BEIRUT -- Israeli forces killed 33 agricultural workers in northeast Lebanon yesterday in a wave of airstrikes that also pierced the country's Christian heartland for the first time and severed its last major highway link to the outside.
Hezbollah militants responded by firing a missile that exploded just 30 miles north of Tel Aviv, the farthest they have reached into Israel. The rest of northern Israel came under a daylong barrage that killed three people and injured more than 30.
Israeli soldiers pushed slowly north from the border in heavy ground fighting that left three Israeli soldiers dead. The Red Cross said 48 people, including the 33 farm workers, were killed in Lebanon in about 90 Israeli airstrikes.
At the United Nations, negotiations between the U.S. and France over a plan to end the hostilities continued. Spokesmen for countries involved in the talks said the two sides made progress and could reach agreement over the weekend. Arab League ministers were scheduled to hold an emergency meeting Monday in Beirut to "express solidarity" with the people of Lebanon.
The Israeli airstrikes hit four bridges in heavily Christian seaside villages north of the capital that historically have formed one of the strongest fronts against Islamic militancy in Lebanon. The attacks severed the last remaining major highway connection from Beirut to Syria and to the northern port of Tripoli, effectively blocking land delivery of humanitarian aid at a time when fuel, food and medical supplies are growing critically low.
"This was our only lifeline. Is that enough to tell you?" said Khalid Mansour, spokesman for the United Nations in Beirut. "After the destruction of these bridges, the main road for all humanitarian supplies that come by land, except for the small quantities that come by air, is now cut."
President Emile Lahoud accused Israel of waging a "war of starvation" against Lebanese civilians."The Israeli enemy's bombing of bridges and roads is aimed at tightening the blockade on the Lebanese, cutting communications between them and starving them. Israel has now decided to destroy Lebanon," the president said in a statement.
Israel said it hit the bridges to halt the weapons flow from Syria.
"Because the most direct arteries have been blocked, they are using more indirect means," said Capt. Jacob Dallal, a spokesman for the Israeli army. "These bridges, unfortunately, served as a conduit for this resupply from Syria. We are not going to allow missiles to be transported southward and used to kill our citizens."
However, the strikes also alienated a population that has been largely hostile to Hezbollah. Christians make up about 35 percent of Lebanon's population, the highest percentage of any country in the Middle East. Over the years, they have often sympathized with Israel, even briefly collaborating in battling Palestinians during Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon in the midst of the country's 15-year civil war.
While some prominent Christian leaders have formed political alliances with Hezbollah in recent years, many ordinary Christians have been wary of the rise of radical Shiite power, and Hezbollah's alliances with Syria and Iran. In the early days of the current conflict, they have tended to blame Hezbollah for starting it with a cross-border raid in which it captured two Israeli soldiers.
Much of that sentiment has waned as Israel's attacks have widened, and yesterday's strikes in the Christian heartland prompted Christian political leaders to respond with anger. "People don't see eye to eye with Hezbollah on all things, but this is a question of an attack on Lebanon," said Farid Khazen, a Christian member of parliament.
"People are not interested in details, who did what and why. They are simply fed up," he said. "There won't be any split in Lebanon on this war, and if this was Israel's intention, it was completely silly and ridiculous."
The worst reported violence in Lebanon was in the village of Qaa, in the Bekaa Valley about three miles from the Syrian border, where Israeli officials said they launched strikes against what they believed to be a weapons storage site. Truck traffic was observed between the area and the Syrian border, said a military official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
But town administrator Saadeh Tawm said the site was a refrigerated agricultural storage facility where farm workers, including a number of Syrian Kurds, were loading fruit for transport elsewhere.
In a telephone interview, he said about 40 workers were loading fruit onto trucks at about 2 p.m. when two missiles struck about 10 minutes apart. "The first strike hit, and there were lots of casualties. People came to help them out, but then another strike hit, and there were even more casualties," he said.
The town has no hospital, and previous airstrikes blocked roads and prevented transporting the wounded to nearby Lebanese hospitals, so they were taken across the border to the Syrian town of Homs, Tawm said. A total of 33 bodies were recovered, he said.
"We are 230 kilometers from the border with Israel," Tawm said. "So how could there be military activity here?"
Ground fighting across southern Lebanon now encompasses about 20 towns and villages, Israeli commanders said, with forces firing hundreds of artillery shells into areas the troops intended to enter. Firing at times took place at a rate of 15 shells per minute.
Israel claims it has killed about 400 Hezbollah fighters during the offensive, but Hezbollah confirms only a few dozen deaths.
Seven southern Lebanon residents were reported killed when Israeli forces fired on a two-story house in the border village of Taibeh. Lebanese news reports said 17 people had been hiding in the house to escape intense battles between Hezbollah guerrillas and Israeli troops.
Kim Murphy and Laura King write for the Los Angeles Times.