim southern suburbs. Lebanese television reported that Israeli aircraft attacked two runways, forcing the facility to close and sending flights to airports elsewhere in the Middle East. Footage showed a column of black smoke drifting over the modern facility, considered an emblem of Lebanon's post-civil war reconstruction.
Into the morning, Israel escalated its raids across southern Lebanon, with artillery and aircraft pounding targets. Civilian casualties mounted; Lebanese television said at least 27 Lebanese were killed, including a family of 12 in the village of Dweir. Hezbollah said it fired rockets at targets across northern Israel, part of an arsenal that it said numbers as many as 13,000.
About 7 a.m. Thursday, a Katyusha rocket landed on the main street in the Israeli resort city of Nahariya, killing one woman and injuring at least 10 people. In the following half-hour, more than a dozen other rockets struck near downtown and other areas of the city, five miles inside the Israeli border. Sirens sounded for people to assemble in bomb shelters.
On Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel held Lebanon for the responsible for the Hezbollah raid and promised a "painful and far-reaching response," a threat that recalled broad Israeli offensives in southern Lebanon in 1993 and 1996. "The murderous attack this morning was not a terrorist act, it was an act of war," Olmert said in Jerusalem.
Hezbollah said it carried out the attack about 9:05 a.m., when its fighters managed to cross the heavily fortified border near Shtula, an Israeli farming town of about 350 people. Hezbollah guerrillas fired on two Israeli army Humvees, killing three soldiers and capturing two others.
Hezbollah's leader, Hasan Nasrallah, said an hour passed before Israeli forces set out to recover the captives, giving Hezbollah time to smuggle them to a place he called "safe and far, far, far away." He said the attack had been planned for months and was aimed at forcing negotiations that would win the release of three Lebanese held in Israeli jails.
"Let this be clear, the prisoners will only return home through indirect negotiations and a trade," Nasrallah told reporters at a news conference in southern Beirut, one of Hezbollah's strongholds. "If the Israelis are considering any military action to bring the hostages home, they are delusional, delusional, delusional."
"We don't want an escalation in the south, nor war," he said. "But if the Israelis want an escalation, then we are ready for a confrontation and to its furthest extent. If Israel chooses confrontation, we are ready, and it should expect surprises."
Israeli officials said Wednesday that operations by the military -- known formally as the Israel Defense Forces, or IDF -- could escalate and, at least publicly, they ruled out negotiations on the two soldiers' release.
"The government of Lebanon is directly responsible for the fate of the IDF soldiers, and it must act immediately and seriously to locate them, to prevent any harm done to them, and to return them to Israel," Defense Minister Amir Peretz said in a statement. "The state of Israel will take any measure it sees fit, and the IDF will be instructed accordingly."