Thursday, July 13, 2006

Israeli force enters Lebanon

Israeli force enters Lebanon
By Greg Myre and Steven Erlanger
Copyright by The New York Times
Published: July 12, 2006

JERUSALEM With two more soldiers captured Wednesday, Israel launched a major military offensive on a second front, sending armored forces into southern Lebanon in response to a border raid by the militant group Hezbollah, which killed at least eight soldiers in addition to those abducted.

The new Israeli incursion came on a day when the army was still expanding its two-week-old operations in the Gaza Strip, seeking the return of a soldier captured by Palestinian militants inside Israel on June 25. More than 20 Palestinians were killed in Gaza on Wednesday, most in airstrikes and many of them civilians, according to Palestinian medical officials.
Hezbollah's assault on Israeli soldiers inside Israeli territory bore similarities to the raid by the Palestinians last month. Suddenly, the crisis on Israel's southern flank had essentially been replicated on its northern border, ratcheting up tensions even further.

While Israel has overwhelming military superiority in both southern Lebanon and Gaza, Hezbollah and the militant Palestinian faction Hamas both have leverage in the form of the captured Israeli soldiers.

As with the Gaza crisis, Israel ruled out negotiations with the Lebanese captors of the Israeli soldiers. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he held the Lebanese government responsible for the assault by Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim group that participates in Lebanese politics but also continues to battle Israel.

"I want to make clear that the event this morning is not a terror act, but an act of a sovereign state that attacked Israel without reason," Olmert said. "The government of Lebanon, of which Hezbollah is a part, is trying to shake the stability of the region."

Israel is demanding that all three of its soldiers be returned unconditionally and that the militant groups stop firing rockets at Israel civilians from Gaza in the south and Lebanon in the north. But with the Israeli soldiers in hand, Hamas and Hezbollah say the only solution is an exchange for a large number of Palestinian and other Arab prisoners held by Israel.

The Hezbollah leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, suggested the possibility of a package deal. "The capture of the two soldiers could provide a solution to the Gaza crisis," Nasrallah said in Beirut. The operation had been planned for months, he said, though he added, "The timing, no doubt, provides support for our brothers in Palestine."

Two years ago, Hezbollah managed to win the freedom for more than 400 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners in exchange for an Israeli businessman held in Lebanon and the corpses of three Israeli soldiers killed in a Hezbollah attack along the border in 2000.

The Lebanese government said little after the fighting broke out. Hezbollah effectively controls Lebanon's southern border despite international pressure and a United Nations resolution calling on the Lebanese government to take control of its borders and disarm militia groups.

In the Gaza crisis, Egypt and other countries have tried to broker a deal, but the efforts appear at a standstill. Diplomatic efforts could prove just as difficult in Lebanon.

The United Nations representative to southern Lebanon, Geir Pedersen, condemned Hezbollah's capture of the Israeli soldiers, calling it "an act of very dangerous proportions."

The fighting Wednesday erupted around 9 a.m., when Hezbollah attacked several northwestern Israeli towns with rocket fire, wounding several civilians, the Israeli military said.

But that attack was a diversion for the main operation, several kilometers to the east, where Hezbollah militants fired antitank missiles on two armored Hummers patrolling the Israeli side of the border fence, the military said.

Of the seven soldiers in the two jeeps, three were killed, two were wounded and two were abducted, the military said. Israel then responded with artillery fire, airstrikes and a naval bombardment that targeted about 40 sites in southern Lebanon.
Most were believed to be Hezbollah strongholds, but roads and bridges were also hit in an attempt to keep Hezbollah from moving the captured soldiers further to the north, according to the military.

At least 2 Lebanese civilians were killed and more than 10 wounded in southern Lebanon, according to Lebanese officials. Israel also sent ground forces into Lebanon, and a tank hit a powerful explosive planted in the road, killing all four soldiers inside, the Israeli military said. Another soldier was killed as the Israelis tried to get to the tank.

With a total of eight soldiers killed, it was one of the deadliest days for the Israeli forces in several years.

The Israeli incursion was the first such operation in southern Lebanon since Israel pulled its troops back into Israel in 2000, ending two decades of occupation.

While cross-border shooting exchanges are still common, it has been exceedingly rare for Hezbollah and the Israeli military to come face-to-face on the ground over the past six years.

Residents in Beirut's southern suburbs, which are dominated by Shiites, handed out sweets and set off firecrackers in celebration as word spread that the Israeli soldiers had been captured.

In the past, Hezbollah has attacked Israel at moments when there was already heavy fighting between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Hezbollah says it acts out of solidarity with the Palestinians, and the timing also creates additional problems for Israel.

Meanwhile, Gaza endured another bloody day. Hours before the Hezbollah attack on Wednesday, Israeli troops moved in force into central Gaza, expanding the operation intended to secure the release of the captured soldier, Corporal Gilad Shalit, and stop rocket fire into Israel.

The Israeli Air Force also dropped a powerful bomb on a home in Gaza City at around 3 a.m., saying it targeted senior Hamas leaders. But the blast killed nine members of the Abu Salmiya family, according to Dr. Jumaa al-Saqqa, the spokesman for Shifa Hospital, where the bodies were taken. There were visiting Hamas leaders in the house at the time of the bombing, but they escaped with only minor wounds, Palestinians said.

The owner of the house, Nabil Abu Salmiya, who is also a Hamas leader, was killed along with his wife, Salwa, and seven of their children, ages 7 to 18, Saqqa said. The couple also had two sons who survived the attack, and a married daughter who lives elsewhere.

The Israeli military said the main target was Muhammad Deif, the head of Hamas's armed wing. Israel says Deif is behind scores of attacks against Israeli civilians, including suicide bombings that killed dozens in the mid-1990s.

The military, which has tried to kill Deif at least four times in recent years, said he was wounded in the bombing.
However, Hamas officials refused to say whether Deif was at the house at the time of the bombing and insisted he was safe.
At least 12 more Palestinians were killed in Gaza, most of them in airstrikes around the towns of Khan Yunis and Deir el-Balah, not far from where the Israeli troops entered Gaza.


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