TYRE, Lebanon (AP) – Israeli planes flew 120 missions against targets in Lebanon over a 36-hour period to Saturday morning, destroying a bridge in a resort area near the Syrian border, as Hezbollah guerrillas escalated their attacks, firing longer-range missiles deeper into Israel than ever before.
After two air raids destroyed the bridge over the Orontes river in the northeast. Israel confirmed reports it was also flying new missions against bridges in southern Lebanon but provided no further details. Residents said there were no casualties in the attack over the Orontes in the Bekka Valley.
The Israeli army said seven of its soldiers were wounded, including one seriously, in heavy fighting Friday when Hezbollah attacked a ridge overlooking the villages of Bint Jbail and Maroun al-Ras, areas of strong support for the guerrilla movement.
As the fighting continued, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was returning to the Middle East to take a package of proposals aimed at ending the violence to Lebanese and Israeli leaders. Rice plans to meet first with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem for talks on Saturday night, said Mark Regev, spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry.
Rice’s peace plan seeks the deployment of an international agreement on a United Nations-mandated multinational force that can provide stability in the region, according to a U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the discussions. It also proposes: disarming Hezbollah and integrating the guerrilla force into the Lebanese army; Hezbollah return Israeli prisoners; a commitment to resolve the status of a piece of land held by Israel and claimed by Lebanon; a no-go buffer zone be set up in southern Lebanon; and the creation of an international reconstruction plan for Lebanon.
Israeli Cabinet minister Avi Dichter said on Israel radio Saturday that it was unacceptable for Lebanon’s government “to hide behind the claim that a terror organization is operating on their ground and they cannot stop it.” He said Israel holds the government fully accountable for what Hezbollah is doing there and that “Lebanon is paying the full price these days.”
At least 445 Lebanese have been killed in the fighting, that broke out July 12 after Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and killed eight others in a cross-border raid. Most casualties have been civilians, and some estimates range as high as 600 dead.
Thirty-three Israeli soldiers have died in fighting, and Hezbollah rocket attacks on northern Israel have killed 19 civilians, the Israeli army said. The army said Israeli troops have killed about 200 Hezbollah guerrillas, but Hezbollah has reported only 35 losses.
The United States, backed by Britain, has adopted a diplomatic stance not embraced by most allies, insisting that any cease-fire must come with conditions to address long-standing regional disputes.
Many Europeans and Arab countries are increasing the pressure for an immediate cease-fire first, followed by a plan to tackle the more complicated issues of curbing Hezbollah’s guerrillas.
Most sides agree on the idea of bringing international forces into the south to end Hezbollah’s decade-long free reign there, but still unresolved is how and when.
A groundswell of support has grown for Hezbollah, which many regional governments initially criticized for provoking the conflict.
In remarks published Saturday, Egypt’s Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, one of the country’s most influential religious leaders, described Hezbollah raids on Israel as “defense of its country and not terrorism.” Egyptian cleric Sheik Youssef el-Qaradawi, one of most prominent Sunni religious scholars in the Arab world who lives in Qatar, on Thursday issued a religious edict describing Hezbollah Shiites as “part of the Islamic,” nation and saying support for the guerrillas was “a religious duty of every Muslim.”
Hezbollah on Friday signaled that it intends to escalate the battle, announcing that it used a new rocket, the Khaibar-1, named after the site of a famed battle between Islam’s prophet Muhammad and Jewish tribes in the Arabian peninsula, to strike the northern Israeli town of Afula.
Five of the rockets crashed into empty fields outside Afula on Friday, causing no injuries “With this, the Islamic Resistance begins a new stage of fighting, challenge and confrontation with a strong determination and full belief in God’s victory,” Hezbollah said in a statement.
Israeli media said the rockets were the newly developed Iranian Fajr-5’s, one of the most powerful weapons believed to be in Hezbollah’s arsenal, four times the power and range of Katyusha rockets. Hundreds of Katyushas have hit northern Israel in the current fighting, including 96 on Friday, one of which hit a hospital.
Israel deployed a Patriot interceptor missile battery north of Tel Aviv, believing the area could be in range of Hezbollah’s barrages.
At the same time, Israeli missile strikes and artillery rained down around towns and roads in southern Lebanon on Friday, targeting rocket sites and buildings believed connected to Hezbollah but wreaking destruction in populated areas.
One airstrike flattened a house in the village of Hadatha, and six people inside were believed dead or wounded, the Lebanese state news agency reported. Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV said all six were dead.
The United Nations moved 50 unarmed observers from their posts to the better protected positions of 2,000 lightly armed U.N. peacekeepers along the border, after an Israeli bomb killed four observers this week. With medicine, food and shelter still only trickling to the war zone in the south, the U.N. humanitarian chief called for a three-day truce to let help get in and let thousands of civilians trapped in the heat of the battle to get out, a call that got no response.