BEIRUT, Lebanon – Israel intensified its attacks against Lebanon on Thursday, blasting Beirut’s international airport and the southern part of the country in its heaviest air campaign against its neighbor in 24 years. Nearly three dozen civilians were killed, officials said.
The strikes on the airport, which damaged three runways, came hours before Israel also imposed a naval blockade on Lebanon to cut off supply routes to Lebanese militants.
The shockwaves from the fighting began to be felt a day after Hezbollah snatched two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid. The escalation of violence in the Middle East pushed crude oil prices to a new intraday record of $75.88 a barrel. Western countries, Russia and the United Nations called for restraint and demanded the soldiers be released.
Israel said it was seeking to end once and for all Hezbollah’s presence on Lebanon’s southern border, while the guerrillas insisted they would only release the soldiers in exchange for Israel freeing Arab prisoners.
The airport, located in the Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs of Beirut, was closed after the attacks and flights were diverted to nearby Cyprus. It was the first time since Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon and occupation of Beirut that the airport was hit by Israel.
Israel also fired a missile at the building housing the studios of Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV in the southern suburbs of Beirut on Thursday morning, the channel’s press officer Ibrahim Farhat told The Associated Press. One person was hurt, but the station continued to broadcast.
Overnight Israeli attacks in southern Lebanon, meanwhile, killed 35 civilians and wounded dozens more, Lebanese security officials said. A family of 10 and another family of seven were killed in their homes in the village of Dweir near Nabatiyeh, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to the press.
Later Thursday, Lebanese guerrillas fired volleys of rockets at northern Israel, killing an Israeli woman in her home in the border town of Nahariya, officials said. Five people were wounded. Thousands of civilians spent Wednesday night in underground shelters.
Eight Israeli soldiers and three Lebanese were killed in fighting Wednesday.
Air force Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel said the campaign was likely Israel’s largest ever in Lebanon, measured in number of targets hit in one night and the complexity of the strikes. The last major military offensive against Lebanon was in 1996 when about 150 Lebanese civilians were killed.
On Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called the Hezbollah raid an “act of war” by Lebanon and threatened “very, very, very painful” retaliation. The Cabinet, meeting in the wake of the military’s highest daily death toll in four years, decided to continue the army operation and call on the international community to disarm Hezbollah, according to participants.
On Thursday, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said the offensive in Lebanon has far-reaching objectives, including pushing Hezbollah militants away from the Israeli border and eventually sidelining the group altogether.
“We must neutralize the hostile terrorist infrastructure that exists in Lebanon,” he said.
Senior Israeli military officials said Israel warned the Lebanese government that it plans to strike offices and homes of Hezbollah leaders in the southern suburbs of Beirut.
Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz also demanded that Lebanese army forces be deployed along the border, saying Israel would not allow Hezbollah guerrillas to reoccupy its positions there. Lebanon has long refused to do this, saying that it is not in business of protecting Israel’s northern border.
The Lebanese government said Wednesday that it had not known of the Hezbollah operation, did not condone it and bore no responsibility for it. The Lebanese Cabinet, which includes two Hezbollah ministers, urged the
U.N. Security Council to intervene.
Hezbollah’s brazen cross-border raid Wednesday opened a second front for the Israeli army. The army launched an incursion into the
Gaza Strip more than two weeks ago to search for another Israeli soldier who was captured by Hamas-linked militants.
At least 23 Palestinians were killed in Gaza on Wednesday. And an Israeli airstrike early Thursday destroyed the building housing the Hamas-controlled Palestinian Foreign Ministry.
Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah on Wednesday offered to trade the two captured Israeli soldiers for Arab prisoners, and warned Israel that his guerrillas would fight if attacked. The group says it has over 10,000 rockets and has in the past struck northern Israeli communities in retaliation for attacks against Lebanese civilians.
The attack on the airport occurred shortly after 6 a.m. Thursday. Warplanes struck three runways, leaving a large crater and seven smaller holes, airport officials said. Two flights approaching the airport were diverted to Larnaca airport on Cyprus.
The main terminal building of the $500-million airport, which was built in the late 1990s, remained intact.
The Israeli military confirmed it had struck the airport, saying the facility is “a central hub for the transfer of weapons and supplies to the Hezbollah terrorist organization.”
In its overnight attacks, Israeli aircraft and artillery targeted roads and bridges, as well as Hezbollah positions and houses of guerrilla members and leaders. A bridge on the main highway between Beirut and southern Lebanon was hit by big bombs that left huge craters, blocking traffic.
Airstrikes also hit deep inside eastern Lebanon, striking a civic center attached to a Shiite Muslim mosque near the town of Baalbek, as well as a transmission antenna for Al-Manar, witnesses reported. The group’s broadcasts stopped in the area.
Israeli jets also blasted the Khardali Bridge on the Litani River, 10 miles north of the Lebanese-Israeli border, witnesses said.
Hezbollah TV reported that guerrillas has fired Katyusha rockets at the Israeli border town of Kiryat Shmona and targeted an airstrip in the upper Galilee panhandle. Another barrage of rockets targeted Nahariya near the coast.
Nahariya Mayor Jackie Sabag said the whole town had been shut down and residents were urged to stay in underground shelters. Patients at the town’s hospital were moved to rooms on lower floors.
The Israeli army said several rockets had landed more than 12 miles south of the border, showing that Hezbollah has managed to extend its missiles’ range.
Israel and Lebanon have a history of conflict, punctuated by a full-scale Israeli invasion in 1982, and its 18-year occupation of a buffer zone in southern Lebanon that was intended to prevent attacks on Israel.