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8 Israeli Civilians Killed by Rockets

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Times Staff Writers

Amid a burst of new threats Thursday by Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, Israel suffered the highest one-day death toll of its 23-day-old Lebanon offensive: eight civilians killed in rocket strikes and four soldiers in fierce ground combat.

Five of the Israeli civilian deaths occurred in the northern Israeli coastal town of Acre, where a group of people emerged from a bomb shelter after one barrage only to be caught in the next.

“With the first siren, we went into the bomb shelter,” said Avi Attar, who witnessed the deadly attack. “A minute later, we came out because we were curious, and just then another one landed.”

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Among the dead were a father and daughter.

The three other victims, killed near Maalot, were members of Israel’s Arab minority. In all, 27 Israeli civilians have been killed by Hezbollah rocket fire since fighting between the Shiite Muslim militant group and Israeli forces began July 12.

Israeli forces continued what Defense Minister Amir Peretz described as a push to control Lebanese territory up to the Litani River, the dividing line between the Shiite-dominated south and the rest of Lebanon. In addition to the four soldiers killed Thursday, heavy ground fighting early today claimed more Israeli casualties, the military said without immediately providing details.

Maj. Zvika Golan, a spokesman for Israel’s northern command, said the army hoped to push nine miles into Lebanon within the next two days by “cleansing” village after village where Hezbollah militants operate. But, he said, the army needs to deploy two more brigades to bolster the six brigade-sized units already in Lebanon.

Nasrallah, in a speech broadcast on Hezbollah’s Al Manar television, mocked Israeli claims that a substantial number of Hezbollah’s rockets had been knocked out since the conflict began, and that its command structure had been badly weakened.

“I will tell you something,” he said. “We are at military readiness. We are still in complete command of the front. We are in control of all the missile sites.”

Nasrallah warned Israel against further strikes on Lebanon’s capital.

“If you attack our capital, Beirut, we will attack your capital, Tel Aviv. I’m telling you honestly -- we will hit you very hard,” he said.

Israel regards Jerusalem as its capital, but Tel Aviv and its environs make up the nation’s most densely populated area, which Israeli officials believe is within range of the Shiite militia’s Iranian missiles.

Hours after Nasrallah spoke, Israeli warplanes repeatedly hit the southern Beirut suburb of Dahiyeh. Targets in today’s raids included the house of a senior member of Hezbollah, the army said, without identifying him.

On Thursday, Israel also launched isolated airstrikes in the north and the east, hitting bridges in the Bekaa Valley linking Hezbollah strongholds there. Airstrikes in the south killed several civilians, including a family of three who died when their house was hit in the border village of Taibe.

In his address, Nasrallah described the Israeli offensive as coming at the behest of the Bush administration. “Israel is doing ... this with American orders, American arms and American rockets,” he said.

He also said Hezbollah would stop its rocket attacks if Israel halted its offensive. Meanwhile, Hezbollah spokesman Hussein Rahal said his group would not agree to a cease-fire until all Israeli troops had left Lebanon. “Even if there is a cease-fire, we are entitled to resist occupiers even if they occupy one inch of our land,” he said.

Hezbollah had fired more than 213 rockets into Israel by nightfall Thursday, despite a wide-ranging Israeli ground offensive that military officials say has deprived the group of many of its prime launching sites.

In Jerusalem, an American immigrant killed Tuesday when a Hezbollah missile struck a building he was searching in the Lebanese village of Aita Shaab was buried. Staff Sgt. Michael Levin, 22, was from Bucks County, Pa.

Israel vowed to keep up the offensive against Hezbollah, although international mediators said they hoped a cease-fire accord could be struck next week. “Israel will seek out Hezbollah, go after it, until these murderous attacks end and until quiet is restored to northern Israel,” said David Baker, an official in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office.

In the diplomatic drive to end the fighting, French and U.S. negotiators at the United Nations talked late into the night Thursday. The two are taking the lead in drafting a resolution, and diplomats close to the discussion said agreement on the language could come as early as today.

The Israeli civilian deaths came a day after Hezbollah fired more than 230 rockets into Israel, the biggest barrage since the fighting broke out after a Hezbollah cross-border raid July 12 in which eight Israeli soldiers were killed and two captured.

Before Thursday, the biggest one-day toll in a rocket attack had come on July 16, when eight railway workers were killed in a strike on a depot in the coastal city of Haifa.

