- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 20, 2006

KIBBUTZ HANITA, Israel — Israeli soldiers raided Hezbollah positions in southern Lebanon, suffering losses for a second day yesterday, while warning Lebanese residents to “immediately” evacuate a 20-mile-wide stretch along the border.

Kibbutz Hanita is an Israeli outpost on the border with Lebanon.

Shrugging off the lsraeli losses, Defense Minister Amir Peretz stressed Israel’s willingness to conduct large-scale ground operations in the region, an area it occupied for 18 years until its unilateral withdrawal in 2000.

In the air, Israel continued to pound Beirut’s southern suburbs and Hezbollah positions in the eastern Bekaa Valley. However Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah emerged unscathed and defiant after Israel dropped 23 tons of explosives on what it said was a bunker containing the Islamic militia’s leadership.

International condemnation of the Israeli activity mounted, with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan saying the “hostilities must stop” and condemning Israel’s “excessive use of force.”

But the United States has not joined the U.N. call.

In Beirut, Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora said yesterday that there was no apparent political settlement to end hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah, and accused the United States of encouraging Israel’s offensive in Lebanon.

“The United States is allowing Israel to pursue its aggression,” he told Agence France-Presse.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice traveled to New York yesterday for a dinner meeting with Mr. Annan and European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

Residents of this border farm cooperative listened to distant thumps of munitions and watched smoke rise yesterday as Hezbollah militants in at least two locations battled Israeli forces trying to destroy their bunkers and lookout posts.

Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television said three Israeli soldiers were killed and 10 wounded in one engagement, while Israel acknowledged only unspecified casualties.

Hezbollah claimed to have destroyed two tanks in a clash near Kibbutz Avivim, about 30 miles east of here. Israel said one soldier was seriously injured when a missile hit a tank.

Early today, Israel Army Radio reported that two Apache helicopters had collided near the Lebanese border.

Army Radio said the two U.S.-made Apache helicopters crashed last night on a road near Ramat Naftali, six miles from the border where Israeli forces and Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas have been fighting for nine days.

A witness interviewed by the radio described the casualties as being inside the wreckage of the aircraft, each of which carry a two-person crew.

“It’s scary, but everything is going over our heads, and nothing is landing,” said Michal Porat, a 36-year-old resident of Hanita who said her greatest fear is for the Israeli soldiers who patrol outside their kibbutz. “I have no problem here. I’m only thinking of the soldiers,” she said.

Two Israeli soldiers were reported killed in southern Lebanon in a similar raid a day earlier, highlighting the risks of fighting in the hilly terrain, pockmarked with bunkers and potential ambush sites. But Mr. Peretz said yesterday that Israel would not flinch.

“We don’t plan to reoccupy Lebanon, but if it’s necessary to carry out an operation that will prove decisive, we won’t hesitate,” he said. “If they are hitting us from inside Lebanese territory, we will do everything necessary.”

Warnings broadcast into the area yesterday warned residents living south of the Litani River — which runs almost 20 miles north of the border — to “leave their areas immediately for their own safety.”

Speculation about a ground campaign was fed by the seeming resilience of Hezbollah despite nine days of bombing and missile attacks that have killed more than 300 Lebanese, most of them civilians.

“I can confirm without exaggerating or using psychological warfare that we have not been harmed,” Sheik Nasrallah said of the group’s leadership, brushing off Israeli assertions of having struck a bunker while the leaders were meeting.

He also said on Al Jazeera that Hezbollah would never release two Israeli soldiers it is holding, even “if the whole universe comes [against us],” except as part of a prisoner exchange.

In the Gaza Strip, Israel’s other front, fighting continued yesterday. Hamas militants seized an Israeli soldier June 25, setting the crisis in motion. Israeli forces said they killed 15 persons and wounded six during an operation in the Mughazi refugee camp, after having killed nine persons the day before.

Today, Israeli tanks and troops withdrew from the refugee camp. But the Israeli forces were massing on the border ahead of a possible new incursion against the nearby Bureij refugee camp, a stronghold of militants from the governing Islamist faction Hamas.

Residents of Kibbutz Hanita, situated on a mountain overlooking the hazy blue Mediterranean, can trace the route of the Israeli-Lebanese borderline eastward along the hilltop ridge from the large antennas at Rosh Hanikrah to a fenced-off compound used by United Nations troops and the remains of a Hezbollah position barely visible after it was leveled from the air last week.

But that hasn’t put 25-year-old resident Oz Tzemach’s mind at ease.

“I feel Hezbollah is still here. It is difficult to tell the difference between the situation now and two weeks ago,” he said

“I don’t know to what degree their firing ability has been hurt. We don’t know how far away they are. My hunch is that it could be two miles away, it could be 10 miles away.”

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