By Edward Cody and Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 5, 2006
AL FITAR, Lebanon, Aug. 5 -- Israeli warplanes broadened their air campaign in Lebanon on Friday, blasting four highway bridges in the Christian heartland north of Beirut and killing about 30 farmworkers with a missile strike in the Bekaa Valley that Israeli officials said targeted a suspected weapons depot.
Hezbollah fighters fired 195 rockets into northern Israel, killing three civilians and wounding eight, according to the Israeli national police. In one of the deepest strikes to date, three rockets landed in a field near the coastal town of Hadera, about 50 miles from the Lebanese border.
It was the third consecutive day of intense rocket fire despite continuing efforts by the Israeli military to root out the guerrillas' firing positions in southern Lebanon.
Early Saturday, loud explosions were heard in Beirut as Israeli warplanes struck the city's southern suburbs. Machine-gun fire rattled the southern city of Tyre in what the Associated Press said was an Israeli helicopter assault on Hezbollah positions there.
One victim of the Israeli attacks on the bridges Friday was a 65-year-old retiree, Joseph Bassil, who was out for a morning jog when a salvo of missiles collapsed a 500-foot span into a ravine next to this seaside village 35 miles north of the capital, neighbors said. A second man was killed in his pickup truck here as he drove across, they said.
In northern Israel, Manal Azzam, a 27-year-old woman, was killed when a rocket smashed into her neighbor's apartment in the village of Maghar. Her two children were injured. Two other people died when a rocket hit a restaurant in the town of Majd el-Krum in northwestern Israel about 12 miles from the Lebanese border.
The new violence came a day after Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah threatened to strike Tel Aviv if Israeli forces broadened their assaults on Beirut. At the same time, he offered to end attacks if Israel did the same in Lebanon. Israel, however, is insisting that Hezbollah first be pushed away from the border and that an international force be brought in to police that zone.
On Friday, Israeli soldiers operating in the Lebanese border hills with battle tanks backed by warplanes pursued Hezbollah guerrillas entrenched in villages and tobacco fields who were firing small arms, rocket-propelled grenades and laser-guided antitank missiles.
Twenty-four days into the latest round of conflict, Israeli officers said they were in or around some 20 villages along the border stretching from Naqourah on the Mediterranean to the Kfar Kila region a few miles south of the Litani River.
But their declared objective of clearing and holding a several-mile-deep strip of territory free of Hezbollah guerrillas still seemed distant. Most of the combat took place in the same villages where fighting has been reported since hostilities broke out July 12 after Hezbollah commandos on a raid into northern Israel seized two soldiers and killed eight others.
Brig. Gen. Shucki Shacher, briefing reporters at Israel's northern command headquarters in Tzfat, said Hezbollah's "strength is declining from day to day" and the Israelis' enemy is "being pushed to the north and losing his facilities to the south."
Explaining the volleys of missiles over the last three days, Shacher said that the majority of Hezbollah's longer-range rockets had been destroyed but that only a third of the shorter-range Katyushas, which can be set up and fired in a matter of minutes, had been eliminated.
The guerrillas destroyed an Israeli tank near Aita al-Shaab, just across the border, and took out another armored vehicle near Markaba, south of Taibe, Hezbollah said. In all, seven Israeli vehicles were damaged, the group said, and six Israeli soldiers were killed.
The Israeli military said only three of its soldiers were killed -- two enlisted men and an officer who were hit by an antitank missile as they patrolled on foot in Markaba. Their deaths brought to 44 the number of Israeli soldiers listed as killed in the conflict.
About 30 Israeli civilians have been killed by Hezbollah rockets since the war began, according to a government count.
At the United Nations, negotiations continued in an effort to arrange a cease-fire and a political settlement leading to deployment of an international peacekeeping force.
Mohamad Anwar Mohamad Nor, armed forces chief of Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim country, said Friday that his government was prepared to contribute 1,000 troops to such a force after a cease-fire was in place, the state news agency Bernama reported.
But as the casualties have mounted, the logic of mutual retaliation seemed to be overwhelming hopes for diplomacy, with both sides signaling determination to fight on. Israeli forces kept up pressure in the Gaza Strip as well, killing three people, according to Palestinian sources.
