HAIFA, Israel – Lebanese guerillas fired a relentless barrage of rockets into the northern Israeli city of Haifa on Sunday, killing eight people at a train station and wounding seven others in a dramatic escalation of a five-day-old conflict that has shattered Mideast peace.
Soon afterward, Israeli warplanes hit the south Beirut stronghold of Hezbollah with at least six airstrikes, shaking the Lebanese capital and sending a cloud of thick smoke rising over the neighborhood. The attack on Haifa came after Israel unleashed its fiercest bombardment yet of Beirut, reducing entire apartment buildings to rubble and knocking out electricity to many areas in the capital.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert vowed that there would be "far-reaching consequences" for the rocket attack — the deadliest ever to hit Israel. Smoke rose over Haifa and air raid sirens wailed as the dead and wounded were evacuated. Other rockets hit the city's major oil refinery, gas storage tanks and a major street during the busy morning rush hour.
Israeli authorities warned all residents in the central city of Tel Aviv and north to be on heightened alert, reflecting the longer range of the missile attacks.
Israeli officials blamed Syria and Iran for providing the weaponry that hit Haifa — raising the specter of a wider regional confrontation. (Full story)
The Israeli air force dropped leaflets over south Lebanon telling residents to leave immediately before an imminent attack.
"In two or three hours we are going to attack the south of Lebanon heavily," said Maj. Gen. Udi Adam, the head of Israel's northern command,
It was the sharpest escalation since fighting began last Wednesday after Hezbollah guerillas penetrated Israel in brazen raid, killing eight soldiers and capturing another two. The fighting opened a second front for Israel, which had already been fighting Hamas-linked militants in the Gaza Strip following the capture of another Israeli soldier on June 25.
Israeli troops, tanks and helicopter gunships re-entered northern Gaza on Sunday, firing missiles and exchanging gunfire with armed Palestinians in a raid that killed three militants.
Masked militants in Gaza vowed in a news conference Sunday to launch more rockets at Israel "to show solidarity with the twin of our resistance," referring to Hezbollah.
The attack on Haifa raised Israel's death toll from the fighting to at least 23, 11 soldiers and 12 civilians. Israeli airstrikes in Lebanon have killed 130 people, almost all of them civilians.
Israel has expanded its mission from the immediate need to free the three soldiers to a campaign to halt rocket fire from Gaza and to neutralize Hezbollah in Lebanon. Iran and Syria are prime supporters of the two Islamic militant groups, raising fears they could be drawn into a regional war.
Syrian Information Minister Mohsen Bilal warned that any aggression against it "will be met with a firm and direct response whose timing and methods are unlimited."
Israeli officials said the guerillas, who had been firing relatively small Katyusha rockets, launched at least four Iranian-made Fajr missiles at Haifa. Those missiles, with a range of 28 miles, have a far larger warhead than the Katyushas. Adam, the head of Israel's northern command, confirmed that Iranian-made missiles were fired at Haifa — the first time Hezbollah had used the Fajr missiles in attacking Israel.
Shaul Mofaz, an Israeli Cabinet minister and former army chief of staff, pointed his fingers at Syria.
"The ammunition that Hezbollah used this morning ... is Syrian ammunition," he said. He also compared Hezbollah to Al Qaeda, saying Israel should mount its operation accordingly.
Hezbollah guerillas said they hit Haifa, Israel's third-largest city, with dozens of Raad-2 and Raad-3 missiles. The attack was certain to invite harsh Israeli retaliation.
"Nothing will deter us," Olmert said at the beginning of his government's weekly Cabinet meeting. "There will be far-reaching consequences in our relations on the northern border and in the area in general."
At least 20 rockets slammed into Haifa on Sunday, and one of them hit a section of the train depot where crews perform maintenance on the trains, tearing a huge hole in the roof and killing eight people. One body was covered in a white bag and placed on a stretcher on the ground.
"I saw bodies in the warehouse. The picture was not pleasant," one witness, who identified himself as Igor, told Israel's Army Radio.
About 30 people were working in the depot at the time of the attack, Ofer Litzevski, an official with the train company, told reporters.
Mayor Yona Yahav warned people against holding large gatherings and canceled all cultural events in the city. Trains in northern Israel were halted and bus service in Haifa and north was stopped.
Hezbollah said it intentionally avoided hitting petrochemical installations in Haifa, according to a statement read on Al-Manar.
"But the next time, it [Hezbollah] will not spare anything in Haifa and its surroundings," the statement said.
Israel deployed a Patriot missile battery in Haifa on Saturday to protect the city against surface-to-surface missiles. But the Patriot was not built to combat the kind of missiles that hit Haifa on Sunday, said Brig. Gen. Ido Nehushtan, a member of the army's General Staff.
Rockets fired by Lebanese militants also hit Acco, Nahariya and several other northern towns, and residents of the region were told to head to bomb shelters. Israeli rescue teams said 20 people were injured in Haifa and Acco, four of them seriously.
During Israel's overnight attacks on Lebanon, Al-Manar television, Hezbollah's main voice to the world, was briefly knocked off the air. The Jiyeh power plant, on the southern outskirts, was in flames after being hit, cutting electricity to many areas in the capital and south Lebanon.
Large swaths of the capital were covered in fine white dust from the barrage. Around the Hezbollah compound in the southern district — known as Dahiyah — entire blocks were littered with heaps of rubble and twisted metal, and fires raged.
One building collapsed on its side like a sandwich, and other apartment buildings were reduced to rubble or had their upper floors collapsed into those below. The steel gates of the Hezbollah compound was mangled and buried in the rubble of the demolished structures inside.
Furniture pieces, blankets, mattresses, clothes and soft toys were scattered on the streets. A copy of the Quran, Islam's holy book, lay in the street with its dusty pagers fluttering until it was reverently lifted and kissed by a Hezbollah gunman.
Dahiyah was empty except for guerrillas and a few residents who returned to their homes to collect belongings before fleeing again to their refuges elsewhere.
"We want to sleep on our own pillows in the shelter," Mariam Shihabiyah, a 39-year-old mother of five said as she emerged from scrounging a few supplies from her apartment in a badly damaged building. "I just want them and our clothes, that's all ... Can you believe what happened to Dahiyah?"
Adam, the head of Israel's Northern Command, said Iranian troops were helping Hezbollah fire Iranian-made missiles at Israel. Hamid Reza Asefi, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, denied claims that his country had troops in Lebanon or had given missiles to Hezbollah.
Hezbollah guerillas hit Haifa with a rocket for the first time ever Thursday. Israel responded by stepping up its airstrikes in Lebanon.
Olmert said that Israel's offensive did not intend to harm Lebanese civilians.
"We want to live our lives in peace and in good neighborly relations," he said. "Unfortunately, there are those who misinterpret our wishes for peace in the wrong way. We have to no intention of bending in the face of these threats."
"Our enemies are trying to disrupt the lifestyle in Israel. They will fail," he said.