By Jonathan Finer and Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 4, 2006
AVIVIM, Israel, Aug. 3 -- A new wave of Hezbollah rockets killed eight Israeli civilians Thursday, and four soldiers died in ground combat in southern Lebanon, Israel's highest daily death toll in the three-week-old war. Israeli jets blasted targets in Beirut for the first time in almost a week.
Israeli forces appeared to be struggling in efforts to control villages and towns across the Lebanese border and push deeper into the country, according to U.N. observers in Lebanon. Most of the day's fighting took place within two miles of the frontier and sometimes only a few hundred yards from it.
Hezbollah said its guerrillas destroyed four armored vehicles with antitank missiles during combat in the Aita al-Shaab region, about 15 miles from the Mediterranean, and in the hills around Taibe, about 20 miles to the northeast. In that town, a missile slammed into a house, killing a married couple and their daughter, Lebanese officials said.
In a televised statement Thursday night, the Shiite Muslim militia's leader, Hasan Nasrallah, threatened to fire rockets at Tel Aviv, Israel's most populous city, if Israeli forces expand their attacks on Beirut. Nasrallah, speaking from an unknown location, also offered to halt strikes on Israel if the Jewish state ceases its attacks on Lebanese "cities, villages, civilians and infrastructure."
[Early Friday, Israeli warplanes pursued their bombing of southern Beirut, however, hitting what Israeli military spokesmen described as Hezbollah facilities. Blasts shook the city, setting off car alarms, and a column of smoke rose over the southern suburbs. Israeli planes dropped leaflets on the already badly damaged residential quarters, warning people to leave because the bombing would intensify in the days ahead.
Other Israeli warplanes hit targets north of the Lebanese capital, damaging bridges and roads in what Israeli officials have described as a campaign to prevent movement of Hezbollah munitions and supplies.]
On Thursday, Hezbollah sent 180 rockets crashing into Israel. All eight civilian deaths occurred during an intense one-hour barrage of 40 rockets between 4 and 6 p.m., according to the Israeli national police.
Five Israelis were killed in the coastal town of Acre when a rocket landed near an automobile. A father and his 15-year-old daughter were among the fatalities.
Three Israeli Arab friends died when a rocket crashed down on a dirt road bordered by olive trees in the Bedouin town of Tarshiha, east of Maalot, police officials and witnesses said. Shenati Shenati, 20, Muhammad Faul, 17, and Amir Naim, 19, all Muslims, died instantly, their bodies "severely hit by shrapnel," according to Naim Naim, who ran from his nearby home and saw his cousin Amir and the other men lying on the ground.
"Everybody knew them around here, the three of them were always together," said Adnan Naim, another cousin of Amir's. "This is fate. What are the odds of them walking on this huge hillside and getting hit?"
More than 30 rockets landed in and around the town of Kiryat Shemona in northeastern Israel, 10 of them striking developed areas, local emergency officials said. One of them plowed into the pavement of Eilat Street, a hillside immigrant district, sending residents running for a bomb shelter and spraying shrapnel into apartment buildings.
U.N. officials on the border said they believed that despite intense Israeli attacks, Hezbollah's forces remained able to synchronize operations, particularly the firing of rockets across the border. They estimated that Hezbollah had 16,000 of the weapons before the war started and that its stockpiles could last two more weeks, perhaps longer.
Hezbollah fighters continued to offer fierce resistance to Israeli army units. In the town of Marwaheen, near the border, fighters fired a missile at an Israeli Merkava tank, killing two soldiers instantly, according to an Israeli military spokeswoman. A third soldier died of his wounds at a hospital, she said.
Another soldier was killed by a Hezbollah antitank missile in Taibe, according to the spokeswoman.
Fighting continued Thursday in locations where Israeli troops have been operating for weeks and in some towns that Israeli military commanders said days ago had been captured, including Maroun al-Ras and Bint Jbeil, near the Israeli town of Avivim.
U.N. officials described the fighting as raids and said Israeli forces did not appear to be holding territory. "It's pinpoint activity," one official said. "They're not occupying territory."
