July 12, 2006
Israeli Forces Enter Lebanon After 2 Soldiers Are Seized
By GREG MYRE and STEVEN ERLANGER
JERUSALEM, July 12 — The Lebanese militant group Hezbollah seized two Israeli soldiers and killed three more in a brazen raid this morning along Israel’s border with Lebanon. Israel immediately responded by sending an armored force into southern Lebanon for the first time since withdrawing six years ago.
The clashes dramatically escalated tensions at a time when Israel already is waging a military offensive in the Gaza Strip to seek the return of another soldier held by Palestinian militants for more than two weeks.
Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he held the Lebanese government responsible for the assault by Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim group that participates in Lebanese politics but also continues to battle Israel.
“I want to make clear that the event this morning is not a terror act, but an act of a sovereign state that attacked Israel without reason,” Mr. Olmert said. “The government of Lebanon, of which Hezbollah is a part, is trying to shake the stability of the region.”
The United Nations representative to southern Lebanon, Gier Pedersen, condemned Hezbollah’s capture of the Israeli soldiers and said it “escalates the already tense situation.”
The Lebanese government did not comment in the hours after the clashes began. Hezbollah effectively controls Lebanon’s southern border despite international pressure and a United Nations resolution calling on the Lebanese government to take control of its borders and disarm militia groups.
While Israel has overwhelming military might in both southern Lebanon and Gaza, Hezbollah and the militant Palestinian faction Hamas both have leverage in the form of the captured Israeli soldiers, raising the possibility of duel confrontations that could carry on indefinitely.
Israel says it will not negotiate, and is demanding the unconditional release of its soldiers and an end to the rocket fire coming out of Gaza and southern Lebanon.
Hamas and Hezbollah, meanwhile, are seeking the release of large numbers of Arab prisoners held by Israel.
Just two years ago, Hezbollah managed to win the freedom of more than 400 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners in exchange for an Israeli businessman who was being held in Lebanon and the corpses of three Israeli soldiers killed in a Hezbollah attack along the border in 2000.
Today’s fighting erupted when Hezbollah attacked northern Israel with rocket fire in the morning, injuring several Israeli civilians in the northwestern town of Shlomi, the Israeli military said. Israel responded with artillery fire and air strikes that targeted roads, bridges and Hezbollah strongholds in southern Lebanon. Later, Israeli troops moved into southern Lebanon in the first such incursion since Israel pulled its troops back into Israel in 2000.
The Israeli strikes were part of an apparent attempt to keep Hezbollah from moving the captured Israeli soldiers further to the north. Also, at least two Lebanese civilians were killed, according to Reuters.
The Israeli military did not immediately provide details on the border clashes.
While cross-border shooting exchanges break out with some frequency, it has been exceedingly rare for Hezbollah and the Israeli military to come face-to-face on the ground over the past six years.
But Hezbollah said its fighters seized two soldiers along the volatile and heavily guarded frontier. “The two captives were transferred to a safe place,” the group said in a statement.
It said the kidnappings had been planned for months and were intended to help free Arabs held in Israeli jails in a prisoner exchange.
Residents in Lebanon’s Shiite-dominated southern suburbs handed out sweets and set off firecrackers in celebration.
In the past, Hezbollah has launched attacks against Israel when there is heavy fighting between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The latest assault comes at a moment when the region is already roiling with the Israeli-Palestinian crisis in Gaza.
Early today, Israeli troops moved in force into central Gaza, expanding the two-week-old Israeli offensive intended to secure the release of the captured soldier and stop rocket fire into Israel.
The Israeli air force also dropped a powerful bomb on a home in Gaza City at around 3 a.m., saying it targeted senior Hamas leaders. But the blast killed nine members of the Abu Selmiya family, according to Dr. Juma Saqqa, the spokesman for Shifa Hospital, where the bodies were taken.
There were visiting Hamas leaders in the house at the time of the bombing, but they escaped with only minor injuries, Palestinians said.
Nabil Abu Selmiya, a Hamas leader, was killed along with his wife, Salwa, and seven of their children, ages 7 to 18, Dr. Saqqa said. The couple also had two sons who survived the attack, and a married daughter who lives elsewhere.
The Israeli military said the main target was Muhammad Deif, the top figure in Hamas’s armed wing and a man who has been sought by Israel for more than a decade. The Israeli military said Mr. Deif, who has been blamed for the deaths of dozens of Israelis, was injured.
Hamas officials refused to say whether Mr. Deif was at the house at the time of the bombing, but insisted that he was safe.
Just after midnight, scores of Israeli tanks, armored personnel carriers and armored bulldozers, covered by Apache attack helicopters and armed drones, crossed into central Gaza near Kissufim.
Clearing roads and firing tank shells, the troops moved southeast of the town of Deir al Balah, into the neighborhood of Abu Alajeen, residents there said. At least one Palestinian, a member of the official security forces, died in an exchange of fire with Israeli troops, and another was wounded, according to a Palestinian journalist living in Abu Alajeen, as the sound of tank shell explosions made him difficult to hear over the phone.
Israelis are also interrupting local radio stations to broadcast a warning in Arabic that “the Israeli Army is going to continue its operation in the Gaza Strip until the captive soldier is released.” The broadcast says:
“Israel is interested in your well-being. Is this the welfare that Hamas promised you?”
The message warns Palestinians not to allow militants to fire rockets into Israel.
Militants tried to fire makeshift rockets toward the Kissufim border crossing as a column of dozens of armored vehicles and hundreds of soldiers pushed into central Gaza, but the rockets appeared to fall short, Reuters reported.
“Our main target is the terrorist infrastructure: the rocket crews, the gunmen, the arms caches,” said an Israeli commander who was not allowed to give his full name, according to a pool report.
“But of course we are here to show that if, God forbid, any of us is captured by the enemy, the army will do everything to secure his return,” he said.
The army confirmed only that its troops had entered central Gaza. The Israelis want to ensure that the captured soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, is not moved out of Gaza. He was captured on June 25 during a raid into Israel.
Greg Myre reported from Jerusalem for this articleand Steven Erlangerfrom Gaza City. Hassan Fattah contributed reporting from Dubai.