Israel Warns Lebanon, Syria to Curb Hizb'Allah
Jerusalem (CNS) - Israel vowed Friday to keep retaliating against Lebanese targets as long as Hizb'Allah forces there continued to attack Israel, signaling that it would hold Lebanon itself - as well as the Syrians, who effectively control the country - responsible for ongoing assaults by the Islamist militiamen.
The warning came after a week of military escalation in the border region culminated overnight in Hizb'Allah firing Katyusha rockets into northern Israel, and Israel launching missile strikes against Hizb'Allah bases and Lebanese power-stations and bridges.
Two Israeli civilians were killed in the northern town of Kiryat Shemona. At least six Lebanese were killed in and near Beirut.
Both Israeli and Hizb'Allah actions violated U.S.-mediated understandings reached in 1996, under which all parties to the conflict agreed not to launch attacks from, or against, civilian areas.
For Israel, it was the most serious civilian loss in the border conflict since 1993. The Israeli bombardments were the first to hit the Lebanese capital in three years.
By midday Friday, residents of Kiryat Shemona were still in their underground bomb-shelters. The town was shut down.
"Before the Sabbath begins, we will allow shops to open for a one-and-a-half hour window, so people can buy food for the Sabbath," Ofer Adar, spokesman for the town's municipality, told CNSNews.com.
He said thousands of residents had been leaving the area to stay with family or friends further south. "By this evening, I don't expect too many people to be left here."
"There is a very bad feeling about the two citizens being killed. This is a sad day for Kiryat Shemona. We are suffering five attacks over the last month. Since I was a small child - and I grew up here - I don't remember such a situation."
Tensions have been increasing in the border region for several days.
The latest series of increasingly deadly tit-for-tat incidents began Thursday afternoon, when Hizb'Allah gunmen attacked an outpost of the Israeli-allied South Lebanese Army in the buffer zone from a nearby village. Returning fire, the SLA troops wounded a Lebanese woman.
The Israeli army spokesman, Brigadier-General Oded Ben-Ami, said in a statement sent to CNSNews.com that Hizb'Allah had subsequently launched "a savage Katyusha attack" against Israeli towns in the border area, injuring five civilians.
The 22,000 residents of Kiryat Shemona were then instructed to take to their bomb-shelters, for the fifth time in as many weeks. A large group began to demonstrate near the town's main street instead, protesting what they called government inaction in the face of repeated provocation.
Even as the protest was underway, a second salvo of Katyusha rockets fell on the town, causing extensive damage, but no injuries.
Around this time, Israeli army chief Shaul Mofoz expressed frustration that the outgoing Netanyahu government was reluctant to retaliate appropriately. In the last two Hizb'Allah attacks on Israeli towns, the government overruling military strategists and chose not to react.
Several hours later, however, Israel launched four waves of counter-attacks, sending fighter planes to attack a power-station serving Beirut, two bridges, and Hizb'Allah camps, Ben-Ami reported.
Early Friday morning, Hizb'Allah rocketed northern Israel again, this time hitting the Kiryat Shemona town hall and killing two workers. A third Israeli was critically injured.
In two final Israeli assaults before dawn on Friday, another power-station in Beirut, and a broadcast station south of the capital, were hit.
Israeli defense officials made it clear Lebanon and Syria, in addition to Hizb'Allah, would bear the brunt of the assaults until the Islamist militia was reined in.
"The IDF will take all necessary action to protect Israel's northern border, and will strike Hizb'Allah and those sources of power supporting the organization," Ben-Ami said.
Major-General Dan Halutz of Israeli military intelligence confirmed the new approach, telling reporters this morning Israel would target "all elements acting, supporting and helping Hizb'Allah to carry out its murderous and inhumane policy."
Halutz said it was hoped "the other side" would take stock, and that the situation would not deteriorate further.
But Lebanese President Emile Lahoud said the attacks would not pressure Lebanon into offering Israel security guarantees.
The Beirut Daily Star said the raids on power-stations plunged the city and other areas into darkness and dampened "hopes for a quick resumption of peace talks."
"With his days in office numbered, it appeared that [Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu was bent on handing over to [Prime Minister-elect Ehud] Barak a regional situation as bloody as that which he inherited in 1996," the paper opined.
Ha'aretz military analyst Ze'ev Schiff commented that Hizb'Allah's "daring is on the rise as it exploits the twilight period between the outgoing and incoming governments in Jerusalem."
State Department spokesman James Foley said the U.S. urged "maximum restraint" on all parties.