By Jonathan Finer and Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 3, 2006
KIRYAT SHEMONA, Israel, Aug. 3 -- Hezbollah shattered two days of relative calm in northern Israel on Wednesday, spraying the region with more than 230 rockets that set buildings and forests ablaze, wounded at least 33 civilians and killed a man as he rode his bicycle in front of his home.
Hezbollah's largest barrage of the war -- 80 more rockets than struck the Jewish state during any other day of the three-week-old conflict -- came as several thousand Israeli ground troops continued their sweep through southern Lebanon, clashing with Hezbollah fighters in at least 11 towns.
Early Thursday morning, the Israeli military announced it had completed an inquiry into the airstrike Sunday on the Lebanese town of Qana that killed civilians huddled in a three-story building.
In a statement, it blamed the incident on Hezbollah for using civilian areas to facilitate attacks, including in Qana, and found the building was targeted in accordance with military guidelines. The statement also expressed regret for the incident and said the building would not have been attacked had the military known civilians were inside. Most of those who died were children.
One Israeli soldier was killed and nine were wounded Wednesday in the fighting and rocket attacks, most of them in firefights near the border village of Aita al-Shaab. No information about Hezbollah casualties was available Wednesday.
At one point Wednesday, 63 rockets rained on northern Israel within a one-hour period, Israeli officials said.
One of the longer-range rockets that Hezbollah calls the Khaibar-1 crashed down in a rocky field near Jenin in the northern West Bank, 43 miles from the Lebanon border -- the farthest rocket strike yet by Hezbollah and the conflict's first in the West Bank.
Israeli officials and commanders and Lebanese officials said Wednesday that the radical Shiite Muslim group had retained the capability to launch rockets against Israel while suffering heavy losses during a three-week Israeli onslaught.
Israeli ground forces now control about a quarter of Lebanese territory south of the Litani River, Brig. Gen. Guy Zur said at a briefing Wednesday evening. The meandering river is three to 18 miles from the Israel-Lebanon border, and the land in between has been long dominated by Hezbollah.
He listed more than a half-dozen border towns where Israel's army was still battling, including Taibe and Aita al-Shaab, the site of most of the recent Israeli casualties.
"We have troops that entered Lebanon from the mountains to the sea in a buffer zone in which we are operating to destroy all infrastructure of terror we can get," Zur said. "And I know we have hurt them badly."
Hundreds of buildings used by Hezbollah -- meeting halls, social centers, medical dispensaries and media offices -- have been struck during the Israeli offensive, according to a Lebanese source with access to military intelligence. "All this was destroyed, in the southern suburbs of Beirut, in the Bekaa" Valley in eastern Lebanon and in Hezbollah's stronghold in the south, he said.
About 200 Hezbollah operatives have been killed, including fighters and others involved in the war effort such as truck drivers and messengers, the Lebanese source said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information. Hezbollah has announced only about 40 such deaths. Israeli officials say between 300 and 400 Hezbollah fighters have been killed.
Lt. Col. Ishai Efroni, deputy commander of the Israeli army's Baram Brigade, said Israeli forces had sustained heavy losses because Hezbollah had spent years preparing the terrain for an invasion. Near the border town of Maroun al-Ras, his forces found a bunker complex with a one-square-yard opening and a vast cavern 35 feet underground, he said. It was rigged with a camera mounted at the top and a monitor below to observe advancing forces.
Hezbollah forces are now "massing in a few towns, which shows you they can hardly defend themselves," Efroni said. "Most of the towns we pass through, there is not even a shot. They are picking a few places to fight because they have to."
"The infrastructure of Hezbollah has been entirely destroyed," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Wednesday during interviews with several news organizations. "More than 700" of the Iranian-backed group's command posts "were entirely wiped out by the Israeli army," he added.
The offensive would stop only when a "robust" international force was in place in southern Lebanon, Olmert said.
Hezbollah's total fighting strength has been a closely held secret. Timur Goksel, who was a senior U.N. peacekeeping adviser in southern Lebanon for two decades, estimated that the militia has about 700 full-time trained fighters and anywhere from 8,000 to 20,000 farmers and others who train in secret and can fight when called upon. Israeli officials have said they now face between 2,000 and 3,000 fighters.
At an outdoor briefing in the northern town of Kiryat Shemona, before a backdrop of at least seven columns of smoke from rocket impacts rising from a nearby hill, Israel's army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, said: "We never took upon ourselves a mission of reaching zero Katyushas landing in Israel. It's not going to happen."
The number of rockets and rocket launchers still in Hezbollah's arsenal can only be guessed at, the Lebanese source with access to military intelligence said, because Hezbollah has been building up its forces in secret for more than a year. More than 1,000 rockets may have been destroyed and around 1,800 fired at Israel, he suggested, but that leaves a large amount available for continued barrages.
Some Israeli and other officials had estimated Hezbollah's total arsenal at around 10,000 rockets when the conflict erupted July 12 after the militia captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid. That would mean less than a third of its rockets have been destroyed or fired.
"There is a big amount that was destroyed," the Lebanese source said. "But there is a big amount that is still buried under the ground and difficult to get."
