July 13, 2006, New York Times
By HASSAN M. FATTAH and STEVEN ERLANGER
BEIRUT, Friday, July 14 — Israel imposed a full naval blockade on Lebanon on Thursday and put Beirut International Airport out of commission, and the militant group Hezbollah unleashed a hail of rockets and mortar shells that killed two and sent thousands of Israelis into bomb shelters.
A day after cross-border raids by Hezbollah fighters brought Israeli troops into Lebanon in force for the first time in six years, Israel sent punishing airstrikes deeper into the country, hitting all three runways at the Beirut airport, two Lebanese Army bases, Hezbollah’s Al Manar television station and, early on Friday, the main highway between Beirut and Damascus, Syria.
The Lebanese government said 53 Lebanese had died since Wednesday, including one family of 10 and another of 7 in the southern village of Dweir. More than 103 have been wounded, the Lebanese said.
Lebanese hoarded canned goods and batteries as lines at gas stations stretched for blocks. Supermarkets and bakeries were flooded. It felt, many said, like the civil war that ended 15 years ago was back.
Israel said that the Lebanese government is responsible for the actions of Hezbollah, which is a member of the governing coalition, and that the cross-border raid that captured two of its soldiers on Wednesday was an unprovoked act of war by a neighboring state.
Senior Israeli officials said that the military had been freed up to cut off Lebanon, permanently drive Hezbollah forces back from the border, and punish the government for not upholding a United Nations directive to disarm and control the group.
Israel’s military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, warned that “nothing is safe” in Lebanon and that Beirut itself, especially Hezbollah offices and strongholds in southern Beirut, would be a target.
Hezbollah fired more than 120 Katyusha rockets and mortar shells into Israel on Thursday, Israeli officials said. The barrage killed a woman on her balcony in Nahariya, killed a man in Safed, and wounded more than 100 other Israelis in some 20 towns and villages, including Haifa, Safed and Carmiel. Hezbollah said it was using a new rocket, the “Thunder 1,” more advanced than the standard Katyusha, which does not have enough range to reach the 30 miles between Haifa and the border.
Thousands of Israelis in the north spent the night in bomb shelters as Hezbollah warned that Israeli attacks on southern Beirut would be met by rocket attacks on Haifa, a port city of 250,000 people 18 miles from the international border. Thursday evening, two rockets landed near the city’s Stella Maris Church.
The rapid surge in fighting on a second front, two weeks after Israel entered Gaza to try to secure the release of another captured soldier, alarmed Arab and Western governments and drove up the price of oil.
The European Union criticized Israel on Thursday for “the disproportionate use of force” in Lebanon “in response to attacks by Hezbollah on Israel,” according to a statement issued by the current Finnish presidency. It said that “the imposition of an air and sea blockade on Lebanon cannot be justified.”
The Israeli military said it struck the airport because it is “a central hub for the transfer of weapons and supplies to the Hezbollah terrorist organization.”
President Bush, in remarks in Germany, said that “Israel has the right to defend herself,” but he also called for care, warning Israel not to weaken the government in Lebanon.
“There are a group of terrorists who want to stop the advance of peace,” Mr. Bush said. “The soldiers need to be returned.”
The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, warned that Israel’s Lebanon offensive “is raising our fears of a new regional war” and urged world powers to intervene.
The Lebanese government, which has said that it had nothing to do with the raid by Hezbollah, called for a cease-fire, saying that all means should be used to end “open aggression” against the country.
But Israeli officials said there would be a long campaign to restore the country’s security both along its southern border with Gaza and its northern one with Lebanon. The Israelis want to restore their military credibility with the Palestinian militants and Hamas government in Gaza and with Hezbollah, and they say they intend to make the current campaign painful on both sets of antagonists.
Neither Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Olmert, nor its defense minister, Amir Peretz, has the kind of long military experience previous holders of their positions have had, and they have only been in power for several months. Some Israeli commentators argued that this made it all the more necessary for an unambiguous military response.
The Israelis say that they want the message to get across to Syria and Iran, the countries widely considered to be the main sponsors of Hezbollah and Palestinian militancy.
Mr. Peretz said Israel would no longer allow Hezbollah forces to occupy positions along the border. “If the government of Lebanon fails to deploy its forces, as is expected of a sovereign government, we shall not allow Hezbollah forces to remain any further on the borders of the state of Israel,” he said.
But few Israeli officials expect that the Lebanese government, which is greatly influenced by Syria, has the will or the power to displace Hezbollah in the south.
A senior Israeli foreign ministry official, Gideon Meir, told reporters on Thursday that Israel has “concrete evidence that Hezbollah plans to transfer the kidnapped soldiers to Iran,” but he gave no specifics or source for the claim.
“As a result,” Mr. Meir said, “Israel views Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran as the main players in the axis of terror and hate that endangers not only Israel, but the entire world.”
Israeli concerns that the soldiers might be moved out of Lebanon are a prime reason for its efforts to blockade the country and prevent air traffic, Mr. Meir said later.
Israel called on the international community to press Lebanon to full its commitments under United Nations resolutions to dismantle Hezbollah’s military and send the Lebanese army into southern Lebanon to take control over the international border with Israel.
Israel identified the two soldiers captured on Wednesday as Ehud Goldwasser, 31, of Nahariya, and Eldad Regev, 26, of Kiryat Motzkin. Cpl. Gilad Shalit, 19, was captured by Palestinian militants on a raid from Gaza into Israel on June 25 that set off an escalating series of attacks and reprisals.
The Israeli attack on the Beirut airport — the first such attack by Israel since 1982 — blasted craters into all three runways, but did not hit the main terminal. Israeli planes later attacked the fuel stores at the airport, setting at least one tank on fire and filling the night sky with flames.
The attack came at the height of the tourist season, and travelers were stranded all over the Middle East. Even the Lebanese foreign minister, Fawzi Salloukh, had to return home overland from Syria from a trip to Armenia. Syria opened its borders to stranded tourists, many of whom rushed to the crossings before Israeli airstrikes cut off the main highway.
In Beirut, residents prepared for a long campaign. “We’ve been through this many times before,” said Rania al-Faris, who stood with her three sisters and mother with their bags packed waiting for the next bus towards the Beqaa Valley. They had blankets, extra food and books, and were ready to be gone for a while. “The roads get closed, and it’s impossible to buy any food or supplies. It’s much safer in the countryside. That is what we used to do during the war.”
By midday Thursday, the city grew more panicked as Israeli warplanes dropped leaflets over the Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs, warning residents to evacuate the area before impending attack. Many families packed their bags and left to countryside where they chances of being hurt would be lower.
“People are trying to get out of here any way they can,” said Muhammad Assif, who escorted his mother up to the mountains. Mr. Assif said one of his cousins had been killed in one of the bombings on the south Wednesday night, and the family had collectively decided to head out to safety. “Hezbollah is concentrated here so this going to be where they hit. They hit Al Manar near our house, who knows what comes next,” he said.
Hoards of tourists, most of them from Arab countries, packed up their bags and milled about in hotel lobbies desperate for a way out. But with the country blockaded by sea and air, the sole exit was through the land border with Syria, which by midday was backed up for miles.
Thousands took shelter at the Saudi Embassy in the Ras Beirut neighborhood until buses were organized to the Damascus airport. “People are really shaken, you can see it in their eyes,” said Rifaa al-Otaibi, an embassy employee. “When the airport was hit, it was enough for many.”Hassan M. Fattah reported from Beirut for this article, and Steven Erlanger from Jerusalem.