Toll Climbs In Mideast As Fighting Rages On

By Jonathan Finer and Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 18, 2006

JERUSALEM, July 17 -- Israel traded heavy fire with Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon on Monday, its air and artillery attacks killing at least 38 Lebanese, many of them civilians, and Hezbollah rockets made their deepest strikes yet into the Jewish state.

Blaring air raid sirens sent Israelis dashing for concrete bomb shelters throughout the day, and thousands of people across Lebanon abandoned their homes to flee the violence. Several Western nations, including the United States, launched plans to evacuate their citizens from the battered country.

With the violence came a flurry of diplomatic efforts to bring about a cease-fire and quell the crisis. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan called for deployment of multinational peacekeeping forces to southern Lebanon. U.S. officials called such a move premature, but did not reject it; Israeli officials did.

Hours after that proposal, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert vowed that Israel would not halt its offensive on Lebanon until four conditions were met: the release of two soldiers abducted last week, the deployment of the Lebanese army along a buffer zone at the border, the withdrawal of Hezbollah fighters from that zone and the implementation of U.N. Resolution 1559, which calls for the disarmament of militias such as Hezbollah, a radical Shiite Muslim group.

"There are moments in the life of a nation when it is compelled to look directly into the face of reality and say: no more. This is such a moment," Olmert told Israel's parliament in a defiant, emotional speech, his first formal address since the new violence began. "We will search every compound, target every terrorist who assists in attacking the citizens of Israel and destroy every terrorist infrastructure, everywhere."

He continued: "When missiles are launched at our residents and cities, our answer will be war with all the strength, determination, valor, sacrifice and dedication which characterize this nation."

The cross-border attacks, the largest conflagration along that front since Israel invaded in 1982, began last week when Hezbollah attacked Israeli soldiers in the country's north, abducting two of them.

The clash followed a similar assault by Hamas fighters who crossed Israel's boundary with the Gaza Strip last month. They killed two soldiers and captured another, prompting Israeli air and ground forces to launch an offensive there. On both fronts Israel has said it intends to continue fighting until its borders are secured.

The Israeli government said Monday it was extending indefinitely a two-day state of emergency in the north. In the Gaza Strip, Israeli troops continued to operate around the town of Beit Hanoun, clashing occasionally with Palestinian fighters. Palestinian doctors in Beit Hanoun said three people were killed in their homes by Israeli snipers and 14 others wounded. Israeli military sources said they had no information on such attacks. An Israeli military spokeswoman said that seven rockets were fired from the area Monday, injuring two Israeli civilians.

In Lebanon, Israeli raids again struck the Beirut-Damascus highway, along with gas stations, factories and a small fishing port. Smoke from fires arced over the Beirut sky.

News agencies quoted the military and police as saying that more than 210 people had been killed since the attacks began Wednesday. The Health Ministry put the number at 182 dead and 525 wounded, almost all of them civilians, but said that count included only those identified by hospital officials.

Twelve Israeli civilians have died in the recent wave of Hezbollah attacks, with more than 300 others receiving medical treatment, most for shock. Twelve soldiers have also been killed.

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