Israel Responds to Hezbollah Rocket Attack

Hezbollah guerrillas fired rockets at Israeli posts in a disputed border region Saturday, prompting Israeli missile strikes in south Lebanon and raising worries of a new front heating up as Israel wages an assault against the Palestinians.

Israel evacuated 2,000 visitors from the Mt. Hermon ski resort in the Golan Heights because of the Hezbollah rocket fire, said an Israeli army spokesman, Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz.

The Lebanese guerrillas said they attacked six Israeli positions in the Chebaa Farms area, a patch of land claimed by both Israel and Lebanon where the borders of Lebanon and the Israeli-held Golan meet.

It was not immediately clear if the six Israeli positions were hit. Witnesses said black smoke billowed from one hilltop outpost.

The Shiite Muslim guerrilla group issued a statement protesting Israel's "escalation against the struggling and aggrieved Palestinian people," warning that Israel's military operations against the Palestinians would bring "very dangerous repercussions."

Israeli jets fired at least three missiles on suspected guerrilla trails, and Israeli gunners fired about 30 artillery shells at a valley near the Lebanese villages of Halta and Kfar Chouba. Three civilians were hospitalized with injuries, the Lebanese officials said on condition of anonymity.

The exchange of fire comes at a critical time. Israeli troops took over the West Bank town of Ramallah Friday and were inside Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's compound in an operation described by Israeli officials as the first stage of a much larger assault in response to Palestinian suicide attacks.

Rafowicz accused the guerrillas of trying to fuel more violence.

"The Hezbollah wishes in crude and violent fashion to heat up the area and provoke Israel. We view with severity the decision of Hezbollah, in violation of the U.N. position, to stage attacks in the north," he said.

Hezbollah's Al-Manar television reported ongoing "clashes" between guerrilla fighters and Israeli troops in the area. The report could not be independently confirmed, although witnesses reported hearing machine-gun fire. Hezbollah anti-aircraft gunners fired at Israeli jets, but no hits were reported.

The last time Israeli jets fired at Hezbollah positions was Jan. 23, after the guerrillas attacked Israeli army positions in the same area.

Lebanon considers the Chebaa Farms area its territory, and Hezbollah has vowed to liberate it. Israel did not withdraw from the area when it pulled out from the rest of south Lebanon in May 2000, ending an 18-year occupation.

The United Nations says the territory belongs to Syria, which lost the Golan Heights to Israel in the 1967 war, and should be discussed between Syria and Israel.