- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 19, 2006

12:52 p.m.

KIBBUTZ HANITA, Israel — Israeli soldiers and Hezbollah militiamen fought on the ground for the second consecutive day today, while Israel continued air strikes across Lebanon that killed as many as 70 Lebanese yesterday, the highest daily death toll to date.

An Israeli air strike last night targeted a bunker thought to be holding Hezbollah leaders in southern Beirut, although Hezbollah said it hit a mosque. Earlier yesterday, two children were killed and 18 persons injured by a Hezbollah rocket attack on Nazareth, the childhood home of Jesus.

U.S. officials have ruled out any early intervention to stop the fighting, saying a cease-fire, when it comes, must address the root causes of the conflict — a reference to Hezbollah attacks on Israel and support for the group from Iran and Syria. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan today told the Security Council the “hostilities must stop” and condemned Israel’s “excessive use of force” against Lebanon.

Israeli forces yesterday and today have encountered tough resistance during cross-border forays into southern Lebanon aimed at destroying Hezbollah positions, including tunnels and weapons caches, that could be used by the Islamist militants for future attacks.

Israeli tanks, infantry and combat engineers took part in yesterday’s battle near the coastal border town of Naqoura, which lasted several hours and killed two on each side while leaving nine Israelis wounded.

Smoke and the sound of explosions from at least two battles today could be seen and heard from this Israeli community hard on the Lebanon border. Wire agencies said that three Israelis were wounded in one battle and that one Israeli was seriously wounded in another when a Hezbollah missile hit a tank.

Two Israeli soldiers and two Hezbollah gunmen were reported killed in the encounter, which also wounded nine Israelis. It was the first ground combat since five Israelis were killed pursuing the kidnappers of two Israeli soldiers on July 12, the trigger incident for the fighting.

Israeli air strikes today targeted Beirut’s southern suburbs and Hezbollah positions in the eastern Bekaa Valley. Associated Press reported as many as 70 Lebanese killed in yesterday’s air strikes, the most in any day since fighting began July 12.

At least 17 Lebanese, including several children, were killed and 30 wounded in one strike yesterday that flattened 15 houses in the village of Srifa near Tyre, news agencies reported.

Last night, the Israeli military announced its planes had dropped 23 tons of explosives on a bunker in southern Beirut where Hezbollah leaders were thought to be sheltered. Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the group’s leader, may have been there, the military said. However, Hezbollah said none of its “leaders or members” died in the strike in the Bourj al-Barajneh district.

Thousands of Lebanese residents fled toward Beirut, many flying white flags from their cars and pickup trucks, and Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said half a million people had been displaced.

“Is this what the international community calls self-defense? Is this the price we pay for aspiring to build our democratic institutions?” Mr. Saniora was quoted as saying at a meeting with foreign ambassadors.

Israeli Brig. Gen. Alon Friedman said about half of Hezbollah’s arsenal had been destroyed. “It will take us time to destroy what is left,” the senior army commander said on Israel Army Radio.

On Israel’s southern front, troops killed 13 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank city of Nablus during a campaign mounted against Hamas militants after the seizure of an Israeli soldier more than three weeks ago. Six died after tanks moved into the Mughazi refugee camp in central Gaza and at least three died at a prison where militants apparently were hiding.

A U.N. report said yesterday that the Israeli army has conducted 168 air strikes and fired more than 600 artillery shells into Gaza, compared with 177 homemade rockets fired toward Israel by Hamas militants. About 100 Palestinians, including 30 children, had been killed before yesterday, the report said.

The border battle yesterday near Naqoura demonstrated the risks for Israeli troops in a ground war, which would be much more dangerous than the generally casualty-free fighting of the past week thanks to Israel’s focus on air attacks, an area in which it has overwhelming superiority.

Meanwhile, Israeli television news said commando units have been trying for several days to quietly dismantle the network that allows Hezbollah to collect intelligence.

“This is an operation which is very measured, very local,” Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Dan Gillerman, said on CNN. “This is no way an invasion of Lebanon. This is no way the beginning of any kind of occupation of Lebanon.”

However, many doubt whether Israel can achieve its goal of wearing down Hezbollah and distancing the militia from the border without a ground campaign.

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