Israel Fights To Secure Key Region In Lebanon

A displaced family waits in a hotel lobby for a chance to leave the rapidly emptying Lebanese city of Tyre.
A displaced family waits in a hotel lobby for a chance to leave the rapidly emptying Lebanese city of Tyre. (By Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)
By Scott Wilson and Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 23, 2006

AVIVIM, Israel, July 22 -- Backed by intensive artillery fire and airstrikes, Israeli forces fought Saturday for a Lebanese hilltop town in a widening campaign to secure a roughly 15-square-mile region of southern Lebanon against seasoned Hezbollah guerrillas, who continued firing scores of rockets into northern Israeli cities now largely empty of residents.

Israeli military aircraft, meanwhile, pounded roads, bridges and Hezbollah targets across Lebanon in the 11th day of a bombing campaign that has pushed hundreds of thousands of Lebanese from their homes and left the country's civilian infrastructure in tatters. In the mountains north of Beirut, Israeli military jets hit television and telephone transmitters and relay stations, knocking out broadcasts and cellular phone service to parts of the country.

As more than 130 Hezbollah rockets landed inside Israel -- striking from the port city of Haifa to Kiryat Shmona in the northeast -- Israeli tanks, bulldozers and infantry troops battled in and around Maroun al-Ras, a town along a ridgeline about a mile from this Israeli farming community, which has emptied out in recent days. Israeli commanders on the ground said they'd taken control of the village, although it remained unclear whether Hezbollah gunmen had been driven off. The Israeli ground operation, now focused on controlling four Lebanese villages, remained relatively small.

[Early Sunday, the Associated Press reported, warplanes for the first time hit inside the port city of Sidon, currently swollen with refugees, destroying a religious complex the Israeli military said was used by Hezbollah. Official said four people were wounded. Also Sunday, large explosions reverberated in Beirut and Israeli jets hit targets in eastern Bekaa Valley, firing missiles in the cities of Hermel and Baalbek, witnesses said.]

Israeli officials indicated Saturday that a larger invasion may not be needed to achieve Israel's goals, which include driving Hezbollah gunmen from the border, pressuring Lebanon's weak government to disarm the radical Shiite Muslim militia and political movement, and freeing the two Israeli soldiers the group captured in a raid July 12.

The officials' statements, coming days after Israeli political leaders warned that a large ground incursion was under consideration, appeared to define the limits of a military operation that has so far failed to stop rocket fire or dislodge Hezbollah from the border region it has dominated since Israel left southern Lebanon in 2000 after a bitter 18-year occupation.

"We are not preparing for an invasion of Lebanon," said Avi Pazner, a senior Israeli government spokesman. "A combination of air force, artillery and ground force pressure will push Hezbollah out without arriving at the point where we have to invade and occupy" southern Lebanon.

Israel's modern army has been unable to stop Hezbollah's rockets, relatively crude weapons that take seconds to reach their targets. The number of rockets that fell inside Israel on Saturday was among the highest one-day totals since the military operation began. More than 900 rockets have landed inside Israel during that period.

The United Nations and some governments are calling on both sides to end the fighting and give diplomacy a chance to resolve the conflict, which has killed more than 360 Lebanese, mostly civilians. In Israel, 15 civilians and 20 soldiers have been killed. [The Israeli military said early Sunday that the body of a fifth soldier killed Thursday in a battle in southern Lebanon has been recovered, the Associated Press reported. ]

Israeli officials appeared to open the door Saturday to diplomatic efforts, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice prepared to visit the region early next week. Brig. Gen. Ido Nehushtan, a member of Israel's general staff, said the bombing and ground operation has diminished Hezbollah's "overall capability, but to what extent we still don't know."

"There is one line between our military objectives and our political objectives," Nehushtan said. "The goal is not necessarily to eliminate every Hezbollah rocket. What we must do is disrupt the military logic of Hezbollah. I would say that this is still not a matter of days away."

Israeli warplanes attacked television and telephone relay stations north of Beirut. The attacks fit a pattern of sustained Israeli efforts to destroy civilian infrastructure in Lebanon, much of it rebuilt from the wreckage of previous wars. But Saturday's strikes were the first directed at the mountain heartland of Lebanon's Maronite Christians, Israel's allies in the 1982 invasion, who often share its hostility toward Hezbollah.

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