Efroni said the Israeli army thinks it has destroyed the vast majority of Hezbollah's longer-range rockets but believes the group still has many more of the shorter-range Katyushas, which can be set up and launched in a matter of minutes, making them nearly impossible to stop.
The Hezbollah fighter "wakes up in the morning, drinks his coffee, takes a rocket out of his closet, goes to his neighbor's yard, sticks a clock timer on it, goes back home and then watches CNN to see where it lands," he said.
One of the rockets fell about 30 feet away from Sgt. Arkady Milionchik, who was manning an artillery battery near Kiryat Shemona. He walked away with a few cuts on his head, a minor concussion and the piece of shrapnel that struck him, which sat by the bed where he was recovering at a nearby hospital in Tzfat. "I guess I was lucky," he said.
The Israeli civilian killed by a Hezbollah rocket was David M. Lelchook, 52, an immigrant from Boston, who lived near Nahariya in northwestern Israel, according to the Associated Press.
The Israeli army announced Wednesday that another American immigrant, Michael Levin, 22, was among the soldiers killed in fighting in Lebanon this week, the AP reported.
Wednesday's bombardment came after a two-day lull in which Hezbollah fired only a handful of rockets into Israel and Israel reduced airstrikes in the south in the wake of a Sunday airstrike on the Lebanese village of Qana that killed numerous civilians.
The Lebanese government said that 57 people died there, including 37 children. But a Human Rights Watch report published Wednesday put the death toll at 28 thus far, 16 of them children. The group, which published a second report Thursday that was largely critical of what it called "indiscriminate attacks against civilians in Lebanon" by Israel, said initial estimates of more than 50 fatalities were based on a register of 63 persons who had sought shelter in the basement of the building and reports from rescue teams that had located nine survivors.
"It now appears that at least 22 people escaped the basement, and 28 are confirmed dead, according to records from the Lebanese Red Cross and the government hospital in Tyre," the report said, noting that 13 people are still missing, perhaps buried in the rubble.
An Israeli military inquiry found that authorities mistakenly believed there were no civilians in the building at the time and charged that Hezbollah guerrillas used civilians as human shields for their rocket attacks, according to a statement early Thursday.
"Had the information indicated that civilians were present . . . the attack would not have been carried out," the statement said, summarizing the findings.
The bombing followed guidelines regarding attacking "suspicious structures" in villages where civilians have been warned to evacuate, the statement said, adding that Hezbollah forces "use civilian structures inside villages to store weaponry and hide in after launching rocket attacks."
It said that more than 150 rockets had been launched from Qana and the area around it since July 12.
As a result of the incident, it added, the guidelines would be evaluated and updated.
Halutz, the chief of staff, apologized for the loss of civilian life but charged that Hezbollah "uses civilians as human shields and intentionally operates from within civilian villages and infrastructure."
Meanwhile, new details emerged about a Tuesday night raid by Israeli special forces on a hospital in the northern Lebanese town of Baalbek. Lebanese officials and witnesses said 24 civilians had been killed by Israeli fire, while a top Israeli commander said five Hezbollah fighters had been taken captive and 10 killed.
Halutz said the Israeli raid into Baalbek, the most ambitious air and ground operation of the current conflict, had been conducted to demonstrate that Israeli forces could strike anywhere. It began at 10:15 p.m. Tuesday with a large gun battle at the Dar al-Hikma Hospital on the edge of the city, according to municipal officials and local journalists.
Other raids on a half-dozen sites around Baalbek quickly followed, with clashes lasting up to five hours in some places, they said.
The road from the entrance to Baalbek to the hospital was littered with more than 20 strafed cars, the charred bodies of their drivers still in the front seat, witnesses reported by telephone Wednesday morning.
Eleven other civilian motorists were killed in their cars as they drove along the road to the hospital, according to witnesses and local officials, who provided names for all the victims.
Halutz said the hospital building was being used as a Hezbollah logistics base and storage site for weapons. Hezbollah fighters prohibited reporters from approaching the hospital, which they said had been emptied of patients at the beginning of the war. Local officials said a number of Hezbollah fighters and guards were inside.
Israel has not released the identities of the five Hezbollah fighters it says it captured. One of the Israeli helicopters used in the Baalbek raid strafed Al-Jamaliyeh, a village near the hospital, killing seven people, witnesses and officials said. The victims included Awad Jamaleddin, the brother of Mayor Hussein Jamaleddin; the mayor's wife; his son Maxim; and several visitors.
In the nearby farmlands, the helicopters sent withering fire across the countryside, killing six members of one Bedouin family living in a tent near potato fields, witnesses and officials said. The father, Talal Shibley, lost his right hip and leg, while his wife, Maha Chaaban, and five children were killed.
At the United Nations, officials announced that a meeting of countries that might send troops to help stabilize southern Lebanon had been postponed, calling it premature to discuss deploying peacekeepers before approving a plan for peace between Israel and Hezbollah.
Correspondents Anthony Shadid in Tyre, Nora Boustany in Beirut and Molly Moore in Jerusalem and special correspondents Tal Zipper in Kiryat Shemona and Ian Deitch in Jerusalem contributed to this report.