- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 12, 2006

NABATIYA, Lebanon — Hezbollah fighters seized two Israeli soldiers and killed three others in a raid in northern Israel yesterday that effectively opened a second front for the Israeli military, already engaged in a 17-day-old operation to free a soldier held by Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert decried the raid as an “act of war” and Israeli Defense Forces responded by sending ground troops into Lebanon for the first time since Israel ended an 18-year occupation in 2000.

Israeli forces backed up the incursion with air and artillery strikes against bridges and other infrastructure, designed to hamper movement on the ground and make it harder to move the two soldiers. Naval gunboats also participated.

The ground troops were met with fierce resistance from Hezbollah, a militant Islamist group backed by Iran and Syria that holds seats in the Lebanese parliament and a single Cabinet post.

Israel announced that five soldiers were killed in the fighting, most of them when a tank hit a land mine. Hezbollah did not announce casualties of its own, but Lebanese security officials told news agencies that at least two civilians were killed in an air strike.

Israel also bombed a house in the Gaza Strip where leaders of Hamas’ military wing were meeting. The strike badly wounded Mohammed Deif, who has topped Israel’s most-wanted list for a decade, and wounded other Hamas leaders while killing a man, his wife and seven children aged 4 to 18, the Associated Press reported.

The Israeli Cabinet, meeting in the wake of the military’s highest daily death toll in four years, decided to continue the army operation and to call on the international community to disarm Hezbollah, participants at the meeting told the Associated Press.

Israel demanded that the Lebanese government act to win the release of the hostages, saying it held the Beirut administration responsible for the safety of the two soldiers. Israel’s response “will be restrained, but very, very, very painful,” Mr. Olmert said.

Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz warned Beirut that the Israeli military will target infrastructure in the coming days and “turn back the clock in Lebanon by 20 years” if the soldiers are not returned, Israeli TV reported.

He appeared to be referring to the 1982 invasion of Lebanon in which tens of thousands of people lost their lives.

The Bush administration was much slower to criticize the relatively pro-American Lebanese government, which replaced a pro-Syrian administration in a “Cedar Revolution” last year. The White House put the blame instead on Hezbollah’s main sponsors, Iran and Syria.

The Lebanese Cabinet, which includes a Hezbollah member, went into an emergency meeting last night, along with President Emile Lahoud and military commanders. But few think the government can control Hezbollah, whose military arm is considered stronger than the Lebanese military.

Hezbollah’s leader took responsibility for the operation and called for a prisoner swap along the lines of the one demanded by Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip in exchange for the safe return of an IDF corporal captured 17 days ago outside the Rafah refugee camp in Gaza.

The two soldiers are “in a safe and very far place,” Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said at a press conference in Beirut. “No military operation will return them. The prisoners will not be returned except through one way — indirect negotiations and a trade.”a

A spokesman for Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh told The Washington Times in Gaza that the two groups had not coordinated their actions, but welcomed the action as “a delightful development.”

“We congratulate our brothers in Hezbollah,” said Ghazi Hamad.

A Hamas spokesman in Lebanon said it was “early” to talk about details of an exchange, “but no doubt the operation carried out by Hezbollah today will strengthen our demands to exchange the captives,” the AP reported.

The mood in Beirut and along the coastal highway that links the capital to the southern border was anxious as Hezbollah and the IDF squared off for what could be their toughest encounter in six years.

Southbound traffic was almost nonexistent, while taxis full of civilians and their belongings headed north away from the expected battleground. Israeli warplanes buzzed overhead, occasionally dropping bombs on suspected Hezbollah targets.

One bomb struck near a vehicle used by NewTV, an anti-Syrian television station, wounding three journalists in the town of Marjayoun, close to the fighting.

Many Lebanese responded with grave concern — especially those old enough to remember the 1982 invasion and the civil war from 1975 to 1990. But Hezbollah supporters and many Palestinian refugees celebrated what they saw as a successful military operation.

Just outside the southern town of Nabatiya, teenage brothers Abbas and Hassan distributed candy and fruit juice to residents as they fled the fighting.

Some drivers simply hurried past on their way toward Beirut, but others stopped to take candy and share congratulations with the young Hezbollah supporters.

Closer to Beirut, the Hezbollah-dominated southern suburbs and adjacent Palestinian refugee camps crackled with celebratory gunfire, mixed with the sound of Lebanese Army positions firing anti-aircraft weapons at Israeli jets.

Stephen Dinan in Washington and Paul Martin in Gaza contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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