Israel and Hezbollah fought bloody ground battles and exchanged fierce airstrikes Friday — including bombing raids that severed Lebanon’s last major supply link with Syria and the outside world, and the guerrillas’ deepest rocket strike inside Israel to date.
After days of desultory diplomacy, Washington said it was near agreement with France on a U.N. cease-fire resolution, possibly by early next week. But Israel and Hezbollah showed no signs of holding their fire.
Israeli aircraft on a mission to destroy weapons caches hit a refrigerated warehouse where farm workers were loading fruit, killing at least 28 near the Lebanon-Syria border. And three Hezbollah rockets landed near Hadera, 50 miles south of the Israel-Lebanon border; 188 rockets rained on other Israeli towns, killing four civilians, three of them Arabs.
Given the determination of both Hezbollah and Israel to look victorious when the conflict finally ends, the worst of the fighting may still lie ahead with the militant Shiite guerrilla fighters perhaps making good on their threat to rocket Tel Aviv and Israel launching an all-out ground offensive, pushing northward to the Litani River.
Israeli military officials said Friday they completed the first phase of the offensive, securing a 4-mile buffer zone in south Lebanon, though pockets of Hezbollah resistance remained.
‘The whole mission’
Defense Minister Amir Peretz has told top army officers to begin preparing for a push to the Litani, about 20 miles north of the border — a move that would require Cabinet approval. Peretz vowed his forces would complete “the whole mission” of driving guerrilla fighters out of missile range, a defiant response to the Hezbollah leader’s threat to launch missiles into Israel’s largest city.
Israeli airstrikes destroyed four key bridges after dawn, severing Beirut’s final major connection to Syria and raising the threat of severe shortages of food, gasoline and medicines within days.
The attack in the Christian heartland just north of Beirut killed four civilians and a Lebanese soldier.
Israel said it targeted the bridges to stop the flow of weapons to Hezbollah from Iran through Syria.
Those weapons include not only rockets, but sophisticated anti-tank missiles said to be responsible for most of the 44 Israeli soldiers killed in more than three weeks of fighting.
However, aid workers said the destroyed highway was a vital conduit for much-needed food and supplies, with Christiane Berthiaume of the World Food Program calling it Lebanon’s “umbilical cord.”
“This (road) has been the only way for us to bring in aid. We really need to find other ways to bring relief in,” she said in Geneva, Switzerland.
More than 50 buried in rubble
Israeli airstrikes flattened two southern Lebanese houses Friday and more than 50 people were buried in the rubble, security officials and the state news agency said. Israel denied attacking the villages. The number of dead was not immediately known.
One attack flattened a building in Aita al-Shaab, a mile inside Lebanon, Lebanon’s National News Agency reported. A large number of civilians were inside at the time, but the exact number was unknown, it said.
Lebanese security officials said the number of occupants was around 50, and that they were still buried in the rubble there.
Warplanes also hit Taibeh, about 3 miles from the Israeli border, destroying a house where 17 people had taken refuge, the news agency reported. It said an unknown number of people were killed, and several others were wounded.
But Israeli army spokesman Capt. Jacob Dallal said the Israeli air force had not hit the two areas. “The air force had no targets in those villages,” he said.
The Lebanese Red Cross was unable to reach the area, security officials said.
The two border villages are at the heart of south Lebanon’s war zone, with fierce ground battles being waged in and around them — making it difficult for rescuers or reporters to document any attacks.
Medicines, supplies running low
Hospitals were in danger of closing soon because medicines, hospital supplies and fuel for generators was fast running out. Staples like milk, rice and sugar were growing short across the country. Lines at Beirut filling stations stretch longer by the day.
Dr. George Tomey, acting president of the American University of Beirut, said its Medical Center, one of the prime and best known medical facilities in the Middle East, will stop receiving new patients as of Monday, except for emergency cases.
Dr. Ghassan Hammoud, who runs a 320-bed hospital packed with war wounded in the southern port city of Sidon, said he may have to shut down within 10 days.
On the 24th day of the conflict, the State Department said Friday that the United States and France were nearing completion of a U.N. resolution designed to halt the fighting in Lebanon and to set out principles for a lasting cease-fire.
“We are very close to a final draft with the French on a text,” the department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
Death to Israel, America
In a sign of billowing support for Hezbollah’s Shiite fighters across the Arab world, tens of thousands of Shiite Muslims protested in Baghdad’s Sadr City slum, chanting “Death to Israel, Death to America,” the biggest rally in support of the militant Shiite organization since the fighting began.
As of Friday the Associated Press count showed at least 559 Lebanese have been killed, including 482 civilians confirmed dead by the Health Ministry, 27 Lebanese soldiers and at least 50 Hezbollah guerrillas.
Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said that 1 million people — or about a quarter of Lebanon’s population — have fled the fighting. Others estimate some 800,000 Lebanese have been made refugees.
Since the fighting started, 74 Israelis have been killed, 44 soldiers and 30 civilians. More than 300,000 Israelis have fled their homes in the north, Israeli officials said.
Farm laborers killed
Friday’s attack on the refrigerated warehouse in Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa Valley killed at least 28 farm laborers as they loaded peaches and apples onto trucks bound for the Syrian market, Lebanese security and hospital officials said. Syria’s official news agency, SANA, reported that 33 people were killed in the raid, including 23 Syrian workers.
Dallal said the army suspected the warehouse was used for arms because it tracked a truck it believed was carrying weapons that went into the warehouse from the Syrian side. He said the truck stayed inside for about 90 minutes before returning to Syria.
Israel contends that Hezbollah gets almost all of its weaponry from Syria and by extension Iran. That’s why it says cutting off the supply chain is essential — and why fighting Hezbollah after it has spent six years building up its arsenal is proving so painful to Israel.
Death toll mounts
On Friday, the army confirmed a Hezbollah anti-tank missile killed three soldiers and wounded two others in southeastern Lebanon.
In the last two days alone, these missiles have killed seven soldiers and damaged three Israeli-made Merkava tanks — mountains of steel that are vaunted as symbols of Israel’s military might, the army said. It said Hezbollah has fired Russian-made Metis-M anti-tank missiles and owns European-made Milan missiles.
Hezbollah’s sophisticated anti-tank missiles are perhaps the guerrilla group’s deadliest weapon in Lebanon fighting, with their ability to pierce Israel’s most advanced tanks. Experts say this is further evidence that Israel is facing a well-equipped army in this war, not a ragtag militia.