BEIRUT, Lebanon — Israeli warplanes smashed Hezbollah chief Sayed Hassan Nasrallah’s headquarters Friday, and shortly after, Hezbollah vowed to unleash “open war” and crippled an Israeli warship off the Lebanese coast.
The rapid exchange of blows marked a sharp escalation in three days of intense fighting between Israel and Hezbollah. Four Israeli sailors were missing after an unmanned drone packed with explosives slammed into the warship.
In another maritime strike, Israel said that a Hezbollah rocket barrage missed its target and struck a civilian merchant ship. They did not know the nationality of the ship, or whether there were casualties.
The escalation began at sunset Friday as Israel staged a massive airstrike on the one-story building that housed the living quarters and offices of Hezbollah’s chief, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah. He survived, and quickly called Hezbollah’s television station to make a live statement in which he vowed “open war.”
“The surprises I promised you will start now. The Israeli war vessels that inflicted damage on our infrastructure … will burn and sink in front of you,” Nasrallah said in a call to Hezbollah’s television station. “This is the start.”
Within about an hour of Nasrallah’s warning, the remote-controlled drone rammed the Israeli warship, which officials said was being towed home.
With airstrikes intensifying, rhetoric hardening and civilian casualties mounting, Israel and Hezbollah seemed determined on Friday to escalate their fight. Israel drew up a list of fresh targets, vowing that the strikes would grow even more punishing in coming days. So far, about 90 people have been killed – at least 12 Israelis and at least 73 in Lebanon. Israeli officials have threatened to attack Lebanon until Hezbollah releases two Israeli soldiers captured earlier this week in a brazen raid into northern Israel.
In the crowded, predominantly Shiite neighborhoods that are Hezbollah’s nerve center, traffic intersections, highway overpasses and bridges were blown to pieces Friday. Plumes of black smoke climbed high into the sky from the airport, which was bombed for the second day in a row.
The country stood under virtual siege, its ports blockaded, its airport bombed into uselessness and the roads and bridges to the borders shattered. At least 63 Lebanese have been killed in two days of attacks and nearly 200 wounded.
“It was just fire, fire, fire, like hell,” said Ahmed Sebah, a 42-year-old firefighter who was wounded in a missile attack on a bridge in Beirut’s southern suburbs. “Why are they doing this? Does a bridge really make such a difference?”
Meanwhile, across a broad swath of northern Israel, thousands of people spent a second day huddled in bomb shelters while Hezbollah guerillas fired a barrage of more than 80 rockets. Two Israelis were killed, and dozens more injured.
A woman and her 5-year-old grandson were killed when a Katyusha rocket hit their home in a collective farming community on Mount Meron, which lies close to the frontier and is also the site of an Israeli military base.
Two other Israelis, a woman in the coastal town of Nahariya and a man in the northern town of Safat, died in Thursday’s rocket attacks. Both towns were hit hard again Friday. Roads in the north of the country were largely deserted on Friday, and the few pedestrians out on the streets picked their way through pockets of broken glass and debris.
After capturing the soldiers, Hezbollah demanded direct negotiations with Israel over Lebanese and Arab prisoners. Nasrallah vowed to keep the Israeli soldiers captive to use as bargaining chips to free the Arab prisoners.
But he said from the beginning that Hezbollah would meet force with force. And by Friday, talk of negotiation had fallen to the wayside.
“We are going to open war,” Nasrallah warned Israel in his speech. “You have chosen an all-out war with a nation which … has capability, experience and courage.”
The possibility of a prolonged, bloody war between Hezbollah and Israel could deepen instability beyond the borders of the two small Mediterranean nations. Such a fight would pit the Jewish state against bitter foes Iran and Syria, Hezbollah’s two main backers, at a time when Iran’s influence has grown mightily. U.S. and Israeli officials have made it plain that they hold Iran and Syria to blame for Hezbollah’s actions.
U.S. interests would also be imperiled if Iraqi Shiites, who are linked by blood and belief to Shiites in Lebanon, become further radicalized against the Americans, who are Israel’s most important strategic allies.
In Israel, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s senior security advisers, meeting on Friday before the start of the Jewish Sabbath, approved a new round of targets to be struck.
Israeli media reports, citing senior commanders, said the fresh onslaught in coming days would include sites in densely populated areas. The army said it had dropped more leaflets warning people they were in danger if they lived close to Hezbollah installations.
“Israel is ready to take whatever measures it deems necessary to protect its citizens from death and injury,” said David Baker, a government spokesman.
While Israel’s offensive was launched in response to the cross-border Hezbollah raid on Wednesday that left eight soldiers dead and two in Hezbollah custody, Israeli policymakers spoke openly of a wider goal of bringing the long-hated Shiite militia to its knees.
“We had predicted that Hezbollah would break the rules of the game, and we intend to break this organization,” said Defense Minister Amir Peretz. “We don’t intend to end this operation and allow the situation with Hezbollah to return to the way it was several days ago.”
Israel’s army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, put it even more bluntly.
“Our intention is to hunt Hezbollah,” he told reporters in Tel Aviv, Israel. “This campaign is extensive and intensive, and for now we’ve made Hezbollah its foremost target.” The Lebanese government must take all measures to rein in the Shiite group – or face an even more devastating onslaught, Halutz said.
In besieged Lebanon, anxiety mounted. The crammed, tumble-down southern Beirut neighborhood of Hrat Hreik was deserted and bomb-pocked on Friday. The streets, usually cacophonous melds of taxis, buses and motorbikes, stretched empty for blocks. Window shutters were pulled down tight on the dirty apartment buildings; shops were darkened behind locked grates.