By Anthony Shadid and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 14, 2006; A01
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.
The sunny day began with Israeli aircraft attacking the runways of Beirut's airport. Incoming flights were diverted to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus; tourists in Beirut were stranded. During the day, Israeli aircraft attacked two Lebanese air bases near the Syrian border. After the rockets fell near a cable car attraction in southwestern Haifa, Israeli helicopter gunships attacked the airport a second time. They destroyed fuel depots, sending flames and billowing black smoke arcing across the night sky.
In addition to the naval blockade, Lebanese television stations reported that the key Beirut-Damascus highway was attacked late Thursday. And in Beirut's southern suburbs, Israeli planes dropped leaflets warning residents to avoid areas where Hezbollah operates. The Israeli military said it attacked more than 100 targets across southern Lebanon with artillery fire and airstrikes.
In Nahariya, a coastal Israeli town, doctors and orderlies moved patients to underground bunkers for fear of strikes by rockets, some of which landed near a major regional hospital. Medical officials said more than a dozen people were treated for shrapnel wounds or other injuries caused by the rockets, which effectively shut down the city of 55,000 people.
Rockets slammed into the city's main boulevard, lined with ice cream stores, souvenir shops and restaurants, which had been spared such attacks for as long as most merchants could remember. At twilight, four missiles landed downtown, hitting a four-story building of apartments and a corner grocery, and setting it ablaze.
[On Friday, Israeli jets bombed a base for pro-Syrian Palestinian guerrillas in eastern Lebanon, security sources said according to the Reuters news agency. There were no immediate reports of casualties.]
In Washington, U.S. officials said the Bush administration had urged Israel not to strike Lebanese government targets, fearful that the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel could undermine a government it views as one of its success stories in the Middle East. "The United States communicated its concern about the stability of the Lebanese government, which is better than any alternative," said a senior U.S. official who requested anonymity because of ongoing diplomacy.
At the United Nations, Secretary General Kofi Annan said he was "deeply alarmed" by the escalating violence and instructed three senior U.N. envoys, Vijay Nambiar, Alvaro de Soto and Terje Roed-Larsen, to travel to Egypt, Israel, Lebanon and Syria "to get all parties to step back from the brink of an even more deadly conflict." At the Security Council, the United States vetoed an Arab-backed resolution condemning Israel's military incursion into Gaza.
In Lebanon, the scenes of war were reminiscent of past conflicts -- a civil war that ended in 1990 and large Israeli offensives against Hezbollah in 1993 and 1996.
At the Damour River, where Israeli aircraft destroyed the bridge in the early morning, residents of southern Lebanon headed by car, taxi, minibus and on foot for the relative safety of Beirut. As lines of cars stretched down the road, bulldozers and trucks pushed dirt into the river in an effort to build a makeshift road to let traffic pass. One girl sat on the hood of a car, holding a doll with blond hair and a pink dress, as her mother idly watched clouds of dust rise from the work.
"It's tough, and it's toughest on the people," said Talib Saad, a 50-year-old plumber, who had waited three hours for a ride to Beirut from the destroyed bridge. "It's the people who suffer. They're the ones who are always destroyed."
He looked out at the construction teams. In his hand was a black bag with two peaches, his meal for the day.
"Who's going to compensate us?" he asked.
By early afternoon, traffic was passing to Beirut again, even as passengers worried about more airstrikes and traded stories of neighbors or relatives who were hurt or whose houses were damaged in the Israeli attacks.
"We're used to it," said Baram, crossing the dirt path in a battered Mercedes taxi. "The battle will eventually end, and the people will act like nothing ever happened. It will go back to the way it was before."
"People who are accustomed to this type of thing tend to forget," he added.
Across the border in Nahariya, rockets fell along Sderot HaGaaton and Herzl Street, two main boulevards of the coastal city that at this time of year counts on tourism. On this day, it was empty.
The first rocket arced over a six-story apartment building and fell into a courtyard where, in a shop that mixes coffee beans for sale to gourmet shops, Danny Skolnick had just arrived for work.
The missile dug deep into the pavement just off HaGaaton, the city's main strip, and blasted shrapnel into a real estate office, an accountant's suite and Skolnick's workplace. The building caught fire, and paramedics dashed inside to carry out a bloody, semi-conscious Skolnick, whose employer arrived soon after to wish war on those who had fired it.
"We are a country that is not like yours," said Amir Bokovza, 36, a burly father of four children, who said he had fought as a soldier in Gaza, Lebanon and the West Bank. As he surveyed the damage to his real estate office, he said he hoped to be called up to do so again soon. "We know war," he said. "We are not afraid."
Not long after the first barrage, on the fifth floor of an apartment building whose plate-glass balconies carried the glamour of Miami, Monica Lehrer sat on her balcony with her breakfast. The rocket flashed through a sky crowded with thunderheads, landing at the foot of the small wooden chair where she sat. The blast knocked Lehrer, 50, off the balcony and onto the floor below, sending shrapnel into the building walls and destroying the solar panels in the roof above.
Lehrer, a curtain-maker, died of her injuries. Her husband spent much of the morning informing the couple's children in Argentina of their mother's sudden death on the balcony of Apartment 22.
"We tried to look for her when the firemen arrived, but we couldn't find her," said Moshe Arad, 44, the woman's visibly shaken neighbor, who had entered the apartment to find a Katyusha rocket in the living room. "She had flown from the balcony to the floor underneath."
Staff writer Robin Wright in Washington, Colum Lynch at the United Nations and special correspondent Alia Ibrahim in Beirut contributed to this report.