Israel continued its furious military campaign against Lebanon’s main airport, highways, military bases and other targets Friday, retaliating for scores of Hezbollah guerrilla rockets that rained down on Israel and reached as far as Haifa, its third-largest city, for the first time.
The death toll in two days of fighting rose to 57 people with the sudden burst of violence sending shock waves through a region already traumatized by Iraq and the ongoing battles in the Gaza Strip between Israel and Hamas. It shattered the relative calm in Lebanon that followed Israel’s pullout from its occupied zone in south Lebanon in 2000 and the withdrawal of Syrian forces last year.
Israel’s target was Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militant Shiite faction which has a free hand in southern Lebanon and also holds seats in parliament. Hezbollah sparked the current conflict Wednesday with a cross-border raid that captured two of Israel’s soldiers.
Two Israeli civilians and eight Israeli soldiers have also been killed, the military’s highest death toll in four years.
Israel said it was determined to beat Hezbollah back and deny the militant fighters positions they have held along the border since 2000.
The Lebanese government, caught in the middle, pleaded for a cease-fire to the U.N. Security Council, which set an urgent meeting for Friday.
“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,” Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said.
‘Nothing is safe’
Amid the violence, Israeli army chief Brig. Gen. Dan Halutz warned that “nothing is safe” in Lebanon.
Israeli warplanes stepped up the pressure early Friday, striking targets in the southern suburbs of Beirut where Hezbollah has its political headquarters, security officials said.
Explosions from at least seven missiles were heard, according to two AP journalists and other witnesses near the scene.
The raid came just a few hours after Israeli planes dropped leaflets in south Beirut warning residents to avoid areas where Hezbollah operates.
Fears mounted among Arab and European governments that violence in Lebanon could spiral out of control.
Israeli analysts warned that Syria, which supports Hezbollah and plays host to Hamas’ political leader Khaled Mashaal, could be Israel’s next target.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said any Israeli attack against Syria would be an aggression on the whole Islamic world and warned of a harsh reaction, the official Iranian news agency reported Friday.
The agency said Ahmadinejad made the comments in a telephone call to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Lebanon held responsible
Israel says it holds Lebanon responsible for Hezbollah's abduction of two soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser, 31 and Eldad Regev, 26. The Lebanese government insisted it had no prior knowledge of the move and did not condone it — and even withdrew its ambassador to the U.S. after he made comments seemingly in support of the guerrillas.
Hezbollah fighters operate with almost total autonomy in southern Lebanon, and the government has no control over their actions. But the government has long resisted international pressure to disarm the group. Any attempt to disarm Hezbollah by force could lead to sectarian conflict.
With Beirut’s international airport closed after Israeli bombs ripped apart its runway, many tourists were trapped while others drove over the mountains to Syria — though Israeli warplanes struck the highway linking Beirut to the Syrian capital of Damascus early Friday, closing the country's main artery and further isolating Lebanon from the outside world.
Iran: Israel ‘talking absurdities’
Beirut residents stayed indoors, leaving the streets of the capital largely empty. Others packed supermarkets to stock up on goods. Long lines formed on gas stations, with many quickly running out of gas.
Israel said its attacks were to prevent the movement of the captured soldiers and hamper Hezbollah’s military capacity. It said it had information Hezbollah was trying to take the two soldiers to its ally, Iran.
“We have concerns that they could be taken out of Lebanon to Iran. Those concerns have a basis,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev. He did not disclose the source of his information.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry denied the allegations. “I strongly deny such reports,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said. “Because of its desperation and increasing isolation in the world and because of the tension and crisis created inside Israel, it is now talking absurdities.”
Israel threatens ‘a heavy price’
Fears mounted among Arab and European governments that violence in Lebanon could spiral out of control in a volatile region already torn by conflicts in Iraq and in Gaza. Israel launched an offensive in Gaza against Hamas, whose fighters are holding another Israeli soldier captured two weeks ago.
Hezbollah’s rocket attack on the port city of Haifa was its deepest such strike into northern Israel yet. No injuries were reported in Haifa, home to 270,000 residents and a major oil refinery 30 miles south of the border. Still, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Daniel Ayalon, called the attack “a major, major escalation.”
“Those who fire into such a densely populated area will pay a heavy price,” said David Baker, an official in the Israeli prime minister’s office.
Hezbollah’s deputy leader denied its fighters fired on Haifa, but Israel blamed the group, which had warned earlier in the day it would strike the city if Beirut were targeted. Israeli officials said it was a Katyusha rocket launched from southern Lebanon. Witnesses also confirmed that a rocket hit the city.
The militants also fired rockets at four other northern Israeli towns, killing a 40-year-old woman on her balcony in Nahariya and a man in Safad.
Soon after the Haifa attack, Israeli helicopter gunships raked fuel depots at Beirut’s seaside airport with machine guns and missiles.
The tanks exploded, sending gigantic flames into the night sky just outside Beirut. Earlier in the day, warplanes shut down the airport with strikes that pounded craters into all three of its runways, and Israeli warships sealed Lebanon’s ports.
‘It’s a massacre’
By evening, strikes in Hezbollah’s stronghold in Beirut’s southern neighborhoods appeared imminent. After nightfall Israeli planes dropped leaflets in south Beirut warning residents to avoid areas where Hezbollah operates.
Among the Lebanese dead were a family of 10 and another family of seven, killed when strikes hit their homes in the southern village of Dweir.
“It’s a massacre,” said Abu Talal, a 48-year-old resident who joined scores of Hezbollah supporters and townspeople at the funeral of Shiite cleric Sheik Adel Akkash, who was killed along with his wife and eight children, ages 3 months to 15 years. “This is the (Israeli) arrogance. The raids aim to terrorize us, but morale is high.”
The last time Israeli strikes targeted Beirut was in 2000, when warplanes hit a power station in the hills above the city after a Hezbollah attack killed Israeli soldiers. Israel has not hit Beirut’s airport since its 1982 invasion of Lebanon and occupation of the capital.