Israeli helicopter gunships rocketed Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camp today, expanding the scope of a six-day-old war against Shiite Muslim militants.
Police said three Cobra gunships fired six rockets into the Ein el-Hilweh camp on the outskirts of the southern port city of Sidon before dawn, hitting the house of a dissident Palestinian guerrilla leader.
The targeted leader, Col. Munir Makdah, survived the attack unscathed, but two bodyguards and one of their wives were wounded in the pre-dawn raid, police said. His house and three others nearby in the Palestinian shantytown were heavily damaged after the helicopters unleashed guided missiles under illuminating parachute flares, police said.
Makdah broke away from Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization and formed his own militia in Ein el-Hilweh, protesting the 1993 PLO peace accord with Israel.
He later struck an alliance with the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, whose cross-border Katyusha rocket attacks on northern Israeli towns triggered Israel’s offensive last Thursday.
Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres said Monday his country was prepared to discuss peace but would not initiate talks. Truces with Hezbollah that Israel has initiated have proven fragile, he said.
The intensity of the Israeli campaign against Hezbollah, while not unprecedented, has been colored in part by Peres’ desire to prove to Israeli voters before May 29 elections that he is not soft on security.
Israel hopes the air raids and the hundreds of thousands of fleeing refugees will pressure Lebanon and Syria to disarm the Iranian-backed Hezbollah. For years, the Shiite Muslim guerrillas have attacked Israeli troops and fired rockets at Israel to drive Israeli troops from a 440-square mile zone they occupy in southern Lebanon.
Others warned the raids may backfire.
“If Israel continues its attacks on Lebanon, we can say goodbye to the peace process,” Lebanon’s Prime Minister Rafik Hariri said Monday.
Israeli air force and artillery struck elsewhere in south Lebanon at daybreak Tuesday, hitting suspected guerrilla bases of Hezbollah after they fired more rockets into northern Israel.
Hezbollah, for its part, declared it has mobilized dozens of suicide bombers to attack Israel’s occupied zone.
“Our human bomb brigade is going to concentrate vengeance on Israel. We’ll strike at the United States when it directly intervenes against us,” Hezbollah’s second-in-command, Sheik Naim Qassem, told the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. in a televised interview Monday.
Hamas, the Palestinian group whose suicide bombings have Israel reeling, said it has joined the rocketing of northern Israel from Lebanon.
Seven Lebanese civilians were killed and 20 people wounded in the Israeli attacks Monday, Lebanese police reported. Eleven Israelis were slightly wounded by Hezbollah rockets.
All told, 35 people have been killed and 147 wounded since the beginning of the latest hostilities between Hezbollah and Israel that ignited into a major Israeli offensive last week. Apart from one Israeli soldier and a Syrian soldier, the dead have all been Lebanese civilians.
Despite a rush of diplomatic activity, prospects seemed dim for a cease-fire.
Secretary of State Warren Christopher sought ways to end the bloodshed in talks with Lebanese leaders and the foreign ministers of Israel and Syria, which has 40,000 troops in Lebanon and controls its government.
Apache helicopter gunships fired rockets Monday at the Hezbollah strongholds of Mraije and Bir Hassan in Beirut’s southern slums. Minutes later, Israeli fighter-bombers hit the Bsaleem power station on the hills overlooking the city, sending plumes of flame and black smoke into the sky.
In southern Lebanon on Monday, Israeli jets, helicopter gunships and artillery battered suspected guerrilla hideouts in communities that have been largely abandoned by residents.
Guerrillas have fired rockets on Israel from the market town of Nabatiyeh and the southern port city of Tyre, and those districts have been heavily hit.
Pillars of black smoke shrouded Nabatiyeh, largely deserted by its 50,000 inhabitants, as buildings burned Monday. A Hezbollah-run hospital was also hit.
Israel urged the few people still in Nabatiyeh and 10 villages around it to flee. Fourteen other villages near Tyre received similar warnings.
The Israeli offensive has driven some 400,000 residents of the south - 10 percent of Lebanon’s population - from their homes.
Hezbollah claims it has suffered no casualties in the Israeli onslaught. There was no way to verify that claim. It was clear that the offensive had failed to curb the attack on northern Israel: Hezbollah fired 90 Katyusha rockets Sunday and unleashed intermittent salvos Monday.
The U.N. Security Council met Monday to discuss the Lebanon fighting. Lebanon asked the council to take formal action, but no resolution or formal statement was adopted.
The United States opposes any clear condemnation of Israel.