Israel bombed central Beirut yesterday for the first time in the four-day conflict, hitting a port and a lighthouse near a picturesque seaside walkway that is a favorite spot for running, walking, and meeting friends, while Hezbollah rockets continued to rain down on northern Israel.
Israeli airstrikes killed 33 Lebanese people, including many civilians, officials said, among them 15 people who were trying to flee the southern town of Marwaheen after Israeli loudspeaker announcements ordered them to leave their homes.
Early today, Israel bombed Beirut’s southern suburbs again. At least a dozen explosions shook the section where Hezbollah is headquartered and where much of the intensifying air assault has been focused since hostilities erupted Wednesday.
Fears of a broader regional conflict continued to grow. Israel yesterday also bombarded a bridge on the Damascus-Beirut highway and the Lebanese side of the border crossing with Syria, further cutting off Lebanon from the outside world and raising fears of a strike on Syria.
Continuing to accuse Iran of fomenting the crisis, Israel’s military said yesterday that an explosion on board one of its navy ships blockading Beirut on Friday was caused not by a Hezbollah unmanned aircraft, as previously announced, but by an Iranian-made radar-guided C-802 missile.
The military said that 100 elite Iranian troops in Lebanon helped with the launch, and a similar missile sank a Cambodian merchant ship in the area carrying Egyptian sailors. Iran issued a statement calling the allegations “meaningless.”
Israeli military officials also expressed concern that Hezbollah missiles had the capability of striking Tel Aviv, 70 miles inside the border.
President Bush, in Russia for a G-8 summit, called on Hezbollah to end its attacks and urged Syria to “exert its influence over Hezbollah” to stop the fighting.
Prime Minister Fouad Siniora of Lebanon declared a state of emergency and asked “the whole world to stop this aggression under the umbrella of the United Nations.” The 18-member Arab League also called on the UN Security Council to intervene.
In a televised speech, Siniora implicitly criticized Hezbollah and the impunity with which it launched an attack that plunged the country into war. “Only the government has the right to decide peace and war,” he said, adding that the country “cannot rise and get back on its feet if its government is the last to know.”
He also argued forcefully that the Lebanese government army should be deployed along the border with Israel, one of Israel’s demands.
Since the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah and Syrian allies in Lebanon have refused, saying the deployment would amount to bowing to Israel. But Seniora said it was in Lebanese best interests as well.
“We maintain our right to defend the Lebanese,” he said.
After a bloody civil war that ended in 1990 and an Israeli occupation in the south that ended in 2000, Lebanon had been enjoying an economic recovery it had not experienced in decades. There had been hopes for political renewal after Syria was forced to withdraw its troops last year, after its officials were suspected in the car-bombing death of Rafik Hariri, former Lebanese prime minister.
Those hopes were dashed Wednesday when the Lebanese-based militant group Hezbollah crossed into Israel, attacked an Israeli patrol, and captured two soldiers.
The ensuing exchange of Hezbollah rockets and Israeli airstrikes claimed the lives of 106 Lebanese, mostly civilians, and 15 Israelis, including 11 soldiers and four civilians.
Israel says it holds the Lebanese government responsible for the attacks because it has failed to disarm Hezbollah. Lebanon says it cannot control the powerful Iranian- and Syrian-backed militant group.
Israeli airstrikes expanded widely throughout the country yesterday, hitting the city of Baalbek, a Hezbollah stronghold, and areas near the northern city of Tripoli. Israel also hit ports in Beirut and Jounieh, saying they aimed at radar equipment that may have helped guide the missile that hit the Israeli ship.
Some of the targets seemed designed for symbolic shock value. A bomb struck the lighthouse in Ras Beirut — “the head of Beirut” — a red clay peninsula that is one of the city’s most prominent neighborhoods. As the attacks continued, downtown Beirut grew eerily quiet, its boutiques shuttered and restaurants empty.
For many of the city’s residents, the bomb blasts brought back memories of the country’s 15-year civil war that ended in 1990.
“This is just like what the New Jersey was doing to us,” said Miriam Al Haj Ali, 70, a resident of the Chatila Palestinian refugee camp, referring to the American naval vessel that bombarded the Lebanese coast in 1984. “My children were the same age then as my grandchildren are now,” she said as bombs fell in a nearby neighborhood, and her 4-year-old grandson, Bassam, began crying. “I hope he grows up to be a fighter against Israel.”
In the south, an Associated Press photographer counted 15 bodies in a strike on people fleeing Marwaheen.
“They’re peaceful people who were displaced. They were just fleeing the shelling. They were hit on the road, in their cars,” Abdel-Mohsen Hussein, the local mayor, told Al-Arabiya television.
The Israeli military issued a statement saying that it “regrets civilian casualties.” It said it targeted launching grounds for hundreds of rockets that have been aimed at Israeli civilians in the past three days.
Fears of a broader conflict increased with the Israeli raid at the Masnaa border crossing with Syria, part of what Israel said was a bid to block weapons imports.
“Hitting Syria territory would be a major escalation,” the first fighting between Israel and Syria since 1973, said Andrew Tabler, a fellow with the Institute of Current World Affairs, who is based in Damascus. “Most Syrians are surprised that the storm is hitting this soon and this close to them.”
The “Damascus road” is not just one of the region’s major highways, it is a symbol of Syrian influence over Lebanon, Tabler said, as well as an informal crossing where Lebanese can enter Syria by showing their IDs.
“Syrians and Lebanese have family on both sides of the border. Damascus road is literally the way to grandma’s house,” Tabler said. But yesterday, Lebanese media reported, the border was swarmed by Lebanese trying to escape.
In Israel, five Hezbollah rockets hit the town of Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee — the first time that city has been bombarded since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Many people had fled the mountainous north for Tiberias, 20 miles south of the border, thinking it would be safe there.
Many towns normally packed with weekenders were deserted.
In Kiryat Shmoneh, a few residents stayed. “It’s not that I’m not scared at all; it’s just that I can’t see myself going somewhere else,” said Jack Ben-Shushan, 47, who drove his wife and three children to the West Bank settlement of Ariel on Friday to get them out of range of the rockets.
Butters reported from Beirut; Barnard from Jerusalem. Correspondents Rana Fil and Rafael D. Frankel contributed from Beirut and northern Israel. Material from Associated Press also was included.