BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Amid a burst of belligerent threats by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, rockets fired by his fighters killed at least eight Israeli civilians yesterday, one of Israel's worst daily civilian death tolls since the start of fighting last month.
Five of the deaths occurred in the northern Israel coastal town of Akko, where a group of people emerged from a bomb shelter after one barrage only to be caught in the next. "With the first siren, we went into the bomb shelter," said Avi Attar, who witnessed the deadly attack. "A minute later, we came out because we were curious, and just then another one landed."
Among the dead were a father and daughter. The three other victims, killed near Maalot, were members of Israel's Arab minority. In all, 27 Israeli civilians have died from rocket fire since combat between the Islamist militant group and Israeli forces began July 12.
Four Israeli soldiers also died in intense ground fighting north of the Israeli-Lebanese border, as Israeli forces continued what Defense Minister Amir Peretz described as a push to control territory up to the Litani River, the dividing line between Shiite-dominated southern Lebanon and the rest of the country.
Maj. Zvika Golan, a spokesman for the Northern Command, said the army hopes to push nine miles into Lebanon within the next two days by "cleansing" village after village where Hezbollah militants operate. But he said the army needs to deploy two brigades in addition to the six brigade-sized units in Lebanon,.
Militant leader Nasrallah, in a speech carried on Hezbollah's Al-Manar television, mocked Israeli claims that a substantial number of Hezbollah's rockets had been knocked out during 23 days of fighting and that its command structure had been badly weakened.
"I will tell you something. We are at military readiness. We are still in complete command of the front. We are in control of all the missile sites. ... We are in complete control," he said.
The Hezbollah leader warned Israel against further strikes on the Lebanese capital.
"If you attack our capital, Beirut, we will attack your capital, Tel Aviv. I'm telling you honestly: We will hit you very hard," he said.
Israel regards Jerusalem as its capital, but Israeli officials believe that the Shiite militia possesses long-range Iranian-made missiles capable of hitting Tel Aviv and its environs, Israel's most densely populated area.
In his remarks, Nasrallah described the Israeli offensive as coming at the behest of the Bush administration. "Israel is doing ... this with American orders, American arms and American rockets," he said.
But he also offered to stop the rocket attacks if Israel halts its offensive.
Most of the fighting yesterday was in Lebanon's south, but southern Beirut also came under fresh attack in the predawn hours. Israel also dropped new leaflets warning residents to leave the predominantly Shiite Muslim suburbs that have long been strongholds of Hezbollah.
Israel also launched isolated airstrikes in the north and the east, cutting bridges in the Bekaa Valley linking Hezbollah strongholds there. Airstrikes in the south killed several civilians, including a family of three who died when their house was hit in the border village of Taibeh, and residents there were continuing to plead with the Red Cross to evacuate them, according to Lebanese press reports.
In Beirut, at least four missiles struck the southern suburb of Dahiyeh overnight, driving more residents out of an area that once was home to half a million people and the headquarters of Hezbollah.
Israeli warplanes continued to pound southern Beirut early today, launching 15 bombing runs in a half hour, local media reported.
Fighter jets flew over the Hezbollah stronghold of Ouzai after hitting the suburb of Dahieh. Israel said its targets were guerrilla facilities and an office of Hamas, the militant group which runs the Palestinian government.
Hezbollah had fired more than 213 rockets into Israel by nightfall yesterday, despite a wide-ranging Israeli ground offensive that military officials say has deprived the guerrillas of many of their prime launching sites. Israel vowed to keep the fight going against Hezbollah, although international mediators said they hoped a cease-fire could be struck next week.
"Israel will seek out Hezbollah, go after it, until these murderous attacks end and until quiet is restored to northern Israel," said David Baker, an official in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office.
The Israeli deaths came a day after Hezbollah fired more than 230 rockets into Israel in the biggest barrage since the fighting broke out after a Hezbollah cross-border raid in which eight Israeli soldiers were killed and two captured.
Before yesterday, the biggest one-day toll in a rocket attack had come July 16, when eight railway workers were killed in a direct strike on a railway depot in the Mediterranean city of Haifa.
After the deaths in Akko, local officials appealed to people to not emerge from bomb shelters too soon, as happened after a volley that struck the town yesterday afternoon. Resident Attar, speaking to Israeli television, vividly portrayed the sense of oppressiveness and tedium that led people, after spending much of the past three weeks in bomb shelters, to take such a risk.
"We are tired of being in the shelter!" he said. "Our life is like a roulette: Will it hit, will it not? ... I have four children and I live on the sixth floor of this building. By the time I get down to the bomb shelter, the Katyusha has already landed."
Outside the northern Israeli community of Maalot, a highway took a direct hit, bringing traffic to a stop. People jumped out of their cars to seek shelter by the side of the road.
The three people killed yesterday near Maalot were members of Israel's Arab minority, Israeli news media reports said. Several large northern, Arab-dominated communities, including the town of Nazareth, lie within rocket range of Lebanon.
Israel, meanwhile, insisted it was making headway against Hezbollah, despite the spike in rocket fatalities.
"We also have achievements to point to - they take hits and hits and hits," Cabinet minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said on Israel's Channel 2.
Israeli troops pushed ahead yesterday with a ground offensive deeper into Lebanon. Military officials have said Israel wanted to create a buffer zone extending four miles north of the border, which would remain in place until a prospective international peacekeeping force arrives.
In the first indication of a possible U.S. military role, the Bush administration has approved a plan to help train and equip the Lebanese armed forces to enable the government to take control of the country's territory, U.S. officials said yesterday.
The plan could be put into effect when conditions on the ground permit and an end to fighting appears "durable," said Sean McCormack, State Department spokesman. He said U.S. officials expect other countries to offer help to the Lebanese army as well.
The White House has said it does not plan to have American troops join a larger force of international peacekeeping troops envisioned for the border area between Lebanon and Israel.
Laura King and Kim Murphy write for the Los Angeles Times.