JERUSALEM – A massive wave of guerrilla rockets pounded northern Israel in a matter of minutes Thursday, killing eight people hours before Hezbollah's leader offered to stop the attacks if Israel ends its airstrikes. Israel hit back early Friday with airstrikes in southern Beirut.
Israel lost four soldiers in fighting Thursday, making it the dealiest day yet for the Jewish state in its two-front war.
The Israeli military said the targets of the latest attacks in the southern Beirut Shiite neighborhood of Danieh were Hezbollah facilities and a Hamas office. Local media said Israel launched 24 bombing runs in an hour.
Israeli artillery shells earlier exploded in the hills of southern Lebanon, sometimes as many as 15 per minute. The military said its aircraft were hitting Hezbollah targets all over the country.
In the second front of its offensive against Islamic militants, Israel sent dozens of tanks into the Gaza Strip as aircraft fired at clusters of militants. The heavy clashes in Gaza killed eight Palestinians, including an 8-year-old boy.
Despite Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah's offer and continuing diplomatic efforts to broker a cease-fire, the Israeli army prepared to push up to Lebanon's Litani River as part of its campaign to force the Shiite guerrillas away from the border and make room for a planned international force to patrol the area.
In the 23rd day of Israel's punishing onslaught both on the ground and from the air, Hezbollah has shown surprising strength and has found its support in Lebanon — and among the larger Arab world — vastly bolstered. With calls for a cease-fire growing more intense, the prospect that Hezbollah would emerge damaged but far from destroyed by the fighting appeared likely.
Jordan's King Abdullah II warned that the fighting was causing a backlash against moderate Arab leaders and was strengthening the very radicals it was intended to destroy. "The Arab people see Hezbollah as a hero because it's fighting Israel's aggression," he said.
The fighting in Gaza, which began June 25 after Hamas-linked militants captured an Israeli soldier in a cross-border raid, has killed a total of 175 Palestinians, the U.N. reported Thursday, adding that it was concerned that "with international attention focusing on Lebanon, the tragedy in Gaza is being forgotten."
The offensive in Lebanon began after another cross-border raid by militants, in this case Hezbollah guerrillas, captured two Israeli soldiers. More than three weeks into the fighting, six Israeli brigades — or roughly 10,000 troops — were locked in battle with hundreds of Hezbollah guerrillas in south Lebanon.
Israel said three of its soldiers were killed when an anti-tank rocket hit their tank, seriously damaging the vehicle, and a fourth during fighting in the southern Lebanese town of Taibeh.
Since the fighting started, 68 Israelis have been killed, 41 soldiers and 27 civilians. More than 300,000 Israelis have fled their homes in the north, Israeli officials said.
An Associated Press count shows at least 525 Lebanese have been killed, including 450 civilians confirmed dead by the Health Ministry, 25 Lebanese soldiers and at least 50 Hezbollah guerrillas. Five of the civilians were reported dead Thursday in airstrikes. Hezbollah also reported four deaths but did not say when the fighters were killed.
Despite Israel's efforts to crush Hezbollah, the guerrillas launched at least 200 rockets into northern Israel on Thursday.
At least 100 of them rained down within a half-hour period Thursday afternoon, setting cars on fire, sending Israelis fleeing into shelters and killing eight people. The barrage, which came a day after the guerrillas fired more than 230 rockets into Israel, underscored Hezbollah's continued ability to carry out unrelenting strikes.
In Maalot, three Israeli Arabs from the village of Tarshiha were riding in a car when rockets started falling. They ran out of the vehicle in search of shelter and were killed by a rocket, police said.
"Hezbollah fires missiles and they don't think about anyone," Naim Naim, who was friends with one of those killed, said as he stood near a large hole stained with blood that scarred the ground.
In Acre, five people were killed — four instantly and a fifth who died later of his wounds, police said. Some of those killed had come out of shelters after an initial rocket barrage to see where they fell only to die in a second volley, Mayor Shimon Lankry told Israel's Channel Two Television.
In response, Defense Minister Amir Peretz told top army officers to begin preparing for the next stage of the offensive in south Lebanon, a push to the Litani River, about 20 miles from the border, senior military officials said. Such a push would require further approval by Israel's Security Cabinet and could lead to far more casualties.
The Israeli army said Thursday it had taken up positions in or near 11 towns and villages across south Lebanon as part of an effort to carve out a smaller 5-mile-deep Hezbollah-free zone.
Israeli airstrikes throughout the day Thursday also hit a two-story house in Taibeh, killing a man, his wife and daughter, Lebanese security officials said.
Witnesses said at least four missiles hit Dahieh, a Shiite area that has been repeatedly targeted. Israeli jets also dropped leaflets over southern Beirut warning residents to evacuate three Shiite neighborhoods, a possible prelude to more attacks. After midnight, Israeli aircraft attacked Dahieh again.
In a televised speech broadcast Thursday night, Nasrallah, for the first time, offered to stop firing rockets into Israel if it stops its airstrikes. However, he threatened to launch missiles into Israel's commercial center of Tel Aviv if Israel hit Beirut.
"Anytime you decide to stop your campaign against our cities, villages, civilians and infrastructure, we will not fire rockets on any Israeli settlement or city," he said in a taped statement broadcast on Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV.
Speaking directly to Israelis, Nasrallah said, "The only choice before you is to stop your aggression and turn to negotiations to end this folly."
Israeli officials shrugged off the offer, saying Hezbollah was on the defensive and was looking for a breather.
"We have no doubt the Hezbollah leadership would want nothing more than a cease-fire that would allow them to rearm, regroup and once again be in a position of strength where they can dominate Lebanese politics and initiate the kind of crisis we've seen over the past few weeks," Israel Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.
Israel's United Nations ambassador, Dan Gillerman, told CNN early Friday that Nasrallah's offer of a truce was "a sign of weakness ... and he may be looking for a way out."
Israel has not struck Beirut proper since the start of the war, instead focusing its attacks on the southern suburbs where Hezbollah is strong. Two satellite images released Thursday by GeoEye, taken before and after the bombardment, show the scale of the devastation. Rows of buildings have been flattened.
At the United Nations, France circulated a revised resolution calling for an immediate end to hostilities and spelling out the conditions for a permanent cease-fire and lasting solution to the crisis.
Israel, backed by the United States, has brushed off calls for an immediate cease-fire, saying it wants an international force or the Lebanese army to deploy in southern Lebanon to prevent future Hezbollah attacks on Israel.
In an effort to bolster the Lebanese army, the United States announced plans to train the Lebanese army so it can take control of the south after the fighting ends. Other nations in the international community will help out as well, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Thursday.
Meanwhile, in a report on the devastating Israeli attack Sunday on the village of Qana, New York-based Human Rights Watch said its reexamination of the incident showed 28 people had died, half the number initially reported by Lebanese organizations. Thirteen were still missing.
The AP re-questioned officials in the Lebanese Red Cross and Civil Defense Corps and reached the same conclusion — that only 28 people died. George Kitane, head of Lebanese Red Cross paramedics, said 19 children were among the dead.
An Israeli military inquiry into the Qana bombing, admitted a mistake but charged that Hezbollah guerrillas used civilians as shields for their rocket attacks.
"Had the information indicated that civilians were present ... the attack would not have been carried out," a statement from the inquiry said.