Hezbollah, Israel crank up fighting


BEIT HILLEL, Israel -- The Israeli soldiers at the checkpoint on the road to Shaba Farms, territory that Hezbollah says belongs to Lebanon, were in good spirits yesterday, even as they turned back every civilian. The sun had not yet cleared the highest hills, but the army's artillery was already busy, firing across the border.

"This is the money time," said Yudi, one of the soldiers there.

The army's senior commanders confirmed yesterday that Israel has intensified efforts to inflict maximum damage on Hezbollah, just in case the faltering international attempts to achieve a cease-fire take hold and force an end to the fighting.

Both sides suddenly seemed intent on accelerating the fighting. Hezbollah fired more than 230 rockets into Israel yesterday, a record number for one day, killing one man at Kibbutz Saar near Nahariya, injuring at least a dozen others and setting fires in northern Israel that burned for much of the day.

One of the rockets reached the Jordan Valley town of Beit Shean, more than 40 miles inside Israel, the deepest strike into the country so far. Another Hezbollah rocket traveling roughly the same distance veered into the West Bank.

Israel said its forces killed a number of Hezbollah fighters in clashes that began at dawn and continued into the evening. The army said nine Israeli soldiers were wounded.

At the checkpoint and at Israeli army bases in the north, soldiers and officers sounded emboldened by the military's helicopter raid Tuesday deep into Lebanon, in the city of Baalbek. Commanders said Israeli forces killed at least 10 Hezbollah fighters there and captured five low-level Hezbollah members, who were brought to Israel.

The military's chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, said much of the fighting there occurred at a hospital.

"The hospital was built by Iran, and this hospital was managed by Iran," he said.

In Baalbek, residents told reporters that the Dar al-Hakima hospital was run by the Imam Khomeini Islamic Foundation charity, and they said Israeli forces bombed roads and bridges leading to the hospital.

As Halutz spoke at a military base near here, Israeli artillery thundered behind him, and towers of smoke rose from open areas struck less than an hour earlier by Hezbollah rockets.

Israeli forces are facing what Halutz and other officers acknowledged was stiff resistance: "So far we must say Hezbollah has their abilities, and they can continue fighting."

Brig. Gen. Guy Zur, commander of a combined armor and infantry division, said Israeli troops have won at least nominal control of about 25 percent of the Lebanese territory south of the Litani River. He offered no details about the army's objectives other than its targeting of Hezbollah, and he refrained from characterizing its rate of progress.

Israeli troops were active against Hezbollah yesterday in more than a half-dozen villages within a few miles of the border, he said. There was fighting again in Bint Jbail, where the worst known clashes have occurred; Taibe, a hillside away from the Israeli town of Metulla; Markaba, across the border from the Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona; and the villages of Blida and Shaqra, Zur said.

"We have the ability and the forces and the motivation to fight this problem anywhere in Lebanon," he said. "We have the time, our troops are very strong, and we will succeed in our goal."

"We are ready to deepen our operations in Lebanon."

Officers talked as though they had nothing but time, despite the diplomatic efforts to arrange a cease-fire and dispatch a multinational force to southern Lebanon. They sounded determined to convince the Israeli public that the army could greatly weaken Hezbollah, if other countries would give it the time.

"I won't say days, weeks or months; it would be mistake," said Halutz, the chief of staff, when asked how long Israel would continue its offensive. "In the goals of the operation, there's a military side and a political side."

"We are going to provide our government flexibility to take each decision," he said. "To withdraw, to stay or to advance."

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in an interview with the Associated Press, said Israeli forces would keep fighting until an international force took up positions in Lebanon. That could mean weeks more fighting, as commanders publicly say they want.

"We can't stop because if there will not be a presence of a very effective and robust military international force," the prime minister said, "Hezbollah will be there, and we will have achieved nothing."

At the checkpoint on the road to Shaba Farms, the sun first turned the hills from a restful blue to a hard-baked brown. High fences equipped with sensors stood along both sides of the road, the fencing with yellow-and-red signs warning of mines.

The soldiers, more relaxed than in recent days, offered coffee even as they turned away every civilian car. A stream of military vehicles were waved through, to the high ridges and the fighting.

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