Toll Grows in Israel-Hezbollah Fighting For a fifth straight day, the Israeli military trades fierce missile attacks with Hezbollah guerrillas operating in south Lebanon. The exchange leaves dead and wounded civilians on both sides of the border.
NPR logo Toll Grows in Israel-Hezbollah Fighting

Toll Grows in Israel-Hezbollah Fighting

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A Lebanese fireman douses fire at a factory after it was hit by an Israeli air strike in Bourj Shimali near Tyre. Hassan Ammar/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Hassan Ammar/AFP/Getty Images

A Lebanese fireman douses fire at a factory after it was hit by an Israeli air strike in Bourj Shimali near Tyre.

Hassan Ammar/AFP/Getty Images

Timelines

For a fifth straight day, the Israeli military and Hezbollah guerrillas operating in south Lebanon traded fierce missile attacks, leaving dead and wounded civilians on both sides of the border.

Early Sunday morning, Hezbollah launched more than two dozen rockets into Israel, hitting the northern Israeli cities of Haifa, Acre and Nahariyha. Late Sunday evening, Hezbollah rockets reached the northern Israeli cities of Upper Nazerath and Afula.

In Haifa, eight people were killed when a missile landed on a train depot. It was the deadliest attack carried out by Hezbollah on Israel in more than a decade. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Cabinet ministers the attack would have "far-reaching consequences."

Shortly after the Haifa strikes, Israeli warplanes bombed targets in Beirut's southern suburbs where the Shiite militia Hezbollah is headquartered. Israel also targeted seaports in Beirut and the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli. Parts of Beirut are now without electricity.

The Israeli Air Force (IAF) also launched attacks at the port of Tyre in southern Lebanon. Initial reports say as many as 10 people were killed in the strike.

Since fighting began on July 12, after Hezbollah operatives launched a cross-border raid into Israel, nearly 120 Lebanese and 24 Israelis have died.

Hezbollah Chief Hassan Nasrallah appeared on the militia’s own television network, Al-Manar, on Sunday afternoon. Addressing Israel, Nasrallah warned that the Haifa bombing was “just the beginning” hinting his group has the capacity to strike deep into Israel.

“We promise [Israel] surprises,” Nasrallah said.

Meanwhile, leaders from the world’s most powerful industrialized nations meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia blamed the Middle East violence on “extremists” but called on Israel to “exercise the utmost restraint.” G8 leaders also demanded Hezbollah release two Israeli soldiers captured in the July 12 raid. Israel said it “welcomed” the G8 statement.

Saturday evening, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora called for a U.N.-brokered cease-fire, pledging to disarm Hezbollah's militia. Israel's Cabinet rejected the call and demanded the release of two of its captured soldiers, now being held by Hezbollah and the complete disarmament of the Shiite militia.

The Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronot is reporting that small teams of Israeli special forces units are operating in southern Lebanon. According to the Israeli Magen David Adom, nearly a million Israelis -- mainly in the northern part of the country -- are holed up in underground bomb shelters. The Israeli government has warned residents of Tel Aviv -- 80 miles from the Lebanon border -- to prepare for the possibility of missile strikes.

Meanwhile, the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference called for an immediate end to the fighting, warning the conflict could widen and fuel terrorism.

U.S. government security teams have now arrived in Beirut and are beginning to evacuate non-essential personnel from the embassy and American citizens with urgent medical needs. There are an estimated 25,000 Americans in Lebanon at the moment. Roads leading out of Lebanon were struck by Israeli warplanes leaving them out of commission, and Beirut's Rafik Hariri Airport is inoperable after repeated Israeli missile strikes damaged the runways.

Hezbollah's Changing Mission

Lebanese population and Hezbollah militants celebrate the Israeli army's pull-out from southern Lebanon, May 24, 2000. Jacques Langevin/Corbis Sygma hide caption

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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.