"The work is very hard, because you will only get the terrorists by working from village to village and house to house," said Maj. Svika Golan, a spokesman for the army's Northern Command. He said the army's goal is to create a zone at least 10 miles from the Israeli border in which no Hezbollah fighters operate: "That's guerrilla war. If you won't finish the job in one village, you won't be able to go to the next."
Israeli warplanes struck in Taibe, Nabatiyeh, Rashaya and Blat, Lebanese officials said. The planes also hit a bridge in the far northern Akkar region, near the border with Syria, and pounded roads in the Bekaa Valley near another section of the frontier.
The Israelis targeted several offices and a house used by Hezbollah members in Beirut Thursday, as well as a house belonging to Hamas, the radical Palestinian organization, according to an Israeli military spokeswoman. Lebanese officials said the Beirut targets had been hit previously.
Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora told Islamic leaders via video that Lebanon's death toll has surpassed 900 since hostilities broke out after a Hezbollah raid into Israel on July 12. More than 3,000 people have been wounded, he said, and a third of the total casualties have been children under 12.
Siniora did not say what that death toll estimate was based on. The Health Ministry, in a count of bodies handled by hospitals, has estimated the toll at around 550, most of them civilians. But it has suggested the figure could rise significantly once bodies are pulled from rubble in the hard-hit towns and villages of southern Lebanon.
Sixty-eight Israelis have been killed, including 41 soldiers in combat and 27 civilians.
Diplomatic efforts to halt the violence remained stalemated Thursday.
Hezbollah spokesman Hussein Rahal said on the group's al-Manar television station that a cease-fire would not be accepted as long as Israeli troops remain on Lebanese soil. If sustained, that position could complicate discussions at the United Nations aimed at arranging a cessation of hostilities while further talks take place on formation of an international peacekeeping force. Israel has vowed to retain its hold on a border strip until an international force is deployed.
France and the United States remain divided on the terms of a U.N. Security Council resolution that would call for a halt to the fighting and open the way to a European-led force for southern Lebanon. The United States favors a muscular international force that would help disarm Hezbollah and prevent it from firing rockets against Israeli towns. The French prefer a force that would help police an agreement in which Hezbollah disarms voluntarily.
Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said after meeting with Syria's president in Damascus that Syria had indicated it could be willing to help negotiate with Hezbollah. Sharing a border with Lebanon, Syria is one of Hezbollah's primary benefactors, along with Iran.
The Syrians "are going to exercise all their influence on Hezbollah, but the circumstances and political and military context of Lebanon must change," Moratinos said.
But in Malaysia, Iran's president told an emergency meeting of Muslim leaders that the solution to the crisis was to destroy Israel. "Although the main solution is for the elimination of the Zionist regime, at this stage an immediate cease-fire must be implemented," President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the world's largest grouping of Islamic countries.
The State Department said Thursday that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had approved a plan to "train and equip" Lebanese armed forces.
Spokesman Sean McCormack provided few details of the plan, but said it was intended to help the Lebanese government "exercise control and sovereignty over all of Lebanese territory once we have an end to the fighting."
Meanwhile, in the southern Gaza Strip, 10 Palestinians, including a 12-year-old boy, were killed in nearly 24 hours of Israeli military operations, Palestinians said. The dead included two members of Hamas and two members of Islamic Jihad, according to the two organizations.
[Early Friday, two Palestinians were killed, hospital officials said. The Israeli military said an aircraft attacked two armed Palestinians, the Associated Press reported. Another Palestinian was targeted and killed by an airstrike, AP cited Palestinian officials as saying.]
The Israel Defense Forces said in a statement Thursday that the operation, which had begun in the morning, was intended to attack "a number of terrorist cells in the southern Gaza Strip."
Israeli forces have been conducting operations in Gaza since Palestinian fighters captured an Israeli soldier on June 25.
Moore reported from Jerusalem. Correspondents Anthony Shadid in Tyre, Lebanon, Nora Boustany and Edward Cody in Beirut, staff writer Glenn Kessler in Washington and special correspondents Tal Zipper in Avivim and Islam Abdul Karim in Gaza City contributed to this report.