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Airstrikes Hit Christian Area North of Beirut

Times Staff Writers

Israeli forces killed 33 agricultural workers Friday in northeast Lebanon in a wave of airstrikes that also pierced the country’s Christian heartland for the first time and severed its last major highway link to the outside.

Hezbollah militants responded by firing missiles that exploded just 30 miles north of Tel Aviv, the farthest they have reached into Israel. The rest of northern Israel came under a day-long barrage of rockets that killed three people and injured more than 30.

Israeli soldiers pushed slowly north from the border in heavy ground fighting that left three Israeli soldiers dead. The International Committee of the Red Cross said 48 people, including the 33 farmworkers, were killed in Lebanon in about 90 Israeli airstrikes.

Early today, additional Israeli airstrikes pounded Beirut’s southern suburbs, the Israeli military said. A spokesman said the targets included an underground Hezbollah operations room, a weapons-storage facility, a recruiting center, a meeting site and the offices of a newspaper linked to the group.

Israeli commandos landed early today on the beach near the Lebanese city of Tyre via helicopter. Missiles fired by the Israelis and at them could be heard less than a mile from Tyre’s main beach. Heavy automatic weapons fire and naval artillery shelling were also heard. The target of the raid was not immediately known.

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It was the second such helicopter-borne raid in four days. Early Wednesday, elite units swooped down on the northeastern town of Baalbek, seizing five suspected members of Hezbollah and a trove of what was described as intelligence material.

At the United Nations, negotiations between the U.S. and France over a plan to end the hostilities continued. Spokesmen for countries involved in the talks said some progress was made and that an agreement could be reached over the weekend. Arab League ministers were scheduled to meet Monday in Beirut to “express solidarity” with the people of Lebanon.

Friday’s Israeli airstrikes hit four bridges in heavily Christian seaside villages north of the capital that historically have formed one of the strongest fronts against Islamic militancy in Lebanon. The attacks severed the last remaining major highway connection from Beirut to Syria and to the northern port of Tripoli, in effect blocking the land delivery of humanitarian aid as fuel, food and medical supplies are growing critically low.

“This was our only lifeline. Is that enough to tell you?” said Khalid Mansour, spokesman for the United Nations in Beirut. “After the destruction of these bridges, the main road for all humanitarian supplies that come by land, except for the small quantities that come by air, is now cut.”

Lebanese President Emile Lahoud accused Israel of waging a “war of starvation” against civilians.

“The Israeli enemy’s bombing of bridges and roads is aimed at tightening the blockade on the Lebanese, cutting communications between them and starving them.... Israel has now decided to destroy Lebanon,” the president said in a statement.

Israel said it hit the bridges to halt the alleged flow of weapons from Syria.

“Because the most direct arteries have been blocked, they are using more indirect means,” said Capt. Jacob Dallal, a spokesman for the Israeli army. “These bridges, unfortunately, served as a conduit for this re-supply from Syria. We are not going to allow missiles to be transported southward and used to kill our citizens.”

However, the strikes also alienated a group that largely has been hostile to Hezbollah. Christians make up an estimated 39% of Lebanon’s population, the highest percentage of any country in the Middle East. Over the years, they have often sympathized with Israel, even briefly collaborating in battling Palestinians during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon in the midst of the country’s 15-year civil war.

Although some prominent Christian leaders have formed political alliances with Hezbollah in recent years, many ordinary Christians have been wary of the rise of radical Shiite Muslim power, and of Hezbollah’s alliances with Syria and Iran. In the early days of the current conflict, they tended to blame Hezbollah for starting it with a cross-border raid in which it captured two Israeli soldiers.

Much of that sentiment has waned as Israel’s attacks have widened, and Friday’s strikes in the Christian heartland prompted Christian political leaders to respond with anger.

“People don’t see eye to eye with Hezbollah on all things, but this is a question of an attack on Lebanon,” said Farid Khazen, a Christian member of parliament.

“People are not interested in details, who did what and why. They are simply fed up,” he said. “There won’t be any split in Lebanon on this war, and if this was Israel’s intention, it was completely silly and ridiculous.”

The worst reported violence Friday in Lebanon was in the village of Qaa, in the Bekaa Valley about three miles from the Syrian border, where Israeli officials said they launched strikes against what they believed to be a weapons storage site. Truck traffic was observed between the area and the Syrian border, said an Israeli military official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

But town administrator Saadeh Tawm said the site was a refrigerated agricultural storage facility where farmworkers, including a number of Syrian Kurds, were loading fruit for transport elsewhere.

In a telephone interview, he said about 40 workers were loading fruit onto trucks when two missiles struck about 10 minutes apart. “The first strike hit, and there were lots of casualties. People came to help them out, but then another strike hit, and there were even more casualties,” he said.

The town has no hospital, and previous airstrikes had blocked roads, preventing rescuers from taking the wounded to nearby Lebanese hospitals, so they were taken across the border to the Syrian town of Homs, Tawm said. A total of 33 bodies had been recovered, he said.

