Israeli aircraft fired rockets across Lebanon on Thursday, targeting the command center of Hezbollah guerrillas in Beirut and bombarding cars suspected of carrying the guerrillas’ commanders.
It was the first time since the 1982 invasion that Israeli forces have attacked the Lebanese capital.
The airstrikes were in retaliation for Hezbollah attacks on Israeli soldiers in southern Lebanon and rocket assaults on northern Israel that killed one soldier and wounded 38 other Israelis this week.
But with Israeli elections just weeks away and recent suicide bombings deep inside Israel still fresh in Israelis’ minds, the nine hours of strikes went beyond the usual reprisal.
Casualty and damage reports were conflicting, with four or five people reported killed and about a dozen wounded.
Speaking not long after the airstrikes, Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres refused to rule out further attacks on the Shiite Muslim guerrilla group.
“We are not trigger-happy, (but) if someone prefers a confrontation to a dialogue we have the ability to confront them,” he said.
Ahmed Younis, a 35-year-old aide to a Hezbollah commander in the south, was seriously wounded when his car was gutted by a helicopter missile on the highway near the southern port of Sidon.
The commander was not in the vehicle, Lebanese security sources said. A 27-year-old woman passenger was killed and two other civilians were wounded at an adjacent highway rest stop in the fishing harbor of Jiye. A third civilian was wounded when a missile hit a car at Dirdghaya, near the southern port of Tyre, the sources said.
Israeli fighter-bombers also attacked bases of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah in eastern and southern Lebanon.
Hezbollah’s top commander in southern Lebanon, Sheik Nabil Kaouk, swore to “burn (the Israelis) with their fire and blow up the ground under their feet.”
Hezbollah won’t limit its retaliatory attacks to Israel, Hezbollah Secretary-General Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said.
“The reprisals will not just be in northern Palestine. We’ll choose the place and the time,” he said.
Thousands of Israelis fled the border town of Kiryat Shemona, where 36 people were wounded by Katyusha attacks on Tuesday, to safety in central Israel. The army ordered all children under 16 to be evacuated from the north.
The attack on Beirut was Israel’s deepest assault inside Lebanon since its troops invaded nearly 14 years ago to rout Palestinian guerrillas.
Four Apache helicopter gunships swooped in over Beirut under overcast skies from warships off the Mediterranean coast to blast Hezbollah targets in the slums with at least seven missiles.
In a joint news conference with Peres, Israel’s army commanders described why they selected certain structures as air raid targets.
A 10-story building in a densely populated southern suburb of Beirut served as Hezbollah’s command center from which attacks on Israel were being planned, said Maj. Gen. Moshe Ayalon, head of military intelligence.
Helicopter gunships fired three missiles into three windows of a first-floor office in the building, which also housed Hezbollah leaders and their families, said the air force commander, Maj. Gen. Herzl Bodinger.
The army commanders played a videotape of the air strike that showed the missiles hitting the lower left of the high-rise, followed by puffs of smoke. The building remained standing.
Other videos showed the destruction of two buildings in south Lebanon that served as residences for Hezbollah fighters - but were likely evacuated before the attack; and an attack on what Israel said was a “major Hezbollah logistics center” but the guerrilla group claimed was only a garbage dump in the Bekaa Valley.
Hezbollah said “residential buildings” were struck in the Bir el-Abed and Haret Hreik neighborhoods, and denied the group’s office was hit.
Guerrillas blocked people from entering the command center, but there were no visible signs of destruction from the outside.