HAIFA, Israel (Jul. 16)
For Israeli civilians, Israel’s war with Hezbollah has entered its deadliest phase yet. Mid-range rockets fired by the Lebanese militia Sunday killed eight people and wounded 17 in this northern Israel city, the bloodiest ballistic attack on the Jewish state in memory.
And it might have been even worse. The salvo that struck a railway depot in Haifa’s industrial zone could easily have ignited nearby fuel refineries and set off a massive, murderous inferno.
For Israel, such a strategic strike would have been disastrous.
Galvanized to prevent Hezbollah succeeding in its next launch, Israeli forces stepped up their shelling of southern Lebanon, razing former militia outposts, homes that had harbored gunmen and suspected weapons arsenals.
“This is Hezbollah’s criminal war against Israel and its residents,” Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his Cabinet. “The State of Israel cannot countenance this,” he said. “Nothing will deter us, whatever far-reaching ramifications regarding our relations on the northern border and in the region there may be.”
Those ramifications were already being felt in Lebanon.
Among scores of Hezbollah sites targeted by Israeli warplanes was the Beirut headquarters of the militia’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. Israel’s Channel 2 television, quoting Lebanese sources, said Nasrallah was wounded in the bombing, which flattened an apartment building over his command bunker. But Nasrallah made a televised statement Sunday in which he appeared unharmed, and said that Hezbollah’s reach could extend farther into Israel.
The Lebanese government, having failed to disarm Hezbollah in accordance with U.N resolutions and quiet after the Shi’ite militia killed eight Israeli soldiers and abducted two others in a border raid last week, began ratcheting up the rhetoric.
With his country’s infrastructure largely in ruins and refugees streaming up from the South, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora declared Lebanon a “disaster zone” and appealed for the international community to impose a truce. But an emergency U.N. Security Council session convened to discuss the crisis Saturday rejected the calls following U.S. objections.
A bilateral solution appeared possible Sunday, after the Lebanese government said Siniora had received terms for a cease-fire from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
According to Beirut, Olmert, with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi serving as his go-between, had demanded that Israel’s two abducted soldiers be returned and that Hezbollah withdraw to the Litani River, some 25 miles from the Lebanese-Israeli border.
Israel had no comment on the reported rapprochement offer, but its defense minister, Amir Peretz, indicated that the reported terms were right.
“We will never again resign ourselves to Hezbollah terrorists straddling our northern border,” Peretz said during a visit to Haifa. “If Lebanon wants to deploy its army along the frontier, then that’s fine.”
Noting the jitters in northern Israel over some 450 rocket landings, which have killed at least 12 people and wounded hundreds, Peretz said there was no turning back the counteroffensive.
“All over the country, I am hearing people tell me: If we must launch this campaign, then let’s finish the job,” he said.
For many Haifa residents, there was nothing to do but wait and hope for the best.
Some took comfort in Patriot anti-missile batteries that had been installed atop Mount Carmel, and placed trust in Homefront Command sirens meant to give them a one-minute warning of incoming Hezbollah rockets.
“We didn’t run during the Gulf War, and we won’t run now,” said architect Naomi Herzog, referring to the 1991 campaign in which several of Saddam Hussein’s Scuds struck around Haifa.
Others decided to reduce the risk for their families.
Oren Naidek, a supervisor at a chemical plant in Haifa port, stayed behind while his wife and three children head southward to stay with friends.
“Spending the summer in a bomb shelter is no life for kids,” he said.