Israel Blockades, Bombs Lebanon While Hezbollah Rains Rocket Fire

Smoke billows from the Rafiq Hariri International Airport in Beirut after Israeli warplanes bombed the site before dawn Thursday.
Smoke billows from the Rafiq Hariri International Airport in Beirut after Israeli warplanes bombed the site before dawn Thursday. (Issama Koubaissi -- AFP/Getty Images)

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By Anthony Shadid and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 14, 2006

DAMOUR, Lebanon, July 14 -- Israel imposed a blockade on Lebanon by land, sea and air on Thursday, striking the capital's airport twice, cutting off its ports and wrecking bridges and roads in attacks that killed at least 47 people in the last two days, nearly all of them Lebanese civilians. Israel said the radical Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah fired 150 rockets into northern Israel, including two that reached the port city of Haifa. Israeli jets repeatedly crossed over Beirut before dawn Friday. At least two explosions were heard, and antiaircraft fire and flares lit up the night sky.

For both sides, the fighting appeared to cross a psychological barrier that had earlier contained the frequent clashes between Israel and Hezbollah. The Israeli attacks on Beirut's airport -- a morning strike on runways and an evening attack on fuel depots -- were the first since Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. After the rockets crashed into Haifa, Hezbollah denied firing them.

Two Israeli women were killed by rocket fire, including one who was struck while having her morning coffee. More than 90 others were treated in local hospitals, most of them for symptoms of anxiety. The symbolic importance of rockets hitting Israel's third-largest city, relatively far from the border, alarmed several Israeli ministers, who warned of imminent reprisals.

In Israel, the steady boom of Hezbollah's Katyusha rockets triggered air raid sirens and calls to take cover in basements throughout Israel's northern border area. "This is taking us back 20 years to the Lebanon war," said Rachel Ronen, 54, whose accounting firm was left a shambles by the morning rockets that hit 15 minutes before her secretary was due for work. Asked what Israel should do in return, Ronen, her eyes red from weeping, said, "Hit them."

Across Lebanon, residents expressed fear that the conflict might drag on days, even weeks. Lines snaked around gas stations in Beirut, as drivers stocked up on fuel. Supermarkets were crowded, and the roads that remained open, especially to the Syrian border, Lebanon's last outlet after the airport's closure, were clogged. Lebanese officials put the toll at 47 dead and 103 wounded, including a family of 12 in the village of Dweir. Residents said three people were still buried under rubble.

"What do I think personally?" asked Munzir Baram, a 40-year-old Lebanese making his way across a partially repaired bridge spanning the green-tinted Damour River. "It's going to get a lot, lot worse."

"Pity Lebanon," he said. "Pity it."

The fighting began after Hezbollah members crossed the heavily fortified Israeli border Wednesday. In an ambush, they killed three Israeli soldiers and captured two, whom they spirited away to Lebanese territory. Five more soldiers were killed as the Israeli military tried to recover the soldiers and equipment wrecked in the pursuit. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called the attack an act of war, and Israel launched a campaign whose reach is greater than any since it invaded Lebanon 24 years ago.

Israeli military officials said they planned to implement a military blockade of Lebanon, employing the same terminology they use to describe restrictions that Israel imposes on the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

"We have decided to impose a closure on Lebanon in the air, in the sea and on the ground," Maj. Gen. Udi Adam, head of Israel's northern command, said at a news conference. He said the Israeli military was attempting to force the government "to deploy its army in south Lebanon, take responsibility for the kidnapped, return them" and fulfill a U.N. resolution calling for the disarmament of Hezbollah.

Few here expect Hezbollah to turn over the soldiers by force of arms. Israel has set their release as a goal of its military campaign. And the Lebanese government, fearful of alienating the Shiite Muslim constituency that Hezbollah represents, has few options.

Lebanese leaders began talks Thursday evening that might extend government control to the southern border with Israel. Currently, Hezbollah fighters operate freely in the south. In a statement, the cabinet said only that the government had a right and duty to implement its power over all Lebanese territory. But officials speaking on condition of anonymity said sending the Lebanese army to the southern border was a possibility. Hezbollah, which is often dismissive of the Lebanese army's ability, has opposed such a move.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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