By Edward Cody and Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 11, 2006
BEIRUT, Aug. 10 -- Israeli aircraft fired missiles at a radio tower in downtown Beirut on Thursday and dropped leaflets warning residents of the Lebanese capital that more extensive bombing, whose "painful and severe results will not be limited" to Hezbollah fighters, is on the way.
The warning of more bombing of the city and the missile strike, in a busy area known as Ras Beirut, generated a swell of panic among Beirut residents. Although some speculated that Israel may be waging psychological warfare to gain advantage in negotiations at the United Nations, many people here took the warning seriously, recalling the weeks of Israeli bombing here in 1982. In the 30 days since this conflict erupted, Israel's bombing of Beirut has been limited largely to the southern suburbs, where Hezbollah has its base, while the downtown has been spared.
[Early Friday, eight powerful explosions resounded across Beirut, and local news reports said Israeli jets were pounding Hezbollah strongholds in the southern Dahiya suburb, the Associated Press reported.]
The Hezbollah leader, Hasan Nasrallah, warned last week that his fighters would fire missiles at Tel Aviv if Beirut were bombed, raising the danger that the war could escalate into a bloodier cycle of retaliation.
More than 140 Hezbollah rockets crashed into northern Israel on Thursday, killing Fathi Assadi, 26, and her 5-year-old son in Dir al-Assad, an Arab village in western Galilee, according to Israeli police. Eleven other people were injured in the attack, including the dead boy's 3-year-old brother and his grandmother.
A volley of missiles also landed in Haifa, about 20 miles south of the border, but officials there reported no injuries.
Ground combat was centered along a five-mile stretch of winding road between Marjayoun and Khiam, in the hills just above Israel's northernmost Galilee region. Israeli infantry, backed by tanks, artillery and warplanes, pushed into the area early in the day. The armored vehicles clanked without opposition through Marjayoun, a Christian market town, but came under attack from Khiam, a nearby Hezbollah stronghold populated mainly by Shiite Muslims.
Marjayoun was headquarters of the South Lebanon Army, an Israeli-sponsored Lebanese militia that helped Israeli forces against Hezbollah guerrillas during an 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon that ended in 2000.
Hezbollah, a militant Shiite and Arab nationalist movement, said its fighters hit 11 Israeli tanks in the border-area clashes, killing or wounding crew members.
A 35-year-old Israeli reserve soldier was killed when a Hezbollah fighter hit his tank with an antitank missile near Qleia, according to an Israeli military spokeswoman. Two other soldiers were injured.
[Early Friday, Israel Radio said another Israeli soldier was killed in fighting in south Lebanon overnight, AP reported]
Fighting Thursday was also reported in the nearby village of Burj al-Moluk, which lies in the shadow of the Crusader-era Beaufort Castle.
After an Israeli cabinet decision Wednesday to authorize the military to expand its operations in southern Lebanon, officials said Thursday they would not move ahead with the acceleration for at least a few more days to give the diplomacy at the United Nations more time.
"The combination of operational decisions and the speeding up of the diplomatic process is the right combination," Defense Minister Amir Peretz said at a briefing. "We must be at peace with ourselves the moment the troops go into the field."
But Peretz said that if the diplomatic efforts fail, "we'll use all the tools" necessary so that residents of northern Israel do not have to stay in bomb shelters, "and that's an unequivocal decision."
Israeli warplanes kept up their bombing campaign to prevent Hezbollah from moving munitions and other supplies over Lebanon's roads. One civilian was killed during a strike on a road in the Bekaa Valley, a major transit route for supplies coming via Syria on their way to the southern Lebanon battlefields, according to Lebanese news reports. Another man was killed as he rode a motorcycle near Tyre, they said.
As part of the interdiction effort, Israeli planes also dropped leaflets in northern Lebanon warning truck drivers to stay off the roads to Syria. Similar leaflets have been fluttering down across southern Lebanon for days, meaning large sections of the country are in effect closed to traffic under threat of attack from the air.
[On Friday, border crossings in north and east Lebanon were hit, the AP cited local news reports as saying. Security officials and local media said 11 people were killed and 11 wounded at the Abboudiyeh border crossing into Syria, 70 miles northeast of Beirut, after jets struck a busy bridge, the AP reported.]
Thursday's missiles in Beirut, which police said were fired by two helicopter gunships, struck an unused tower that once broadcast Radio Orient. Beirut residents said it has been unused for years and has mainly historical value, because it was constructed by the French in an earlier era. A small building next to it stood empty.
Nasrallah, in his warning last week, did not specify what he would consider an attack on Beirut that would warrant the firing of missiles at Tel Aviv, Israel's most populous city. The radio tower hit Thursday stood near Lebanese American University, part of a newer section of Beirut about two miles from the historic city center that was renovated recently.
Police said the missiles appeared to be small, precision-guided weapons. Although they cracked loudly across the city -- rattling glass, sending residents running and some crying in fear -- only one policeman was reported slightly wounded.
The leaflets, addressed to "the citizens of Beirut," were dropped a short time later in most of the city. In addition to the general warning of more extensive bombing and the implication that civilians would suffer as well as Hezbollah fighters, they warned residents of three suburbs to leave their homes immediately "for your own safety."
The three areas -- Hai Sulim, Burj al Barajinah and Al Shiyah -- abut the suburb of Dahiya, which is controlled by Hezbollah and has been pounded day after day since the conflict erupted July 12 with a Hezbollah commando raid into Israel.
"Beware," the leaflets said. "The broadening of terrorist operations by Hezbollah will lead to a painful and severe response whose results will not be limited to the bandit Hasan [Nasrallah] and his criminals."
By the end of the day, all three neighborhoods stood empty and forlorn, with only young men of fighting age lounging on sidewalks. The government dispatched buses to a nearby pickup point to take fleeing families without their own cars to the resort town of Juniyah, a Christian community about 20 miles north of Beirut. Officials said the newly displaced people would be put up in the city hall.
The residents of Al Shiyah, where Shiites and Christians live together, were among the first to flee. An Israeli airstrike there killed 47 people Monday night in the deadliest single attack of the war.
Shafiqa Ozib, a 90-year-old woman sitting on her doorstep, surveyed the silent streets of Al Shiyah with no reaction late Thursday.
Only a few cars passed by, carrying residents who had come to pick up their belongings before heading out to take shelter with relatives or friends.
Ozib was not going anywhere, she said her only concern seemed to be getting a bottle of water to tide her through the night. "Where would I go?" she responded when asked if she planned to join her fleeing neighbors. To a journalist pressing her on how she dared to stay after the Israeli warning, she said, "What do you write, philosophy?"
Abbas Fawaz, a 27-year-old businessman who lives next door, made sure Ozib had her bottle of water, then piled some clothes into his BMW sport-utility vehicle and sped away. But around the corner, Ouein Aboud, who works in a restaurant in the city center, said he, too, planned to stay.
"I'm not going anywhere," he vowed. As he spoke, two other young men emerged from a doorway, one with a pistol in his belt. Others settled in chairs up and down the streets and prepared for nightfall.
Moore reported from Jerusalem.