Hezbollah’s leader on Saturday threatened more attacks on central Israeli cities, a day after guerrillas for the first time fired a rocket powerful enough to reach the outskirts of Tel Aviv.
Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, speaking on Hezbollah’s TV station, said he supported Lebanon’s efforts to negotiate a peace deal, but suggested tentative promises for the guerrillas to disarm would be off if conditions aren’t met.
Nasrallah also dismissed a new diplomatic effort by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to bring about cease-fire, saying the United States wants fighting to continue. His statement came as Rice arrived in the Mideast to visit Israel; a possible Lebanon stop has not been announced.
The bearded Shiite Muslim cleric, wearing his trademark black headdress, insisted Hezbollah fighters were winning the battle with Israel, now in its 18th day. Israel has not made a “single military accomplishment” in its offensive on Lebanon, he said, speaking on the group’s Al-Manar television.
He claimed Israel suffered a “serious defeat” in ground fighting around a Lebanese border town after Israeli troops pulled back Saturday afternoon. Israel said they left Bint Jbail because they accomplished their mission of wearing down Hezbollah fighters after a week of heavy battles.
Only the beginning, sheik says
On Friday, a Hezbollah rocket hit outside the Israeli town of Afula, the farthest strike yet. Hezbollah said it targeted an Israeli military base, but the rockets fell in an empty field.
“The bombardment of Afula and its military base is the beginning ..., Nasrallah said. “Many cities in the center (of Israel) will be targeted in the ‘beyond Haifa’ stage if the savage aggression continues on our country, people and villages.”
He was referring to his earlier threat to attack deeper into Israel than Haifa, which has been hit repeatedly in the recent conflict.
Nasrallah said Hezbollah was willing to cooperate with the Lebanese government. He did not mention a Lebanese peace plan calling for guerrilla disarmament specifically, but suggested Hezbollah would not disarm if the government backs away from conditions outlined in its proposal.
Most notably, the proposals demand a prisoner swap with Israel and the resolution of Lebanese claims on border land that Israel controls. Israel has ruled out a prisoner swap but has not said whether it would be willing to reconsider its hold on the Chebaa farms area.
The speech was Nasrallah’s fourth taped TV appearance since fighting began, sparked by Hezbollah’s capture of two Israeli soldiers July 12.
In Beirut, drivers stopped their cars and pedestrians stood in front of shops and cafes to watch the address. Fireworks erupted in the southern neighborhoods of Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold, after Nasrallah finished.
His speech was picked up live by Israel TV’s Channel 2, with instant translation into Hebrew.
Pullout from key border town
Earlier Saturday, Israeli troops pulled back from a key Lebanese border town, Bint Jbail, where it battled Hezbollah for a week.
The battle for Bint Jbail has symbolized Israel’s difficulty in pushing guerrillas back from the border, whether by air bombardment or ground assault. Hezbollah on Friday escalated its cross-border attacks, firing longer-range missiles deeper into Israel than ever before.
Lebanese civilians have born the brunt of the Israeli onslaught.
A woman and her children were crushed in their home by a strike outside the market town of Nabatiyeh, which also killed a man in a nearby house, Lebanese security officials said. In another southern town, six bodies were dug from the rubble of a house destroyed by a strike Friday, they said.
Israel’s retaliation has spiraled into an all-out attempt to end the guerrillas’ domination of south Lebanon. The fighting has killed hundreds, driven some 750,000 Lebanese from their homes, caused a humanitarian crisis — and brought some of the heaviest bombardment of Israel by rocket fire.
The Lebanese plan which Hezbollah signed on to calls for an international force in the south and the eventual disarming of the guerrillas. It falls short Israeli and U.S. demands, however, and there was skepticism Hezbollah would fully agree to an international force once the details are worked out.
Israeli Cabinet minister Avi Dichter said on Israel radio Saturday that it was unacceptable for Lebanon’s government “to hide behind the claim that a terror organization is operating on their ground and they cannot stop it.” He said Israel holds the government fully accountable for Hezbollah actions, and that “Lebanon is paying the full price these days.”
Israeli troops launched their assault on Bint Jbail on July 23, entering some houses in heavy fighting.
Eighteen soldiers were killed in the battle — nine of them in Hezbollah ambushes Wednesday, the Israeli military’s worst one-day loss of the campaign. On Friday, the army said seven of soldiers were wounded, one seriously, when Hezbollah attacked a ridge overlooking Bint Jbail and the nearby village of Maroun al-Ras.
On Saturday, military officials said the operation never intended to fully capture the town, but just to wear down Hezbollah forces.
50 guerilla deaths this week
Israel radio cited an unnamed high-ranking officer as saying 50 guerrillas were killed in the week of fighting and hundreds wounded, most of them from a special Hezbollah unit. Hezbollah has acknowledge the deaths of only 35 fighters in the entire campaign.
The officer also said Israeli soldiers entered a Hezbollah headquarters in Bint Jbail on Friday and seized weapons, maps and communications equipment.
Whatever Israel’s intention, its the pull back from Bint Jbail could provide a propaganda boost for Hezbollah, whose radio and television have lauded guerrillas for their prowess and depicted them as slowing down the Israeli war machine.
Meanwhile, Israeli air raids destroyed the bridge over the Orontes river in the eastern Bekaa Valley and were targeting bridges in the south.
At least 458 Lebanese have been killed in the fighting, that broke out July 12 after Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and killed one in a cross-border raid. The figure is based on a count Friday from the Health Ministry, based on the number of bodies in hospitals, plus Saturday’s deaths outside Natabiyeh and Ain Arab. Some estimates range as high as 600 dead.
Thirty-three Israeli soldiers have died in fighting, and Hezbollah rocket attacks on northern Israel have killed 19 civilians, the Israeli army said. Israeli troops have killed about 200 Hezbollah guerrillas, the army said. Hezbollah has reported only 35 losses.
The United States, backed by Britain, has adopted a diplomatic stance not embraced by most allies, insisting that any cease-fire must come with conditions to address long-standing regional disputes. Many Europeans and Arab countries are increasing the pressure for an immediate cease-fire first.
There is general agreement an international force is needed in the south to end Hezbollah’s decade-long free reign. Details about the force and its mandate are not resolved, but could be at the United Nations on Monday during a meeting called by President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Humanitarian aid continued to arrive by sea and by air, but was piling up in Beirut on Saturday. Because aid convoys fear Israeli bombardment, only a trickle has reached the war zone in south Lebanon, where tens of thousands of Lebanese are stranded with dwindling supplies of medicine, food, water and fuel.
Israeli strikes have come within hundreds of yards of the few truck convoys making their way south this week — though no trucks have been hit so far — said officials from the international Red Cross, U.N. and other agencies. Israel has promised safe passage for aid but on a convoy-by-convoy basis; often 72-hour notice is required, slowing the process, officials said.
Israel on Saturday rejected a U.N. request for a three-day cease-fire to get in supplies and allow civilians to leave the war zone.
Avi Pazner, an Israeli government spokesman, blamed Hezbollah for blocking aid convoys. But the top U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Lebanon, Mona Hammam, said convoys so far had encountered “no problems” from Hezbollah.