“We are 230 kilometers [143 miles] from the border with Israel,” Tawm said.

“So how could there be military activity here?”

Ground fighting across southern Lebanon has now encompassed about 20 towns and villages, Israeli commanders said. Troops fired hundreds of artillery shells into areas they intended to enter, they said. Firing at times took place at a rate of 15 shells per minute.

Israel says it has killed about 400 Hezbollah fighters during the offensive, but the Islamic militant group has confirmed only a few dozen deaths.

Seven people in southern Lebanon were reported killed when Israeli forces fired on a two-story house in the border village of Taibe. Lebanese news reports said 17 people had been hiding in the house to escape intense battles nearby between Hezbollah guerrillas and Israeli troops.

Israeli jets screamed over south Beirut, hitting a Hezbollah-run school, sports facility and youth center, as well as an office of the militant Palestinian group Hamas. The southern suburb of Uzai, near the airport, was targeted for the first time, hit both from the air and from warships stationed offshore. A Lebanese army post there came under fire, killing one soldier and injuring three, and a small harbor sheltering boats belonging to Shiite fishermen also was in ruins.

Much of south Beirut, where Hezbollah had its headquarters, has been reduced to rubble and the rest of it is largely deserted. Posters of Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah remain on the lampposts, and Hezbollah volunteers patrol the streets on mopeds, carefully scrutinizing anyone who enters.

The three Israeli civilians killed by Hezbollah rockets were members of Israel’s Druze minority. Manal Azzam, 27, a mother of two, was killed in front of her children when a rocket hit the apartment next door. Another rocket hit a restaurant in the Druze village of Majdal Krum, killing two patrons.

Thirty Israeli civilians have been killed by rocket fire since the fighting erupted July 12. Eight of them were killed Thursday -- five in the northern coastal town of Acre and three near Maalot.

Israeli officials call the rocket strikes, now totaling more than 2,500, the worst sustained fire on Israeli cities since the battle for statehood in 1948. Friday night’s rocket attacks on the town of Hadera, about 50 miles south of the Lebanese border and 30 miles north of Tel Aviv, marked the deepest Hezbollah has ever struck. No one was injured in the explosions, which occurred in a vacant field.

Israeli media reported that warplanes had fired on a site outside Tyre from which the missiles were thought to have been launched.

The separate early-morning Israeli strikes Friday on the Christian area north of Beirut shattered windows in a region of resort hotels, seaside villages, bougainvillea-lined streets and mist-shrouded coastal hills. Four people were killed and 12 injured.

A truck crashed and exploded in the dry Fadir River. A man jogging under a bridge was killed when concrete fell on him. A few hours later, the man’s sister-in-law shrieked and collapsed as his ankle was discovered by search dogs.

All three floors of a nearby house were carpeted with broken glass and chunks of charred asphalt.

“Everything has been destroyed. Everything ... I pray to the Virgin Mary that this glass will fly into the faces of the Israelis,” said Chukrala Mahfouz, as she surveyed the damage.

“Why here? This is not Hezbollah. This is 100% Christian,” said Ziad Bassil, who was sweeping shards of glass from the front of his pharmacy, next door to a Villeroy & Boch china shop that was also badly damaged.

Ibrahim Kenaan, a Christian member of parliament, said the strikes in the Christian quarters would make it more difficult to implement a cease-fire and would decrease public support for disarming Hezbollah, the main stated aim of Israel and the United States.

“How can someone claim to want to implement the Security Council resolution when the effect of this kind of operation is destroying the very state that’s called on to deploy its sovereignty on the Lebanese territory and to secure the border?” he said.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Christian areas targeted

Israel

Several Hezbollah rockets land in a vacant field in Hadera, the deepest rocket attack so far. There are no injuries. Elsewhere, three Israeli civilians are killed and 30 injured in the barrage of rockets.

Lebanon

An Israeli airstrike hits a farm near Qaa, killing 33 farmworkers. The target is a truck suspected of carrying weapons from Syria. Heavy fighting continues along the border as troops push northward. A house in Taibe is hit, reportedly killing seven residents. Hezbollah fighters kill three Israeli soldiers near the border. Israeli aircraft destroy four bridges in a Christian area of resorts and seaside villages north of Beirut, and four people are killed. Israeli jets target a Hamas office and a Hezbollah-run school, sports facility and youth center in south Beirut. The suburb of Uzai is targeted for the first time, from the air and by warships.

Diplomacy

The U.S. and France come closer to a deal on a United Nations resolution calling for an end to the fighting. After an agreement, a Security Council vote could be held within 24 hours.

Humanitarian concerns

The destruction of the coastal bridges in northern Lebanon disrupt efforts to aid displaced civilians, in effect blocking land deliveries.

Sources: The Associated Press, Reuters, Times reporting

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Murphy reported from Beirut and King from Jerusalem. Times staff writers Walter Hamilton at the United Nations and Carolyn Cole in Tyre and special correspondent Maha al-Azar in Beirut contributed to this report.


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