Israeli ground forces enter southern Lebanon
130 missiles are fired into Jewish state
MAZZUVA, Israel -- Israel sent ground troops and tanks into southern Lebanon yesterday and temporarily occupied several villages, continuing its efforts to drive Hezbollah forces from the area, but the Islamic extremist group managed to fire more than 130 rockets into northern cities in the Jewish state.
Early today, Israeli planes dropped bombs inside Sidon for the first time, destroying a religious complex the military said was used by Hezbollah and wounding at least four people.
Israel also conducted air raids today on Hezbollah areas in the southern suburbs of Beirut and in the cities of Hermel and Baalbek in eastern Lebanon. There was no immediate word on casualties in those attacks.
As many as 2,000 Israeli troops entered southern Lebanon yesterday, targeting Hezbollah bunkers and rocket launchers. It was not clear how many troops remained in the region at nightfall, but Israeli officials reiterated that they have no plans for a large-scale invasion or for a reoccupation.
The Lebanese villages of Maroun al-Ras and Moachin, which Israeli officers said were centers of Hezbollah activity, were devastated. A top Israeli commander in the region said his troops found stores of missiles and fresh ammunition at a mosque in Moachin, but few of the village's approximately 1,000 residents.
The commander said Israeli forces withdrew from those villages after routing Hezbollah fighters there and confiscating the munitions. Israeli military spokesmen said Maroun al-Ras, which is on strategically sensitive high ground near the border, was taken yesterday morning and was still in Israeli hands at midnight.
On the Israeli side, the cities of Kiryat Shmona, Nahariyah, Sefat, and Haifa were hardest hit. More than 30 Israelis were injured, three of them gravely. Fires burned on wooded mountainsides where rockets fell short of their targets, and in the cities residents cried and shook from explosions that blew out their windows.
The Lebanese health ministry yesterday reported that 372 people have died in Lebanon since the fighting began July 12. Thirty-four Israelis have been killed, including 19 soldiers.
Amid fears of a growing humanitarian crisis, Israel eased its blockade of Lebanon's ports to allow the first shiploads of aid to be brought in for refugees. Tens of thousands of Lebanese have moved north to escape incursions by the Israeli Army.
Some 35,000 Lebanese refugees filled the southern port town of Sidon as they searched for a place to stay or a way to get farther north. With the town of 100,000 unable to absorb more people, many families were joining Palestinians in a refugee camp.
It appeared that many of the 400,000 Lebanese who live between Lebanon's Litani River and the Israeli border -- the area from which Israel says it intends to oust Hezbollah -- have fled, either from the fierce fighting or in response to warnings issued by Israel urging noncombatants to leave.
Substantial numbers of Israelis also have fled. There is little traffic on the streets of the rocket-targeted cities, and many hotels, gasoline stations, and other businesses are closed.
``Everything's broken, everything's broken," wailed 44-year-old Sarah Sassoni, dazed and shaking as she stumbled through shattered glass and ignored relief workers' urgings that she go to the hospital. Her home was damaged by one of more than a dozen rockets that struck Nahariyah simultaneously just before 7 yesterday evening.
Lieutenant Colonel Ishai Efrani, deputy commander of the northern border region where fighting is concentrated, told reporters at a briefing in Mazzuva, a collective farm near the border, that his troops are taking villages ``for a few hours at a time. They go in, and they go out."
He and other officers reaffirmed that Israel would not stop until Hezbollah's missile-launching capacity was eliminated, and that Israel had no intention or plan to re establish the buffer zone that had been provided by its occupation of the region from 1982 until 2000.
Efrani said that his forces were making extraordinary efforts not to injure innocents caught up in the fighting, but that Hezbollah's tactics made prevention of civilian casualties difficult. In Moachin, he said, soldiers found missiles in and around a mosque and rocket launchers in gardens in residential areas. He refused to be specific about the number of villages that have been occupied or the numbers of tanks and ground units that have entered Lebanon.
In response to a question, he said that the greater inaccuracy of the missiles fired at Israel in recent days, compared with earlier days of the conflict, was a result of faster and more accurate Israeli targeting on weapons on the verge of being fired, which has put more pressure on the men launching them.
Efrani acknowledged that, without a Lebanese Army presence in the area, Hezbollah fighters would return to the villages where Israel is destroying bunkers and bases. ``We want them to come back," he said. ``We want to face them, so they can fight."
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has proposed a beefed-up United Nations force along the Lebanese border, but Israel has called for the Lebanese army to take control of the area.
A steady stream of foreign nationals boarded ships and planes in Lebanon yesterday to take them away. US officials said more than 7,500 Americans had been removed from Lebanon by last night.
During the afternoon, there was a flurry of reports that Palestinian militant factions had reached an agreement to stop firing rockets from the West Bank and Gaza into Israel, but hope quickly evaporated.
The current upheaval in the region began June 25, when Palestinians from the Gaza Strip tunneled into Israel, killed two soldiers, and abducted another, whom they attempted to use to bargain for the release of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons. The Israelis refused to bargain and instead launched a strong offensive into Gaza, from which its forces had withdrawn last summer after a 38-year occupation.
On July 12, Hezbollah captured two more soldiers on the northern border and began firing missiles at Israeli cities when the Israelis attempted to get them back. That fighting escalated when Hezbollah fired rockets believed to have been supplied by Iran and Syria deeper than ever before into Israel.
The fighting against Hezbollah has largely overshadowed what continues to be a punishing Israeli offensive in Gaza and the West Bank. The fact that the international community, which usually is attentive to the situation of the Palestinians, is focused instead on Lebanon has whetted the desires of many Palestinians for a cease-fire.
Initial reports yesterday were that the leaders of all major Palestinian factions had agreed to stop firing rockets into Israel in return for cessation of the Israeli offensive and the release of a large number of Palestinian prisoners in a manner not directly linked to the kidnapping.
It was unclear whether the tentative agreement -- which was supposed to have been kept secret -- contained specific arrangements regarding the kidnapped soldier.
But by evening several Palestinian groups were denying the existence of any agreement.
A Hamas official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said no cease-fire agreement was possible without the concurrence of the organization's leaders in exile in Syria, who are closely allied with Syria and Hezbollah.
These allies do not want a cease-fire between Hamas and the Israelis, the official said, because this would effectively drive a wedge between Hamas and Hezbollah -- something Arab regimes in Egypt and Jordan, which are friendly to the United States and at peace with Israel, would like to see.
Globe correspondents Rafael Frankel and Sai'd Ghazali contributed to this report. Material from the Associated Press also was included.