As the Mideast crisis continued to intensify, the head of Lebanon's militant group Hezbollah declared "open war," and Israel said it would not stop its military campaign until Hezbollah was disarmed.
Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah spoke in a recorded message played soon after Israeli planes destroyed his home and offices in southern Beirut. Spokesmen said Nasrallah and his family were not hurt. Nasrallah's message played on Hezbollah's own TV station, Al-Manar, and drew celebratory gunfire from his Shiite supporters. "You wanted an open war," he said addressing Israelis, "and we are heading for an open war. We are ready for it."
Nasrallah then announced that his fighters had rocketed an Israeli military ship from which air raids on Beirut had been launched. An Israeli army spokesman confirmed the attack, which was reported to have been carried out by an unmanned drone, a troubling sign for Israel that Hezbollah has a greater arsenal than believed. Israel did not immediately respond to a report on Al-Jazeera that it was searching for four missing soldiers from the ship.
Israeli continued to bomb Beirut's airport runways Friday, and continued its sea blockade, cutting the country off from the outside world. It also struck fuel tanks at one of Beirut's two main power stations. Lebanese spokesmen said the death toll now topped 70, almost all civilians.
France condemned Hezbollah as "irresponsible," and Israeli’s actions as "totally disproportionate."
Lebanon's Prime Minister, Fouad Siniora, asked the White House to pressure Israel to stop, but spokesman Tony Snow said, "The president is not going to make military decisions for Israel." Snow also said neither side would likely agree to a ceasefire at this point, but that the president President had urged Israel to limit civilian casualties.
At a meeting of the United Nations Security Council called by Lebanon, Israeli Ambassador Dan Gillerman declared that by capturing two Israeli soldiers earlier this week, the militant group Hezbollah "has taken the whole of Lebanon hostage."
Gillerman then seemed to appropriate the Bush administration's rhetoric about the Arab world when he said Israel seeks only "to achieve the goal of a free, prosperous, and democratic Lebanon." Jabbing his arm across the room at Lebanon's ambassador, Gillerman said, "You know we are doing the right thing, and if we succeed, Lebanon will be the beneficiary."
Across Israel's north, a government spokesman said some 250 thousand people had taken to bomb shelters as Hezbollah fired dozens of Katyusha rockets. They struck in towns across the area, injuring dozens. Four Israeli civilians and eight soldiers have been killed in the escalation. Hezbollah stunned Israel Thursday by striking the port city of Haifa, a place that was believed to be beyond the reach of Hezbollah's firepower. In his broadcast speech Friday, Hezbollah's Nasrallah warned of more hits "beyond and beyond Haifa."
Hezbollah has acted with near autonomy in South Lebanon ever since Israel ended a 22-year occupation there in 2000. Lebanon's own fragile government is a delicate mix of Sunni, Shiite, and Christian members, and is unable to confront Hezbollah without risking internal conflict. For many Lebanese, the past days' events are an eerie reminder of the 15-year civil war they endured.
The fighting has sparked fears of a wider Mideast war because Hizbollah derives financial and moral support from both Syria and Iran. Damascus also exerts some political control over Lebanon, even though last year it pulled out tens of thousands of soldiers who had been stationed there for decades.
Shibley Telhami, of the University of Maryland, told NPR that the next level in the conflict will inevitably lead to Syria. "Clearly at some point," he said, the Bush administration is "going to have to activate diplomacy in ways they have not been prepared to do."
Lebanese population and Hezbollah militants celebrate the Israeli army's pull-out from southern Lebanon, May 24, 2000.
Jacques Langevin/Corbis Sygma
Hezbollah was formed in 1982 as a response to Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon. The name means "Party of God," and the group derives its ideological inspiration from Iran.
Hezbollah garners moral support and financial assistance from both Iran and Syria, but analysts say the group acts independently. And over time, its original aim of driving Israel out of Lebanon has expanded into a powerful political and social force among Lebanon's Shiite Muslims, and possibly beyond.
Hezbollah entered Lebanese politics since 1992, and currently holds 14 seats in Lebanon's 128-seat national assembly, as well as the cabinet post of minister for water and electricity. It also draws support through its own private network of social and educational services. Its crowning achievement, though, was to force Israel's military to end its 22-year occupation in May 2000.
At the time, the militant group received widespread praise, including from Christian and secular Lebanese who opposed its hard-line ideology. But even as some hoped Hezbollah would then give up its arms and morph into a strictly political entity, Hezbollah set about expanding its influence.
Despite persistent international pressure, the group did not abandon its weapons nor deploy away from the Israeli border. And Lebanon's fragile government — a delicate balance of the country's Shia, Sunni and Christian communities — was not strong enough to force those measures.
Lebanon found itself in a bind after it promised to disarm all "militant" groups. But earlier this year, according to Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the government avoided a showdown by designating Hezbollah a "resistance" force against Israel instead of a militia. In this way, according to a State Department report Cordesman cites, Lebanon also exempts Hezbollah from money laundering and terrorism financing laws.
Just after the Israeli pullout, Hezbollah's TV station, Al-Manar, also went on satellite. One member said, "in this way, our jihad will continue."
The channel carries an odd mix of children's programming, anti-Israel game shows, and militant propaganda. Al-Manar has been banned in France, and declared a terrorist outfit by the United States.
In March 2004, again according to a State Department report, Hezbollah signed an agreement to join the Palestinian group Hamas in joint attacks against Israel.
Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah has publicly referred to this assistance. And in recent years, Israel has accused Hezbollah of illicitly shipping arms to Palestinians via the Mediterranean Sea.
There is a long list of terror acts for which the United States and others blame or suspect Hezbollah, all the way back to suicide truck bombings of the American embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983. The list also includes the 1985 hijacking of a TWA flight, in which a U.S. Navy diver was killed, and attacks on the Israeli embassy and cultural center in Argentina in the1990s.
Hezbollah has also seized Israeli soldiers before. In 2000, members disguised as U.N. soldiers, with a mock white U.N. vehicle, kidnapped three Israeli Defense Forces soldiers and a reservist. Sheik Nasrallah declared the reason was to trade them for militants held by Israel, and three years later, it worked. In a German-brokered deal, Hezbollah turned over the reservist and the bodies of the three soldiers (they had been killed). In exchange, Israel released 430 prisoners from Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinian territories.