By Jonathan Finer and Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 2, 2006
ZARIT, Israel, Aug. 2 -- Thousands of Israeli soldiers streamed into southern Lebanon on Tuesday, as clashes with Hezbollah fighters in at least half a dozen towns marked an intensified ground campaign to dislodge Hezbollah strongholds that have withstood three weeks of aerial bombardment.
Israeli troops carried out an operation in the eastern city of Baalbek early Wednesday, "hitting a number of terrorists and arresting several," an Israeli military spokeswoman said Wednesday morning. She said all of the Israeli forces returned to the bases safely.
Hezbollah said on its al-Manar television station that its fighters battled Israeli commandos who launched a raid on a hospital in the city beginning at about 10:30 p.m. Tuesday.
The Israeli military said it also planned to resume wide-scale air attacks after a 48-hour slowdown following an airstrike Sunday that killed more than 50 civilians, most of them children, in the Lebanese village of Qana.
Two Israeli soldiers and one officer were killed and 25 troops were slightly wounded Tuesday morning when Hezbollah fighters fired an antitank missile into a house Israeli troops were using as a command post in the town of Aita Al-Shaab, less than a mile north of this Israeli border town, according to a military spokesman.
Israeli officials said both air and land attacks would accelerate in the next few days as the military pushes deeper into southern Lebanon in an effort to clear a broad swath of villages and towns of Hezbollah fighters and the equipment they use to fire missiles into Israel. Israel has ordered its army to punch all the way to the Litani River, Israeli officials said.
Israeli military leaders said they were bracing for some of the toughest fighting in the 21-day campaign against Hezbollah.
"They are very hard to identify, very hard to know where they are," Brig. Gen. Shuki Shachar, deputy commander of the Israeli army's northern forces, told reporters Tuesday. "And it's very hard to hit them and not hit the population that they use in a cynical way."
Shachar said about six combat brigades, most of them infantry units, were involved in the fighting. Israeli brigades vary in size, but military analysts estimate that the force now fighting in Lebanon is at least 10,000 soldiers and could be more than 18,000. Military officials said the number of troops sent into Lebanon could soon triple.
The Associated Press quoted Hezbollah's chief spokesman, Hussein Rahal, as saying that Israeli troops had landed near Baalbek's Dar al-Hikma Hospital in a helicopter and that fierce fighting had broken out.
The Web site of the Israeli daily Haaretz reported that "helicopters put down" Israeli "commandos near Baalbek" early Wednesday.
Witnesses said the hospital was hit in an Israeli airstrike and was burning, the Associated Press reported. At least five civilians were killed and several others wounded in the strike, security sources said according to Reuters news service.
Along Israel's hilly border with Lebanon, in the string of tiny villages and collective farms largely abandoned by Israeli civilians fleeing Hezbollah rocket attacks, more Israeli troops were preparing to cross the frontier Tuesday. Areas where no troops were seen less than a week ago had become teeming military camps, with buses regularly dropping off new arrivals. They gathered in the same area where the conflict began July 12 when Hezbollah fighters captured two Israeli soldiers and killed three in a cross-border raid, and subsequently killed five others.
Meanwhile in Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on the PBS "NewsHour" that she saw a cease-fire in Lebanon coming in a matter of "days, not weeks."
European Union foreign ministers meeting in Brussels called for "an immediate cessation of hostilities to be followed by a sustainable cease-fire," watering down some members' demand for an immediate cease-fire. Britain, Germany, the Czech Republic, Poland and Denmark -- some of the Bush administration's closest allies -- pushed through the new language, diplomats said.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told graduates of the National Security College near Tel Aviv, "We have said we would agree to a cease-fire once we know with certainty the conditions in the field will be different than those that led to the eruption of this war."
He added: "Every additional day is one that erodes the power of this cruel enemy. Every additional day, the Israeli army reduces their ability to fire and also their ability to strike in the future."
Shachar, of the army's Northern Command, said Israeli political leaders had told him not to worry about how long the operation would last. "They said: Don't look at your watch, do your mission, go further," he said.
Israeli soldiers are operating "from the west to the east, in all the areas of southern Lebanon," Shachar said, adding that some forces "are already along the red line of the former security zone, and some are already beyond that."