After the deaths in Acre, officials appealed to people to not emerge from shelters too soon, as happened after a volley that struck Thursday afternoon.

Resident Attar, speaking on Israeli TV, vividly conveyed the sense of oppressiveness and tedium that led people, after spending much of the last three weeks in bomb shelters, to take such a risk.

“We are tired of being in the shelter!” he said. “Our life is like a roulette -- will it hit, will it not? ... I have four children and I live on the sixth floor of this building. By the time I get down to the bomb shelter, the Katyusha has already landed.”

Outside Maalot, where three Israeli Arabs were killed, a highway was hit, bringing traffic to a stop. Some people jumped out of cars to seek shelter beside the road.

Israel, meanwhile, said it was making headway against Hezbollah, despite the fatalities.

“We also have achievements to point to -- they take hits and hits and hits,” Cabinet minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said on Israel’s Channel 2.

Israeli troops pushed deeper into Lebanon on Thursday with a ground offensive.

The White House has said it does not plan to contribute troops to a larger peacekeeping force envisioned for the area.

But in the first indication of a possible U.S. military role, the Bush administration has approved a plan to help train and equip the Lebanese armed forces to enable the government to take control of the southern territory, officials said Thursday.

The ground fighting in southern Lebanon involves roughly 10,000 Israeli troops across a 25-mile-long front. Israeli commanders have said they now control about a quarter of the area, Hezbollah’s turf.

Israel, which ended an 18-year occupation of south Lebanon in 2000, has said it does not plan to reoccupy the border zone permanently. Olmert’s government has said Israeli forces will withdraw when an international force is in place.

Israeli troops control about 20 Lebanese villages, from north of the Israeli town of Metulla to the sea, a senior army officer said.

As of Thursday, Israeli forces had thrust up to 3 1/2 miles into Lebanon but “the depth changes all the time,” said Golan, the northern command spokesman.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora put his country’s death toll at 900, saying most were civilians. In a video address, Siniora told ministers at a conference of Islamic nations in Malaysia that the conflict also had left 3,000 Lebanese injured and 1 million displaced.

King reported from Jerusalem and Murphy from Beirut. Times staff writers Tracy Wilkinson in Sasa, Israel, Tyler Marshall and Julian E. Barnes in Washington and Alissa J. Rubin at the United Nations contributed to this report.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Another barrage of rockets

Israel

For the second consecutive day, more than 200 rockets hit the northern area, with more than 100 landing within half an hour in the late afternoon. At least eight people are killed in one of the worst days of civilian deaths since the fighting began July 12. Those killed in the city of Acre include a man and his daughter who emerged prematurely from a bomb shelter. Near Maalot, three Israeli Arabs are killed. Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah says his group will cease rocket attacks if Israel stops its airstrikes on Lebanon. He threatens to target Tel Aviv if Beirut is bombed again.

*

Lebanon

Israeli airstrikes hit targets in Dahiyeh and other southern suburbs of Beirut, which have been Hezbollah strongholds. Israel also drops leaflets in the suburbs, warning residents to leave. Bridges in the Bekaa Valley area linking Hezbollah centers also are attacked. On the ground, Israeli forces continue to push north and now reportedly control about a quarter of southern Lebanon, including 20 villages in a swath stretching north of the Israeli town of Metulla to the Mediterranean. Four Israeli soldiers are killed in fighting, including three whose tank was hit. Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz says the goal is to gain control of territory stretching all the way up to the Litani River, the dividing line between the Hezbollah-dominated south and the rest of Lebanon. Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora puts the death toll at 900 and says more than 3,000 have been injured and 1 million displaced.

*

Diplomacy

The Bush administration approves a plan to help train and equip the Lebanese army with an eye toward enabling it to exercise control of Lebanese territory. The U.S. has

no plans to contribute troops to any international force of peacekeepers that may be sent to southern Lebanon. Belgium volunteers to send peacekeeping troops should the United Nations decide to deploy forces after fighting has ceased.

*

Humanitarian concerns

Prime Minister Siniora says Lebanon will be out of fuel in

a week unless stores are replenished. Two tankers, carrying nearly 90 tons of fuel oil and diesel fuel, are anchored off Cyprus but their captains are unwilling to sail despite having obtained written Israeli authorization to pass through the naval blockade.

Sources: Associated Press, Reuters, BBC, Times reporting


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