Barrages reach further into Israel

By Dan Baron, JTA

HAIFA, Israel — Israel’s war with Hezbollah has not abated since it began last week, with casualties and damage mounting on both sides.

The fighting, which began after Hezbollah killed eight Israeli soldiers and kidnapped two others last week in a cross-border raid, has killed more than 180 Lebanese and 24 Israelis.

Hezbollah continued its rocket barrage Monday, hitting Haifa, Tiberias and Safed, as well as a number of Western Galilee villages and the southern Golan Heights. A Haifa building was struck by a Katyusha, wounding several people.

Hezbollah rockets kept extending their reach, hitting Nazareth, Afula and the Jezreel Valley on Monday night. Israel’s air force hit Lebanese targets Monday afternoon, killing 17.

This followed a deadly Hezbollah attack Sunday, when mid-range rockets fired by the Lebanese militia killed eight people and wounded 17 in Haifa, the bloodiest ballistic attack on the Jewish state in memory.

Trying to prevent Hezbollah from succeeding in its next launch, Israeli forces stepped up their shelling of southern Lebanon, razing former militia outposts, homes that had harbored gunmen and suspected weapons arsenals.

“This is Hezbollah’s criminal war against Israel and its residents,” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his Cabinet on Sunday.

“The State of Israel cannot countenance this,” he said. “Nothing will deter us, whatever far-reaching ramifications regarding our relations on the northern border and in the region there may be.”

World leaders, meeting at the G-8 summit in Russia, weighed in Sunday. In a statement, the leaders expressed concern about the crisis, “particularly the rising civilian casualties on all sides and the damage to infrastructure.”

The statement called for the release of Israeli soldiers kidnapped and taken to Lebanon and the Gaza Strip and called for an end to Lebanese and Palestinian shelling of Israeli territory. It also called on Israel to exercise restraint in Lebanon and to withdraw its forces from Gaza.

President Bush reiterated Sunday that Israel has a right to defend itself.

“Our message to Israel is defend yourself but be mindful of the consequences, so we are urging restraint,” Bush said.

In remarks overheard Monday as the summit wrapped up, Bush used an expletive to tell British Prime Minister Tony Blair that the United Nations should “get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop” its attacks.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki suggested Monday, after meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa, that a cease-fire followed by a prisoner swap would be an “acceptable and fair” way to resolve the conflict.

The Syria- and Iran-backed Hezbollah has said it will release the captured Israeli soldiers only in a prisoner exchange, but Olmert has ruled out any deal with the terrorist group.

The Lebanese government, which had failed to disarm Hezbollah in accordance with U.N resolutions and which had remained quiet after the Shi’ite militia’s initial border raid last week, began ratcheting up the rhetoric over the weekend.

With his country’s infrastructure largely in ruins and refugees streaming up from the south, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora declared Lebanon a “disaster zone” and appealed for the international community to impose a truce. But an emergency U.N. Security Council session convened to discuss the crisis Saturday rejected the calls following U.S. objections.

A bilateral solution appeared possible Sunday, after the Lebanese government said Siniora had received terms for a cease-fire from Olmert.

According to Beirut, Olmert, with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi serving as his go-between, demanded that Israel’s two abducted soldiers be returned and that Hezbollah withdraw to the Litani River, some 25 miles from the Lebanese-Israeli border.

“We will never again resign ourselves to Hezbollah terrorists straddling our northern border,” Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said during a visit to Haifa. “If Lebanon wants to deploy its army along the frontier, then that’s fine.”

Noting the jitters in northern Israel over some 450 rocket landings, Peretz said there was no turning back.

“All over the country, I am hearing people tell me: If we must launch this campaign, then let’s finish the job,” he said.

On Saturday, Israel for the first time hit central Beirut, but most of its attacks were focused on the country’s southern cities and the eastern city of Baalbek, both Hezbollah strongholds.

On the Palestinian front, where Israeli forces have been trying to retrieve a soldier captured June 25 and end rocket fire on Israeli cities and towns, Israeli forces moved back into the northern Gaza Strip early Sunday, clashing with Palestinian gunmen. Two Palestinians were killed.

In Lebanon, Siniora criticized Hezbollah without naming the group, which is part of the government.

“The government alone has the legitimate right to decide on matters of peace and war,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion. Lebanon “cannot rise and get back on its feet if its government is the last to know” about planned attacks.

Israeli officials have said the current military operation is intended not just to retrieve the captured soldiers but to push Hezbollah back from the border and uproot the thousands of missiles that, with Iranian help, the terrorist group has installed in southern Lebanon and trained on Israeli cities.

With missiles raining down, tens of thousands of residents of northern Israel hid in shelters or fled. A warning system that will give residents one minute to get to shelters before a rocket hits was activated Sunday in Haifa.

Israeli officials warned that Hezbollah may have missiles in its arsenal capable of reaching as far south as Tel Aviv.