Israel Blocks Lebanese Coast

Special to The Times

Israel blockaded Lebanon’s coastline, bombarded its international airport and this capital’s southern suburbs and staged hundreds of air raids in a wide-ranging assault Thursday aimed at forcing the Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah to free two captured Israeli soldiers.

A defiant Hezbollah retaliated by raining more than 100 Katyusha rockets on northern Israel, killing two people and injuring dozens. At least one rocket hit the large coastal city of Haifa, which previously was out of range of the projectiles, causing no injuries but raising alarm at the prospect of deadly strikes on major Israeli urban centers.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Jul. 15, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday July 15, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Israeli general: An article in Friday’s Section A said Dan Halutz, Israel’s army chief of staff, was a brigadier general. He is a lieutenant general.

The militant group denied having fired on Haifa, a city of nearly 300,000 with a bustling port and a major oil refinery. Israel has said that such a strike could trigger retaliatory raids on Beirut, the Lebanese capital.

The rapidly intensifying conflict stoked fears of regional strife and drew calls for restraint from the international community. But neither side showed any sign of backing down; instead, each warned the other that further escalation was likely.


Though Israel’s airstrikes have encompassed a wide range of targets, many of them seem chosen for their status as emblems of Hezbollah, such as TV installations, or staged to inflict highly visible damage that would be fairly easy to repair. The strikes on the airport, for example, did not target the new terminal or the control tower.

However, more than 50 Lebanese were reported killed in the strikes, which began before dawn and thundered long into the night. The nighttime attack on the airport, less than 14 hours after an early-morning missile barrage, sent flames from fuel tanks leaping skyward.

Early today, Lebanese security forces closed the main highway between Beirut and Damascus, the Syrian capital, after several Israeli airstrikes.

Lebanese television reported other strikes today in the southern suburbs where Hezbollah is headquartered. Targets reportedly included a bridge and an open area where the group held rallies.


The Lebanese government insisted that it had no advance knowledge of Hezbollah’s cross-border raid Wednesday that led to the soldiers’ capture and triggered the fighting. Eight Israeli soldiers were killed in the attack by the militant group, which in effect rules southern Lebanon.

Israel again asserted that the Lebanese government would pay a price for failing to rein in Hezbollah, which holds 14 parliamentary seats and heads two government ministries.

“Israel views Lebanon as responsible for the present situation, and it shall bear the consequences for this act,” said Gideon Meir, deputy director-general of the Foreign Ministry.

In northern Israel, people spent the night in fortified safe rooms and bomb shelters.


“We’re not planning to leave this place. This is my home and my country,” said Avi Elkayam, who lives on a kibbutz about six miles south of the Lebanese border. He, his wife and 2-year-old daughter spent the night in a safe room in their home.

Meanwhile, Israel’s army chief of staff, Brig. Gen. Dan Halutz, asserting that “nothing is safe” in Lebanon, warned that Hezbollah-linked sites in Beirut, including homes and offices of the group’s leaders, could be hit.

The Israeli air campaign was the heaviest against its northern neighbor since the mid-1980s. For many Lebanese, the strikes stirred painful memories.

Many were particularly shaken by the strikes on the airport, which was hit early Thursday by missiles that blew holes in three runways, then later by helicopter gunships that raked the runways with machine-gun fire.


“It reminds me of the dark days of war, seeing smoke rising over the airport,” said Jihad Khalil Arar, who lives in the poor, predominantly Shiite suburb of Ouzai, near the airport.

People hurriedly stocked up on supplies in the capital and formed long lines at gas stations. Many stayed home from work.

The mood was even more tense in the Shiite-dominated south, Hezbollah’s home turf, where shops were shuttered.

In the initial round of airstrikes, almost every bridge linking the south to the rest of the country was destroyed. Israeli jets roared overhead all day, and the distant thud of explosions could be heard.


With the airport and ports closed and the threat of more violence, tourists had limited options for leaving.

The remaining road out of Lebanon, a highway of hairpin turns that winds through the mountains toward Damascus, had been jammed with fleeing tourists. Then it too was closed.

Israel’s ground incursion into Lebanon on Wednesday was the first of its kind since it pulled out of a self-declared buffer zone in May 2000. A top commander, Maj. Gen. Udi Adam, said the offensive could widen.

Israel expressed fears Thursday that the captured soldiers could be taken to Iran, Hezbollah’s chief patron. Both Israel and the United States have accused Iran of fomenting violence through its support of the group.


Iran’s Foreign Ministry rejected the idea that the soldiers might be brought there, Reuters reported. “Because of its desperation and increasing isolation in the world and because of the tension and crisis created inside Israel, it is now talking absurdities,” spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said.

Hours after the initial strike on the Beirut airport, Israeli aircraft bombed runways at two Lebanese air bases, one in the Bekaa Valley near the Syrian border and one in the north.

Also hit Thursday were the south Beirut studios of Hezbollah’s Al Manar television channel. The station, which had triumphantly announced the seizure of the soldiers the day before, was able to continue transmitting. Two smaller regional Al Manar facilities also were struck.

Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Hezbollah would no longer be allowed to maintain bases directly adjacent to the border, as the group has done for some years. Israel repeated its demand that the Lebanese army assert control of the border zone.


Israel rejected criticism of the deployment of warships.

“The blockade will last as long as the conflict goes on,” said Brig. Gen. Amir Eshel, deputy chief of staff for the air force.

Many Israelis felt a sense of deja vu as they listened to news reports full of place names familiar from Israel’s 18-year previous entanglement in Lebanon.

The Yediot Aharonot newspaper carried a somber, single-word headline Thursday: “War.”


Despite the U.S. assertion that Israel had a right to defend itself in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip -- where Israel launched an incursion two weeks ago, also after a soldier was seized -- the offensives were drawing international criticism.

