Israeli forces killed a senior Hezbollah commander in a helicopter-gunship attack on his car in southern Lebanon Friday, and Katyusha rockets from the region rained down on northern Israel hours later, killing a civilian for the first time in nearly two years.
Israel retaliated by shelling south Lebanon villages, and late in the day a Hezbollah leader declared the group would no longer abide by a 2-year-old accord not to target civilians.
The series of events marked a day of intensified fighting on the last active Israeli-Arab battle front. Since the last major Israeli incursion, in 1993, most of the fighting in Lebanon has been done by proxies inside Israel’s self-declared “security zone” in the south.
In recent months, the Israeli-sponsored South Lebanese Army has taken something of a beating from Hezbollah, or the Party of God, an Islamic militant group armed and financed by Iran and operating from territory under Syrian control. Hezbollah opposes peace with Israel and has vowed to drive the Israeli army from the strip of southern Lebanon it has controlled for a decade.
Friday, Israeli intelligence pinned down the location of Rida Yassin, the commander of Hezbollah’s forces in Nabatiyah and one of the guerrilla group’s top 10 leaders. American-built Cobra helicopter gunships, flying fast and low, intercepted Yassin’s Mercedes Benz south of Tyre and reduced it to a flaming hulk with air-to-ground rockets and heavy machine-gun fire.
Since Israel’s so-called Operation Accountability in June 1993, in which it retaliated for rocket attacks on the northern Galilee region by forcing hundreds of thousands of southern Lebanese residents from their homes, there has been an informal understanding with Hezbollah that neither side would target the other’s civilian populace.
Breaches of that understanding have been rare, and never fatal, until Friday. Thousands of Israelis were driven to bomb shelters Friday night, and Katyushas fired from southern Lebanon killed an Israeli civilian in the coastal town of Nahariya.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, interviewed on Israeli television before the Katyusha attacks, said the helicopter strike at the senior Hezbollah commander was intended to “give them the message that, ‘Gentlemen, we are not going to sit quietly and await your attacks.’ “