The farmworkers who died in Lebanon, some of them Syrians, were killed by Israeli missiles near the village of Qaa in the northernmost corner of the fertile Bekaa Valley, just beside the border with Syria, as they loaded fruit and potatoes on trucks for transport to markets, according to Lebanese media reports quoting local officials. The number of deaths was estimated at between 28 and 33, with more than a dozen people wounded, the reports said.
Qaa Mayor Nicola Matar, in a telephone interview with Lebanon's Future TV, put the death toll at 31. Lebanese television stations showed rows of bodies, blackened and distorted by the blast, lined up on the ground where the missiles hit.
An Israeli military spokesman, Capt. Jacob Dallal, said Israeli planes attacked a building in Qaa suspected of "being used as a weapons depot of some sort." By his account, Israeli forces identified a truck that entered the building, remained an hour, then returned across the border to Syria.
Syria has long been the main transit point for Hezbollah weapons and money supplied by Iran. But despite frequent attacks by Israeli warplanes in the area, some trucks loaded with missiles and other munitions are still getting through, according to a Lebanese source with access to military intelligence.
An Israeli military spokesman said the bridges north of Beirut were bombed Friday because Hezbollah fighters "have been using those roads as alternate route for bringing weapons from Syria to southern Lebanon."
Two spans were damaged on the northbound side at the famous Casino du Liban near Juniyah. A third was blasted, also on the northbound side, at Maameltein, just north of Juniyah, killing four passengers in a minibus that happened to be passing by, according to witnesses.
The fourth was totally collapsed here at Al Fitar, just south of Batroun, part of a string of beach towns and small ports celebrated for their good fish and firm Christian faith -- and, more recently, strong opposition to Hezbollah.
Residents expressed outrage that Israel would attack their communities. "This surprised us," said Samira Mahfouz, 40, whose house and car windows were shattered by the attack on the nearby bridge. "It really surprised us. I can't tell you how angry we are about this."
Joseph Bassil had gone jogging in the morning coolness with several companions, she and other neighbors said. They decided to return home, but Bassil wanted to make another round because he had skipped his daily jog Thursday, according to Mahfouz's 10-year-old son, Cherbal. When he did, the Israeli missiles crashed down at about 8:15 a.m. and killed him, the neighbors said.
More than 450 Lebanese civilians have been killed in the conflict, along with 26 soldiers and a disputed number of Hezbollah fighters. The tallies range from about 50 announced by the group's leaders to more than 200 claimed by Israeli officers.
The damage to bridges on the main coastal road linking Beirut to northern Lebanon choked the lifeline of relief agencies trying to bring in supplies from the outside, said a spokesman for the United Nations' World Food Program, Robin Lodge. "Today's destruction has given us a severe problem, and it cuts off our only lifeline for humanitarian relief," Lodge said.
Lebanese motorists, who have learned to improvise in repeated rounds of war, quickly found alternate routes, some by the seashore, others on small roads twisting through the mountains. The U.N. spokesman in Lebanon, Khaled Mansour, said a U.N. assessment team did a quick survey of the back routes but was told by the Israel military that it would not be safe.
"We deplore the attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure including our supply line serving to meet the basic humanitarian needs of hundreds of thousands of refugees," he said. "We remind all parties of their obligation under international law."
Mansour said ships loaded with 87,000 tons of fuel for power generation have not been able to leave Cyprus, where they are gathered awaiting guarantees from Israel that they can proceed safely. Israel initially said fuel supplies could come. But with the ships grouped about 17 miles west of the Lebanese coast, the owners were pressing Israel for further written guarantees to keep their insurance premiums down, a senior official explained.
Israeli aircraft also hit Beirut's southern suburbs, at Ouzai near Beirut's international airport. The blasts shook most of the city just as it awoke, rattling windows and setting off car alarms. One soldier was killed and six civilians were injured, according to local officials.
The targets were buildings with Hezbollah offices and other installations, they said.
Israeli planes dropped leaflets on the area, warning residents to leave because more bombing was planned in the days ahead, residents reported.
Moore reported from Jerusalem. Staff writer Nora Boustany in Beirut and correspondent Jonathan Finer in Tzfat contributed to this report.