At the United Nations Security Council, the U.S. vetoed a resolution that would have condemned Israel’s military incursion into Gaza. U.S. Ambassador John R. Bolton said he voted against the measure because it was “untimely and already outmoded.” Of the council’s 15 members, Britain, Denmark, Peru and Slovakia abstained.

The offensive was drawing dissent in Israel as well.

“We’ve already been in this swamp,” Labor lawmaker Shelly Yehimovich said. “Nothing good will come of using massive force in Lebanon.”


The U.S. warned Israel to avoid going so far in attacking Hezbollah that the Lebanese government is weakened.

“We’re concerned about the fragile democracy in Lebanon,” President Bush said during a visit to Germany.

Ten hours later, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with reporters and used tougher language, saying it was “extremely important that Israel exercise restraint in its acts of self-defense.”

Stephen J. Hadley, Bush’s national security advisor, said Israel had been asked to respond “in such a way to minimize collateral and civilian casualties.”


Speaking in the town of Heiligendamm, where Bush and senior aides were spending the night, the officials’ language suggested a late-night effort to send a message to Israel in the wake of the rocket attacks. Bush had used relatively restrained language earlier in the day.

The Security Council set a meeting for today to try to defuse the situation. Lebanon asked the council to demand a cease-fire.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he was “deeply alarmed” by the escalation and particularly concerned about the violence inflicted on innocent civilians in both countries. He said a team of three veteran U.N. envoys would visit cities in the region to help pull the parties “back from the brink of an even more deadly conflict.”

The team will start today in Cairo, consulting with the Arab League, then head to Jerusalem, Damascus and Beirut.


“I can only hope that the parties heed our counsel and that regional players who have influence will do likewise,” he told reporters in Rome. “Reckless and dangerous actions will only lead to further bloodshed and instability, inflaming an already highly volatile region.”

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, issued a statement placing blame on Hezbollah and its Iranian supporters.

“A difference should be drawn between legitimate resistance and rash adventures carried out by elements inside the state and those behind them without consultation with the legitimate authority in their state and without consultation or coordination with Arab countries,” the official Saudi Press Agency reported the statement as saying. “These elements alone bear the full responsibility of these irresponsible acts and should alone shoulder the burden of ending the crisis they have created.”

The confrontation in Lebanon comes as Israel remains locked in a standoff with Palestinian militants in Gaza, sparked by the capture of a soldier June 25. More than 80 people have died in the offensive, and the soldier’s captors, three factions with links to the militant group Hamas, have refused to back down from their demands that Israel release prisoners in exchange for his freedom.


Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah has said Israel must engage in indirect negotiations and agree to a prisoner swap if it wants to free the soldiers seized Wednesday. He did not specify a number but Israel previously has engaged in lopsided trades to win back soldiers or their remains.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, however, has flatly ruled out an exchange, saying it would encourage more kidnappings.

Some Israeli commentators painted the conflict with Hamas and Hezbollah as a challenge not only to Israel’s security, but also to its very existence.

“Two terrorist organizations that do not recognize the state of Israel’s existence have declared war on it,” Sever Plotzker wrote in the Yediot Aharonot. “If the two of them emerge from this conflict with the upper hand ... we can begin the countdown to the end of the entire Zionist enterprise.”


Others argued that the greatest damage to Israel may be self-inflicted, especially if it rejects negotiations of any kind.

“We are at the heart of this fire, and the flames are beginning to singe our periphery,” said Haim Oron, a lawmaker from the leftist Meretz-Yahad party.




Growing hostilities

Israel increased pressure on Lebanon and the Hezbollah militants there, blockading the nation’s ports and closing the Beirut airport in a second day of fighting. More than 60 people in the two countries have died. Recent developments:

“We are at the heart of this fire, and the flames are beginning to singe our periphery,” said Haim Oron, a lawmaker from the leftist Meretz-Yahad party.



Beirut: Airport closed after runways bombed, fuel tanks hit; Hezbollah-owned Al Manar television facility hit; port closed by Israeli blockade.

Baalbek: Nearby civic center attached to Shiite mosque hit; Hezbollah television antenna knocked out.

Rayak: Nearby air force base attacked.

Mdeirej: Highway to Syria closed after strikes by Israeli jets.



Haifa: Hit by one or more rockets; U.S. Navy ocean tug Apache leaves port as a precaution.

Kiryat Shemona, Safat, Carmiel, Nahariya: Hit by Hezbollah rockets.

Sources: Associated Press, Reuters



Back story

Last summer, Israel withdrew settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip, a small and densely populated coastal territory abutting Israel and Egypt. The hopes of some Palestinians that the territory would then begin to thrive were quickly dashed by fighting among Palestinian factions and economic restrictions by Israel. Militants in Gaza have launched small rockets at Israeli border towns. Israel has responded with shelling and missiles that have killed dozens of Palestinians. On June 25, militants from several Palestinian groups, including Hamas, used a tunnel to cross from the Gaza Strip into Israel, where they killed two soldiers and captured one. Israel has retaliated by moving troops into the strip, seizing Hamas leaders and shelling targets, including power stations. More than 80 people have been killed in the conflict. On Wednesday, Hezbollah opened a new front in the fighting, crossing into Israel from Lebanon, seizing two Israeli soldiers and killing eight. Israel has responded by staging hundreds of air raids, blockading Lebanon’s coast and bombing the Beirut airport. Hezbollah has fired more than 100 rockets on northern Israel.

Source: Los Angeles Times staff



Times staff writer King reported from Jerusalem and special correspondent Abouzeid from Beirut. Staff writers Megan Stack in Beirut, Maggie Farley at the U.N. and James Gerstenzang in Heiligendamm and special correspondent Vita Bekker in Nahariya contributed to this report.