Missiles fired into over 20 Israeli towns kill 2 - IDF blockades Lebanon - kidnapped soldiers 'may be taken to Iran'
July 13, 2006
ThursdayJERUSALEM Israel imposed a full naval blockade on Lebanon and put Beirut International Airport out of commission as the crisis in the Middle East escalated rapidly following the capture of two Israeli soldiers and the killing of eight others by the Shiite militant group Hezbollah on Wednesday.
Hezbollah fired rockets deep into northern Israel on Thursday, with two rockets hitting the port of Haifa, sending thousands of Israelis into bomb shelters.
In a second day of attacks on Lebanon, Israeli warplanes also struck two Lebanese Army bases and Hezbollah's Al Manar television station. According to Lebanese government figures, 53 Lebanese have died, including one family of 10 and another of 7 in the village of Dweir. More than 103 have been wounded, Lebanon said.
The Israeli government has said that it is holding the state of Lebanon responsible for the actions of Hezbollah, which is a member of the government, and that the cross-border raid and abduction of its soldiers was an unprovoked act of war by a neighboring state.
Israel's chief of staff, Lieutenant General Dan Halutz, warned that "nothing is safe" in Lebanon and that Beirut itself, especially Hezbollah offices and strongholds in the southern part of the city, would be a target.
Hezbollah in turn fired more than 120 Katyusha rockets and mortars into Israel on Thursday, Israeli officials said, killing one woman drinking coffee on her balcony in Nahariya and a man in Safed, and wounding more than 100 other Israelis in some 20 towns and villages, including Haifa, Safed and Carmiel. Hezbollah said it was using a new rocket, the Thunder 1, which is more advanced than the standard Katyusha.
Thousands of Israelis in the north spent the night in bomb shelters as Hezbollah warned that Israeli attacks on southern Beirut would be met by rocket attacks on Haifa, a port city of about 250,000 people 30 kilometers, or 18 miles, from the international border. Thursday evening, two rockets landed near the city's Stella Maris Church.
In Beirut, residents lined up for blocks to get gasoline and packed supermarkets and bakeries preparing for what could be a long siege. With Israeli warships visible off the coast and the occasional roar of warplanes rattling nerves, Lebanese re-enacted some of the same ritual preparations for war they had abandoned 15 years ago, when their bloody civil war finally ended.
The rapid surge in fighting on a second front, two weeks after Israel entered Gaza to try to secure the release of another captured soldier, alarmed Arab and Western governments, drove up the price of oil and drove down the Israeli currency, the shekel.
The European Union on Thursday criticized Israel for "the disproportionate use of force" in Lebanon "in response to attacks by Hezbollah on Israel," according to a statement issued by the current Finnish presidency. It said that "the imposition of an air and sea blockade on Lebanon cannot be justified."
And the United States on Thursday vetoed a draft UN Security Council resolution calling for an end to Israeli military operations in Gaza, as the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, sent a crisis team to the Middle East, The Associated Press reported.
President George W. Bush, in remarks in Germany, said that "Israel has the right to defend herself," but he also called for care, warning Israel not to weaken the government in Lebanon. "There are a group of terrorists who want to stop the advance of peace," Bush said. "The soldiers need to be returned."
President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority warned that Israel's Lebanon offensive was "raising our fears of a new regional war" and urged world powers to intervene.
The British foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, and the European Union foreign-policy chief, Javier Solana, called jointly "for the urgent release of the kidnapped Israeli soldiers and an end to attacks on Israeli towns and cities," and asked "all those countries with influence over Hezbollah and Hamas to play their part."
She said that "we strongly support the UN's efforts to arrange as quickly as possible a cease-fire and the release of the abducted soldiers." But there was also a warning for Israel.
"While Israel is entitled to do what is required to protect its security," Beckett said, "it should do so in a way which does not escalate the situation and which is proportionate and measured, conforms to international law and avoids civilian deaths and suffering."
The Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mikhail Kamynin, condemned both the Hezbollah raid and the Israeli offensive for destroying civilian infrastructure in Lebanon and in Gaza.
The Lebanese government, which has said that it had nothing to do with the raid by Hezbollah, called for a cease- fire, saying that all means should be used to end "open aggression" against the country.
But Israeli officials said there would be a long campaign to restore the country's security both along its southern border with Gaza and its northern one with Lebanon. The Israelis want to restore their military credibility with the Palestinian militants and Hamas government in Gaza and with Hezbollah, and say they intend to make the current campaign painful on both sets of antagonists.
The Israelis say that they want the message to get across to Syria and Iran, the countries Israel considers to be the main sponsors of Hezbollah and Palestinian militancy.
The Israeli defense minister, Amir Peretz, said Israel would no longer allow Hezbollah forces to occupy positions along the border.
"If the government of Lebanon fails to deploy its forces, as is expected of a sovereign government, we shall not allow Hezbollah forces to remain any further on the borders of the state of Israel," Peretz said.
But few Israeli officials think the Lebanese government, which is greatly influenced by Syria, has the will or the power to displace Hezbollah in the south.
A senior Israeli foreign ministry official, Gideon Meir, told reporters Thursday that Israel had "concrete evidence that Hezbollah plans to transfer the kidnapped soldiers to Iran," but he gave no specifics or source for the claim.
"As a result," Meir said, "Israel views Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran as the main players in the axis of terror and hate that endangers not only Israel, but the entire world." Israeli concerns that the soldiers might be moved out of Lebanon are a prime reason for its efforts to blockade the country and prevent air traffic, Meir said later.
Israel called on the international community to press Lebanon to fulfill its commitments under United Nations resolutions to dismantle Hezbollah's military and send the Lebanese army into southern Lebanon to take control over the international border with Israel.
Israel identified the two captured soldiers as Ehud Goldwasser, 31, of Nahariya, and Eldad Regev, 26, of Kiryat Motzkin. Corporal Gilad Shalit, 19, was captured by Palestinian militants on a raid from Gaza into Israel on June 25, setting off this current crisis.
The Israeli attack on the Beirut airport, the first such attack by Israel since 1982, blasted craters into all three runways, but did not hit the main terminal.
It came at the height of the tourist season, which was expected to bring Lebanon $4 billion this summer, and travelers were stranded all over the Middle East. Even the Lebanese foreign minister, Fawzi Salloukh, had to return home overland from Syria from a trip to Armenia. Syria opened its borders to stranded tourists.
The Israeli military said it struck the airport because it is "a central hub for the transfer of weapons and supplies to the Hezbollah terrorist organization."
In Beirut, residents prepared for a long campaign.
"We've been through this many times before," said Rania al Faris, who stood with her three sisters and mother with their bags packed waiting for the next bus towards the Beqaa Valley.
By midday, the city grew more panicked as Israeli warplanes dropped leaflets over the Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs, warning residents to evacuate the area before impending attack. Many families packed their bags and left for the countryside, where their chances of being hurt would be lower.
"People are trying to get out of here any way they can," said Mohammad Assif, who escorted his mother up to the mountains. Assif said that one of his cousins had been killed in one of the bombings on the south Wednesday night, and that the family had collectively decided to head out to safety. "Hezbollah is concentrated here, so this going to be where they hit," he said. "They hit al Manar near our house - who knows what comes next."
Hordes of tourists, most of them from Arab countries, packed up their bags and milled about in hotel lobbies desperate for a way out. But with the country blockaded by sea and air, the sole exit was through the border with Syria, where traffic was backed up for miles by the middle of the day.
Hassan M. Fattah reported from Beirut.