Israel withdrew in 2000 from a security zone that stretched more than 12 miles into Lebanon.
Shachar said Israel now controls most of the zone below the Litani River, either with ground forces or through air missions. Lt. Col. Yishai Efroni, deputy commander of soldiers on the western end of Israel's border with Lebanon, said ground commanders were pleased that an expanded attack on Hezbollah had been authorized. "The commanders now know they can use their full power," he said. "The point is to make it clear for the international forces" that could eventually take control of the border area.
Across southern Lebanon on Tuesday, residents used the 48-hour slowdown in air attacks to escape towns and villages that had been under heavy bombardment and that the Israeli military now warns could become the targets of ground combat.
In Aitaroun, where parts of the town were reduced to rubble, desperate scenes unfolded as families emerged from basement shelters and tried to flee. Some parents attempted to push children into minivans, then yanked them out when they realized there was no room for the parents. They frantically tried to depart in a half-dozen cars, trucks and minivans. In one vehicle, a traumatized young girl plugged her ears with her fingers, refusing to take them out.
In nearby Ainata, at least 10 corpses were left in houses and the streets, according to a Washington Post photographer who witnessed the scenes.
For the second day, Hezbollah fighters fired only a handful of rockets and mortar shells into Israel. Israeli military officials said eight Katyusha rockets and four mortar shells landed in border areas Tuesday but caused no injuries or damage. Those numbers represented a dramatic decline from previous days when Hezbollah sent 100 to 150 rockets a day across the border.
Hezbollah said four of its fighters died Tuesday in combat with Israeli troops.
At least 532 Lebanese have been killed in the three-week-old conflict, including 461 civilians confirmed dead by the Health Ministry, 25 Lebanese soldiers and at least 46 Hezbollah guerrillas. The Lebanese health minister said the toll could be as high as 750, including bodies still buried in rubble or missing. Fifty-four Israelis have died, including 36 soldiers; 18 civilians have been killed in Hezbollah rocket attacks, according to Israeli officials. Israel estimates it has killed 300 Hezbollah fighters.
U.N. officials in Beirut said Israeli authorities barred two convoys carrying relief supplies from moving into the southern Lebanon villages of Naqourah and Rmeish on Tuesday, citing danger from the fighting. A third was allowed to proceed, said a U.N. spokesman, Khaled Mansour.
About 10 convoys of food, blankets, medical kits and other supplies for the estimated 750,000 Lebanese who have fled their homes were not given Israeli authorization to move southward from Beirut, Mansour said, adding that Israeli officials have tightened requirements for allowing convoys to move.
U.N. and Lebanese officials said the Israeli military granted permission for several oil tankers to carry badly needed fuel into Lebanon. The first deliveries were expected in Beirut late Wednesday, they said.
Despite Israel's announced halt in air attacks on southern Lebanon, warplanes on Tuesday attacked in the Bekaa Valley near the Syrian border, according to Lebanese police. The Israeli military said the attack was intended to prevent Hezbollah from resupplying its fighters with munitions or missiles from Syria. Syria has been the main transit point for Iranian-supplied weaponry destined for Hezbollah. A Lebanese source with access to intelligence information said some Hezbollah trucks were still getting through with supplies.
The Israeli military fired artillery shells into the northern Gaza Strip in an effort to halt the launch of Qassam rockets into nearby Israeli communities, Israeli officials said. Palestinian authorities said a 16-year-old youth and a 24-year-old woman were killed and four other Palestinians were wounded by shrapnel on a street in the town of Beit Hanoun.
[Early Wednesday, Israeli missile boats fired at the Gaza beach, hitting two boats, an office, a car and a cabin owned by Abbas Beker, a Palestinian known as the top arms smuggler in Gaza and Egypt, the Associated Press reported, citing Palestinian sources.]
Palestinian fighters fired five Qassam rockets into Israel on Tuesday, causing no casualties, Israeli officials said.
Moore reported from Jerusalem. Correspondent Edward Cody in Beirut, staff photographer Michael Robinson Chavez in Aitaroun and special correspondent Tal Zipper in Zarit contributed to this report.