Israel Strikes Deep in Lebanon

Youssef Srour prays on the grounds of what was a mosque in Aita Ech Chaab, Lebanon. The village was the site of a fierce battle between Hezbollah and Israeli forces during the war.
Youssef Srour prays on the grounds of what was a mosque in Aita Ech Chaab, Lebanon. The village was the site of a fierce battle between Hezbollah and Israeli forces during the war. (By Spencer Platt -- Getty Images)
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 20, 2006

BEIRUT, Aug. 19 -- Helicopter-borne Israeli commandos raided a Hezbollah stronghold in the Bekaa Valley early Saturday, setting off a fierce gun battle. Lebanon called the attack a "flagrant violation" of a fragile six-day-old cease-fire and threatened to halt troop deployments in protest.

Hezbollah, which battled the Israeli military for 33 days until the truce took hold Monday, said its fighters encountered the Israeli commandos in a field near the town of Boudai, about 20 miles from the Syrian border.

The Israeli military, confirming the raid, said its commandos carried out the operation to interdict shipments of weapons and munitions to Hezbollah from Syria and Iran. The military said one Israeli officer was killed and two soldiers were wounded, one seriously.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora told reporters in Beirut that the attack was a "flagrant violation" of the U.N. cease-fire and that he planned to lodge a complaint with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Later Saturday, Annan said that he agreed the raid violated the cease-fire agreement and that he was "deeply concerned."

Hezbollah issued no immediate reaction. But many Lebanese worried that the militant Shiite Muslim movement would retaliate, risking a chain of cease-fire violations that could rekindle the devastating war that drove nearly a fourth of Lebanon's inhabitants from their homes and inflicted an estimated $3.6 billion in damage to bridges, roads and other infrastructure.

In accepting the cease-fire, the Hezbollah leader, Hasan Nasrallah, warned that his militia reserved the right to attack Israelis as long as they remain on Lebanese soil. At the same time, the Israeli military declared that it reserved the right to respond to attacks and prevent weapons shipments to Hezbollah guerrillas in the southern border hills until an international force was in place.

In practice, however, Hezbollah has held its fire even though an unknown number of Israeli troops remain in observation posts scattered across the rocky Lebanese hills just north of the border. Until Saturday, Israel also had refrained from attacks of any size on Hezbollah fighters in the border area or on other Hezbollah installations farther north. The restraint by both sides had led to optimism in Beirut that the truce would hold and that rebuilding could begin -- optimism that suddenly came under doubt.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mark Regev, said the raid was not a violation of the cease-fire because it was in response to a violation by Hezbollah. "If the other side violates the cease-fire, then we are entitled to act," Regev said.

"Had the Lebanese forces, augmented by international troops, been on the border crossing points with Syria the way they should have been, then our attack would have been superfluous," he added. "Hopefully, those international troops will be there soon and then there will be no need for these kinds of actions. In the interim, we cannot have an open border with arms coming from Syria to rearm Hezbollah. The violation of the cease-fire is the arms transfer from Syria to Lebanon."

The Lebanese military, which stood aside during the war, has begun deploying along the border with Syria in northern and eastern Lebanon, in addition to its deployment over the last three days in villages along the southern border with Israel. But the frontier with Syria remains far from secured, officials acknowledged, and Israel is unlikely to relax its vigilance against Hezbollah arms deliveries.

The Lebanese defense minister, Elias Murr, said Lebanon would stop moving troops into the southern part of the country if the United Nations did not intervene, the Associated Press reported.

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