Monday, 17 July 2006

Hezbollah makes its deadliest strike

Police and religious rescue workers in Haifa, Israel, tended to those killed in a Hezbollah rocket attack. (Oded Balilty/ Associated Press)

BOSTON GLOBE | July 17, 2006

By Anne Barnard and Matthew Kalman, Globe Staff and Globe Correspondent

HAIFA, Israel -- A Hezbollah rocket struck a railway repair shed in the city yesterday, killing eight engineers and wounding 30 people in the deadliest blow to Israel in five days of fighting with the Lebanese-based militant group.

Israeli airstrikes across Lebanon yesterday and early today killed at least 24 people, including eight Lebanese soldiers at a radar station in the north of the country.

As the leaders of the Group of Eight industrial nations warned that the fighting could ``provoke a wider conflict," Israeli officials ratcheted up their rhetoric against Syria, declaring that some of the 30 rockets that hit Haifa yesterday were Syrian-made, of a type that was exported to Lebanon in 2001. Syrian officials denied the accusation.

Last night, Hezbollah rockets fired from Lebanon penetrated farther than ever into Israel, hitting Afula, 33 miles south of border, and landing on the outskirts of Nazareth. Israeli officials said Hezbollah possessed rockets that could fly more than 40 miles and warned residents of Tel Aviv, the country's metropolitan hub about 70 miles from the border, to be alert.

The blast in Haifa, Israel's third-largest city, brought the Israeli death toll to at least 24, half of them civilians. Israeli airstrikes have killed at least 148 people in Lebanon, most of them civilians.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared that Israel ``will not return to the status quo" that existed before Hezbollah guerrillas sparked the crisis by launching a cross-border raid Wednesday, capturing two Israeli soldiers and killing three.

Since 2000, when Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon after an 18-year occupation, Hezbollah outposts overlooked Israeli towns on the border and Hezbollah forces operated freely in the Lebanese south, outside government control.

``The situation was intolerable," Olmert told his Cabinet at a weekly meeting, adding that the fighting would not stop until the threat is removed.

Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, touring the shrapnel-scarred scene of the deadly Haifa blast, went further, saying, ``We must continue to attack Hezbollah until its infrastructure, which has been built up over the years in the heart of Beirut, is wiped out."

Defense Minister Amir Peretz declared that Israel would achieve its goals without sending ground troops into Lebanon. The prospect of a ground war troubles many Israelis after the previous Lebanese war, which is often described as Israel's Vietnam and ended when domestic opposition forced the pullout six years ago.

A senior military official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, said the mission could stop short of eradicating the militant group, estimated to have about 6,000 fighters.

``I'll be modest -- we will not eliminate Hezbollah in a week or two," he said. ``We just need to weaken it enough so the Lebanese government can deal with them" and implement United Nations Resolution 1559.

That measure calls for the government to assert control over the whole country -- including deploying along the border with Israel -- and disarm militias.

Hezbollah enjoys the support of Shi'ite Muslims while the weak army is backed by a coalition of Christians and moderate Sunnis opposed to Syrian influence. Since the bloody Lebanese civil war ended in 1990, Lebanon has operated with a fragile consensus government that avoids confrontation.

Haifa, a city of 220,000 that slopes down Mount Carmel to the Mediterranean Sea, was reduced to a ghost town yesterday.

The missile left a large hole in the roof over the railway sidings. It hit a platform between the trains, scattering bits of metal and ball bearings everywhere that left small holes and shattered windows on the train cars. Pools of blood covered the floor.

At the scene, Mofaz, a former military chief of staff, said the missile that hit the shed was provided to Hezbollah by Syria, an accusation laid out in more detail by a senior military officer who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.

The rockets that hit Haifa included 122mm Katyusha rockets, of which Hezbollah has 12,000 and has fired 800 in the last five days, the officer said. But they also included at least one Fajr rocket, made in Iran, and one 220mm rocket made in Syria, he said.

Imad Moustapha, the Syrian ambassador to the United States, told CNN, ``Syria does not provide military training or military equipment to Hezbollah in Lebanon."

Israel Air Force Brigadier General Yohanan Locker said Israel would continue to target Hezbollah missile launchers placed on the roofs of residential buildings.

At the briefing, the senior Israeli officer said the military has hit four Fajr launchers in south Lebanon. He said that on Thursday, Israel attacked more than 40 launchers, most in civilian houses.

In Haifa, Avraham El-Hayani, an air-conditioning engineer for Israel Railways, said he survived the attack because he was working inside one of the train cars when the rocket hit, killing workers on the platform.

``I heard a huge explosion. There was a flash of bright blue light and then silence. Then I heard water and I realized the automatic sprinklers had come on," he said while recovering from shock at Rambam Hospital.

After a few seconds, Hayani said, he recovered and tried to give first aid, as two more rockets crashed down outside.

``My friends had blood pouring from wounds all over their body," he said. ``Their limbs were smashed. It was horrible."

Police ordered Haifa residents to stay indoors, fearing further attacks. The streets of the bustling port city emptied within minutes.

Banks, shopping centers, and restaurants closed, and Haifa's two universities canceled all classes and exams. Cinemas and theaters shut their doors and a dance festival planned for last night was canceled. Police said all factories in northern Israel were shut.

The Baguette Bar-Café on HaMeginim Street downtown was one of the few businesses open.

``I want to work. I'm scared, but I have to support my family," said proprietor Nadr Shehadeh, a Christian Arab who said he was proud to live in this mixed Jewish-Arab city.

``No one, neither Israel nor Hezbollah, is doing the right thing, but most people here support the Israeli government," Shehadeh said. ``I didn't serve in the army, but I feel that by staying open I'm serving the people of this city, Jew and Arab alike."

Matthew Kalman reported from Haifa, Anne Barnard from Jerusalem, and Globe correspondent Alon Tuval from Tel Aviv.

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