Israeli warplanes, helicopter gunships and heavy artillery attacked pro-Iranian and Palestinian guerrilla bases across Lebanon on Sunday in some of the heaviest fighting there in a decade. The guerrillas responded with rocket barrages on Israel's northern towns and farms, and the death toll stood at 18 on both sides of the border.
Sixteen people, including six Syrian soldiers stationed in eastern Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, were killed in the Israeli attacks and more than 32 were wounded, according to preliminary Lebanese figures.
Two Israeli civilians died and 23 more were wounded as guerrillas belonging to the pro-Iranian Hezbollah retaliated by firing more than 150 rockets across the border, hitting an apartment building in the northern town of Kiryat Shemona as well as another settlement.
The fighting continued through the night and increased in intensity at first light today.
Israeli leaders made clear their determination to punish Hezbollah for the steady escalation of its attacks on Israel's forces in southern Lebanon over the past nine months. Seven soldiers have been killed there in July alone.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said Israel is prepared to continue its raids to ensure the security of its settlements along the Lebanese border and, if possible, to break the military and political power of Hezbollah, or Party of God.
"If there is no tranquillity for our people in the (Israeli) north, there will be no tranquillity for all of Lebanon," a haggard-looking Rabin told journalists at a northern command post as Israeli artillery thundered in the distance and more warplanes flew north.
Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak, the Israeli military chief of staff, said after the first day of fighting that the conflict could grow. "We will go through a difficult testing," Barak said, "but at the same time I am convinced we will withstand this and be victorious."
Israel's Cabinet convened in a special session late Sunday to assess the situation and ordered Israel's armed forces to respond to the continuing rocket attacks. Local officials, anticipating more fighting, planned to evacuate children, the elderly and the handicapped from northern areas. More than 150,000 residents had already taken refuge in bomb shelters there.
Rabin said that Hezbollah has been trying to disrupt Israel's negotiations with its Arab neighbors, including Syria, and he told the Cabinet that the region's hopes for peace as well as his country's security required the tough action.
But the ferocity of the Israeli attacks and the deaths of the Syrian soldiers made progress in the peace talks even less likely during Secretary of State Warren Christopher's upcoming visit to the Middle East.
In Singapore, where he is attending a meeting of Southeast Asian countries, Christopher expressed concern about the increased violence, calling it "clearly counterproductive as far as the peace talks are concerned."
Christopher said he had urged all parties to show restraint and added that the fighting only underscores the urgency of moving the long-stalled negotiations forward.
Dr. Haidar Abdel-Shafi, chairman of the Palestinian delegation to the talks, called the Israeli raids an attempt to destroy the peace process, Israel Radio reported.
The Arab League condemned Israel and also warned that it was jeopardizing the talks.
Although Israel has massed armored units along its northern border and in its self-proclaimed "security zone" in southern Lebanon, Israeli analysts do not expect large-scale ground operations against Hezbollah positions or a full-scale war.
"More air attacks, more artillery bombardment and maybe some elite unit operations--that is the outlook," a senior Israeli official said.
But Israel's new determination to strike at Hezbollah's headquarters in Syrian-controlled territory made events both unpredictable and dangerous.
In Beirut, Lebanese President Elias Hrawi summoned government and defense leaders for crisis talks and declared that Lebanon will lodge a complaint with the U.N. Security Council against "the Israeli aggression."
Hezbollah ordered its forces fully mobilized and warned in a statement, "The price that Israel will pay will be very high."
In one of the biggest strikes, five Syrian soldiers were killed and three wounded, according to Lebanese authorities, when Israeli planes struck the village of Mashgharah, the southernmost Syrian post in Lebanon and a Hezbollah stronghold. A sixth Syrian was killed in a later helicopter raid nearby.
By Israel's count, there have been twice as many incidents in its "security zone" in the first half of this year as during the same period in 1992, according to an Israeli military spokesman, and over the last year 20 soldiers have been killed or fatally wounded in the region, including one who died Sunday of wounds suffered two weeks ago.
As tensions mounted last week, Damascus had said that an attack on "the sovereignty of Lebanon" would be tantamount to an attack on Syria and that it "could not stand idly by" if Israel struck out at Hezbollah.
Israeli officials dismissed the Syrian statements as empty rhetoric, and they said there was no evidence Sunday of the involvement of the 40,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon beyond some antiaircraft fire.
For a month, Israel had warned Hezbollah that it would deal harshly with the escalating attacks on its forces in southern Lebanon, and when Hezbollah guerrillas opened fire with mortars at 9 a.m. Sunday on an outpost of the South Lebanon Army, an Israeli-recruited militia, Israeli fighter-bombers screamed northward across the border in retaliatory strikes.
Hezbollah guerrillas hit back, Israeli forces again responded fiercely and the back and forth continued for 15 hours.
The initial targets were nine Hezbollah bases north of the security zone and a 10th base belonging to a radical Palestinian group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, directed by Ahmed Jibril, according to an Israeli military spokesman.
Among them were Hezbollah's rear headquarters and supply depot near Baalbek in the Bekaa Valley, the movement's television station, Jibril's command bunker and the home of a senior Hezbollah commander, who was reported killed along with his wife, daughter and a neighbor's child. In one attack, an Israeli gunboat shelled a Palestinian naval training base near Tripoli in northern Lebanon at midnight.
Times staff writer Art Pine, in Singapore, contributed to this report.