Israel Launches Air Strikes on South Beirut

In Lebanon early this morning, Israel bombed the crowded suburbs of sourthen Beruit. The bombing was retaliation for Hezbollah's attacks on Israel, when it fired rockets into the northern port city of Haifa. The attacks followed a speech from the Lebanese prime minister who called for an immediate United Nations brokered cease fire to stop what he called "Israeli aggression."

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SHEILAH KAST, host:

Hezbollah escalated its attacks on Israel, firing rockets into the northern port city of Haifa. Israel quickly retaliated, bombing the crowded suburbs of southern Beirut.

Today's attacked followed an emotional speech from Lebanese prime minister, who called for an immediate United Nations brokered cease fire to stop what he called Israeli aggression.

NPR's Ivan Watson reports from Beirut.

IVAN WATSON reporting:

Within hours of the Hezbollah rocket attack on Haifa today, Israeli warplanes began dropping bombs on southern Beirut.

(Soundbite of explosion)

WATSON: Each blast shook the city. Overnight, the Israeli military repeatedly targeted the same southern suburbs of Beirut.

(Soundbite of explosions)

WATSON: In the morning, Lebanese TV showed dazed residents walking down Beirut streets, which were littered with shattered concrete, twisted metal and broken glass.

Israel is demolishing Lebanon's infrastructure. For the first time yesterday, its military struck the ports of Beirut and the northern city of Tripoli, far from the predominantly Shiite Muslim communities which are traditionally Hezbollah strongholds. Until yesterday, the air and artillery strikes had focused primarily on pummeling southern Beirut and southern Lebanon.

They have succeeded in cutting the country in two by destroying the bridges and highways leading south. There is only one small bridge left for cars to get to Sidon, a coastal town normally just a half-hour's drive south of the Lebanese capital. In the town itself, the occasional car speeds past on streets that are almost completely deserted.

Israel bombed several gas stations here yesterday, killing at least one civilian. And aircraft scattered propaganda leaflets, which locals chased when they fell like confetti from the sky.

(Soundbite of people yelling)

WATSON: One man read the Arabic on the leaflet out loud.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign spoken)

WATSON: Cartoons showed Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, as the head of a serpent, as well as people cowering from a series of explosions and the caption, Does Hezbollah protect the country? The country is the victim of Hezbollah.

That did not change this man's opinion.

Unidentified Man #2: Hezbollah one good.

Unidentified Man #3: Very good?

Unidentified Man #2: Very good.

WATSON: He sat with a handful of men in a café, smoking water pipes in Sidon's otherwise deserted port. Each man here say they had a gun at home and they were now itching for a fight.

Unidentified Man #2: They await the moment to fight the Israeli soldiers man to man. They are ready to fight man to man. Without technology, without airplanes.

WATSON: The Lebanese military says on Friday night it fought off some kind of an Israeli landing party which was approaching the Sidon port, but they would not give any details about the incident.

In Sidon, not everyone agrees, however, with the Hezbollah-led war against Israel.

Mr. ABDUL RAHMAN AL-BABA(ph) (Lebanese Shop Keeper): It's not a solution. It's not the way.

WATSON: Abdul Rahman al-Baba stands in the empty, unlit al-Baba pastry shop, which is normally jammed with beach-goers on the weekend. He says the leader of Hezbollah made a mistake when he ordered the capture of two Israeli soldiers, which led to this crisis.

Mr. AL-BABA: He break - he break the rules, and you know, it's more than each person, of the Lebanese, are not going with the idea. They don't agree, yes, of course.

WATSON: Hezbollah supporters tend to be divided along Lebanon's sectarian lines, with Shiite Muslims in favor while Christians, Druze and Sunni Muslims express misgivings about the Shiite movement. But all appear united in condemning Israel's attacks, which have killed more than 100 civilians.

At Sidon's main hospital, an ambulance worker named Hussein Ali Jubayo(ph) lies seriously wounded after being caught in an explosion on Friday.

Mr. HUSSEIN ALI JUBAYO (Ambulance Worker): (Foreign spoken)

WATSON: He says an Israeli missile strike blew both his legs off at the knees as he was trying to rescue wounded civilians on a bombed bridge.

Last night, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora made an emotional televised address in which he called his country a disaster zone.

Prime Minister FOUAD SINIORA (Lebanon): (Foreign spoken)

WATSON: The politician who once pushed for the disarmament of Hezbollah's militia condemned what he called Israeli aggression and begged the United Nations to help broker an immediate cease fire and begin the reconstruction of Lebanon.

Prime Minister SINIORA: (Foreign spoken)

WATSON: Ivan Watson, NPR News, Beirut.

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