Israel Presses Forward After Deadly Day

Israeli ground troops continue to fight in more than a dozen villages across south Lebanon, a day after Hezbollah guerrillas killed 12 Israelis. Thursday was one of the deadliest days for Israel during the three-week-old war. Four Israeli soldiers died in ground fighting, and civilians died in a massive barrage of Hezbollah rockets.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Israel, today, two people were killed as Hezbollah fired dozens of rockets into the north. Yesterday, Hezbollah guerillas killed 12 Israelis, four of them soldiers who died in ground fighting. And Hezbollah fired one of its most lethal rocket volleys into towns across northern Israel.

NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:

Despite more than three weeks of constant heavy artillery fire and punishing air strikes into south Lebanon, and despite some 10,000 Israeli infantry backed by heavy armor now fighting there, residents across northern Israel are still jolted awake these days by the thud of Hezbollah rockets and local authorities warning people to take cover.

(Soundbite of explosions)

WESTERVELT: Thursday's rocket barrage was the bloodiest since Hezbollah killed eight rail workers at a maintenance yard in Haifa last month. Yesterday, near an Arab Israeli village in the central Galilee, outside of Ma'alot, three farm workers tried to take cover on the ground when they heard the warning sirens. Police say a near-direct hit killed all three instantly.

In the northern coastal city of Akko, five people, including a father and his teenage daughter, were killed when rockets rained down on a residential area. Two dozen others were wounded, medical sources say, including at least six seriously. Twenty-seven people have now been killed by Hezbollah rocket fire from Lebanon.

(Soundbite of transmission over two-way radio)

WESTERVELT: On a bluff hugging the Israel/Lebanon border, Israeli soldiers man a mobile outdoor war room for their infantry battalion fighting just a few miles away. Surrounded by stacks of maps and crates and ammunition, this soldier who didn't want his name used, concedes what his senior political leaders won't publicly - that it's nearly impossible to eliminate the Hezbollah rocket threat by bullets and bombs alone.

Unidentified Man (Soldier, Israeli Army): I don't think we can really stop them from firing, not by military action anyway. All they need is two or three guys and a rocket launcher, that's all. There's no way in the world they can stop this. Fighting here five kilometers from the border, 10 kilometers from the border, it's not the (Unintelligible) thing. They can still be 20 kilometers up north and can still fire rockets.

WESTERVELT: A senior Israeli military official who requested anonymity, told reporters yesterday, that the army has damaged Hezbollah's long and medium-range rocket capability. But he said the air war has done nothing to reduce Hezbollah's short-range rocket capability. Only an expanded ground operation, he said, could do that.

Israeli military commanders here say they've now carved out a zone across some 20 villages, four miles deep, into south Lebanon from the Israeli border. A zone that will, in theory, be filled with a multinational peacekeeping force. But such a force seems far away, and fighting in those areas is far from over.

Hezbollah continues to put up fierce resistance. Three Israeli soldiers were killed yesterday in fighting the Rajamein(ph), the army says, when guerillas fired wired-guided anti-tank rockets at their position. The same kind of rocket killed a fourth soldier near Taibeh.

As Israeli General Alawn Freedman(ph) put it Thursday, quote: there are still villages that aren't clean, and in the coming days, we will apparently have to continue to clean them.

The heavy artillery fire here underscores that the border buffer-zone is far from secure.

(Soundbite of bombs detonating)

WESTERVELT: Overnight, there was more intense fighting. Arab media report that at least three more Israeli soldiers were killed. The Army here confirms only that there were casualties during the night. Israel is now debating expanding its buffer zone far deeper into Lebanon, aiming to push Hezbollah north of the Litani River.

Northern Command Spokesman Major Tzvika Golan told reporters that Israel is looking to push some nine miles north in the next few days. But Golan said the army would require probably two more brigades to do that. And a major ground expansion, which would require cabinet approval, would also move Israel closer to reversing its withdrawal from Lebanon six years ago, after an ill-fated 18-year occupation.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Qiryat Shemona, northern Israel.

MONTAGNE: And you are listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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