Published January 13, 2015
Israel poured up to 10,000 armored troops into south Lebanon Tuesday, and commandos raided a Hezbollah-run hospital and captured guerrillas during pitched battles deep in the eastern Bekaa Valley, a major escalation of the three-week-old war.
In the attack on the ancient city of Baalbek, about 80 miles north of Israel, commandos ferried in by helicopters fought Hezbollah guerrillas inside and around the hospital under cover of heavy airstrikes, witnesses said. At least seven people were killed in the city, they said. Israel said an unspecified number of guerrillas were captured and no soldiers were hurt.
The raid was the deepest ground attack on Lebanon since fighting started three weeks ago.
Hezbollah's rocket attacks into Israel, meanwhile, diminished. Hezbollah fired just 10 rockets across the border Tuesday and two early Wednesday, well below an average of about 100 a day since fighting began.
The ferocity of the battles in the Bekaa Valley and across southern Lebanon and the determination of the Israelis to keep fighting quelled expectations for an early cease-fire, although Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said an agreement on how to end the conflict was possible within days, not weeks.
Hezbollah's chief spokesman Hussein Rahal told The Associated Press early Wednesday that Israeli troops had landed near the Hezbollah-run Dar al-Hikma Hospital in Baalbek, about 10 miles from Lebanon's border with Syria.
Hezbollah guerrillas in the area shot automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades while Israeli jets fired missiles at the fighters, Rahal said.
One airstrike hit the village of Al Jamaliyeh, about a half mile from the hospital. A missile hit the house of the village mayor, Hussein Jamaleddin, instantly killing his son, Ali, the mayor's brother, Awad, and five other relatives, witnesses said.
They said Jamaleddin -- who survived the raid -- and his relatives were political opponents of Hezbollah.
"Where is the press? Where is the media to see this massacre? Count our dead. Count our body parts," Jamaleddin told The Associated Press by telephone minutes after the missile strike.
Hezbollah said some people had been seized at the hospital, but denied they were fighters.
"Those who were taken prisoner are citizens. It will not be long before the (Israeli) enemy will discover that they are ordinary citizens," Hezbollah said in a statement broadcast on its Al-Manar television.
The fighting ended at about 4 a.m. after Israel jets pounded parts of the city in at least two air raids. Israeli warplanes later hit several infrastructure targets in the northern province of Akkar and in Nabatieyah, Lebanese security officials said.
Warplanes later fired on a Lebanese army base -- in Sarba, in south Lebanon -- killing three soldiers, a security official said on condition of anonymity.
Residents said the Dar al-Hikma hospital is financed by an Iranian charity, the Imam Khomeini Charitable Society, which is close to Hezbollah. The hospital is run by people close to the Shiite militant group, they said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
Witnesses said the hospital was partially destroyed in the attack.
Baalbek is a city with spectacular Roman ruins as well as the barracks of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards when they trained Hezbollah guerrillas there in the 1980s.
The last time Israel forces were known to have gone that far on the ground into Lebanon was in 1994, when they abducted Lebanese guerrilla leader Mustafa Dirani, hoping to use him to get information about missing Israeli airman Ron Arad. Dirani was released in a prisoner exchange 10 years later.
Meanwhile, in southern Lebanon, up to 10,000 Israeli troops in armored personnel carriers and backed by tanks were operating along the border zone, Israeli defense officials. Thousands more were gathering at staging areas on the Israeli side of the border, ready to join the battles. Israel called up 30,000 reservists over the weekend.
Israel had 100,000 troops in Lebanon at the height of its 1982 invasion of Lebanon that began an 18-year occupation of the south.
On Tuesday, the troops entered through four different points along the border and moved at least four miles inside Lebanon. Israeli officials said their soldiers were to go as far as the Litani River, as far as 18 miles into Lebanon, and hold the ground until an international peacekeeping force comes ashore.
But the army later said it had distributed leaflets northeast of the river at villages where Hezbollah was active. The leaflets told people to leave, suggesting that the new offensive could take Israeli soldiers even deeper into Lebanon.
At nightfall Tuesday, Israeli troops were fighting Hezbollah at several points along the border in intense ground battles. Reporters and Arab television reported especially heavy fighting and Israeli artillery bombardment at the village of Aita al-Shaab.
The Israeli army said late Tuesday that three Israeli soldiers died and 25 were slightly wounded by small arms fire and anti-tank rockets in Aita al-Shaab.
Hezbollah said in a statement that it had also attacked an Israeli army armored unit near the border Wednesday morning, destroying two tanks and leaving their crews dead or wounded.
The statement said the fight began when an armored unit attempted to advance on the Rub Thalatheen hill at Adaisseh, a border village on the central sector of the frontier.
Despite mounting civilian deaths, President Bush held fast to support for Israel and was pressing for a U.N. resolution linking a cease-fire with a broader plan for peace in the Middle East. Staking out a different approach, European Union foreign ministers called for an "immediate cessation of hostilities" followed by efforts to agree on a sustainable cease-fire.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said he expects some action in the Security Council in the coming days, hopefully this week.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said it was not in Israel's interest to agree to an immediate cease-fire because every day of fighting weakens the guerrillas.
"Every additional day is a day that drains the strength of this cruel enemy," he said.
The army also hopes to push Hezbollah far enough north so that most of the guerrillas' rockets cannot reach the Jewish state.
Israeli Cabinet Minister Haim Ramon said the fighting to date had killed about 300 of Hezbollah's main force of 2,000 fighters, which does not include its less-well trained reserves. "That's a very hard blow," he said.
Hezbollah has said only 46 of its fighters were killed. Four were lost in battles with Israeli ground troops in Adaisse and Taibeh, near the Christian town of Marjayoun, about five miles from the border with Israel, Hezbollah said.
Polls in Israel show wall-to-wall support for Israel's fight against Hezbollah, even with Israeli civilians enduring a barrage of rocket fire and the army poised for a sweeping ground offensive that is sure to lead to more casualties. Hezbollah's capture of two Israeli soldiers in a July 12 cross-border raid triggered the offensive.
But the deaths of 56 Lebanese in the devastating weekend strike in Qana focused attention on civilian casualties.
Three more civilians were killed and three seriously wounded when Israeli warplanes hit a house in the southern Lebanese town of Lweizeh, Lebanese security officials said Tuesday.
Also, the Lebanese Red Cross said the bodies of 12 civilians were retrieved from the rubble of buildings destroyed in airstrikes on four villages in southern Lebanon and many more were believed still buried. It was not clear when the victims were killed.
At least 539 Lebanese have been killed, including 468 civilians and 25 Lebanese soldiers and at least 46 Hezbollah guerrillas. The health minister says the toll could be as high as 750, including those still buried in rubble or missing. Fifty-four Israelis have died -- 36 soldiers as well as 18 civilians killed in Hezbollah rocket attacks.