BEIRUT, Lebanon – Israel unleashed a furious military campaign on Lebanon’s main airport, highways, military bases and other targets Thursday, retaliating for scores of Hezbollah guerrilla rockets that rained down on Israel and reached as far as Haifa, its third-largest city, for the first time.
Israel kept up the barrage early today with airstrikes in south Beirut where Hezbollah is headquartered, Lebanese police and witnesses said.
The death toll in two days of fighting rose to 57 people, with the sudden burst of violence sending shock waves through a region already traumatized by Iraq and the ongoing battles in the Gaza Strip between Israel and Hamas. It shattered the relative calm in Lebanon that followed Israel’s pullout from its occupied zone in south Lebanon in 2000 and the withdrawal of Syrian forces last year.
Israel’s target was Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militant Shiite faction that has a free hand in southern Lebanon and also holds seats in parliament. Hezbollah sparked the current conflict Wednesday with a cross-border raid that captured two of Israel’s soldiers.
Israel said it was determined to beat Hezbollah back and deny the militant fighters positions they have held along the border since 2000.
The Lebanese government, caught in the middle, pleaded for a cease-fire.
“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,” Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said.
Israeli warplanes stepped up the pressure early today. Police and witnesses said strikes targeted a fuel storage tank and southern suburbs where Hezbollah has its political headquarters. Two AP journalists and other witnesses near the scene heard explosions from at least seven missiles . Anti-aircraft fire echoed as Israeli jets roared over the capital.
Lebanese television stations said the jets damaged two bridges and a plaza where Hezbollah leaders hold rallies. They carried unconfirmed reports of several people injured. The TV footage showed broken glass and debris covering streets and a young man with bloodied face and chest walking from a damaged apartment.
This morning’s violence came hours after Israel dropped leaflets in the area warning residents to avoid areas where Hezbollah operates.
Fears mounted among Arab and European governments that violence in Lebanon could spiral out of control.
Israeli analysts warned that Syria, which supports Hezbollah and plays host to Hamas’ political leader, Khaled Mashaal, could be Israel’s next target.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said any Israeli attack against Syria would be an aggression on the whole Islamic world and warned of a harsh reaction, the official Iranian news agency reported today.
The agency said Ahmadinejad made the comments in a telephone call to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
At the United Nations, the United States blocked an Arab-backed resolution that would have demanded Israel halt its military offensive in the Gaza Strip, the first U.N. Security Council veto in nearly two years.
Israel’s offensive was among its heaviest in Lebanon since it invaded the neighboring country and occupied its capital 24 years ago. Two days of Israeli bombings killed 45 Lebanese and two Kuwaitis and wounded 103. Two Israeli civilians and eight Israeli soldiers have also been killed, the military’s highest death toll in four years.
With Beirut’s international airport closed after Israeli bombs ripped apart its runway, many tourists were trapped while others drove over the mountains to Syria. Israeli warplanes struck the highway linking Beirut to the Syrian capital of Damascus early Friday, closing the country’s main artery and further isolating Lebanon from the outside world.
Beirut residents stayed indoors, leaving the streets of the capital largely empty. Others packed supermarkets to stock up on goods. Long lines formed at gas stations, and many quickly ran out of gas.
Israel said its attacks were to prevent the movement of the captured soldiers and hamper Hezbollah’s military capacity. It said it had information Hezbollah was trying to take the two soldiers to its ally, Iran, an allegation denied by the Iranian Foreign Ministry.
Israel launched an offensive in Gaza against Hamas, whose fighters are holding another Israeli soldier captured two weeks ago.
Early today, Israeli aircraft struck targets in several parts of Gaza and a Palestinian was killed when an Israeli tank shell struck his truck, officials said. There were no reports of injury in the air raids, which damaged a main road and offices and training camps of militants.
The shock waves from the fighting on two fronts began to be felt as oil prices surged Thursday to a record more than $78 a barrel in world markets, also agitated by the threat of supply disruptions in the Middle East and beyond.
President Bush, speaking of the Lebanon offensive, backed Israel’s right to defend itself and denounced Hezbollah as “a group of terrorists who want to stop the advance of peace.”
But he also expressed worries the Israeli assault could cause the fall of Lebanon’s anti-Syrian government. “We’re concerned about the fragile democracy in Lebanon,” Bush said in Germany.
The European Union took a harsher tone, criticizing Israel for using what it called “disproportionate” force. EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said he was planning a peace mission.
The Arab League called an emergency meeting of foreign ministers in Cairo on Saturday, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas warned that Israel’s Lebanon offensive “is raising our fears of a new regional war.”