amir peretz 298 ap.
(photo credit: AP [file])
In response to the attack on Haifa, a city of 270,000, high-ranking IDF officers threatened to strike the Dahiya residential neighborhood in Beirut, a known Hizbullah stronghold and, according to IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz, home to all of the terror group's leaders including Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the mastermind behind Wednesday's kidnapping attack.
Peretz pledged on Thursday night after security consultations in Tel Aviv that the IDF would destroy Hizbullah. "Hizbullah has broken all the rules. So we plan to break the organization," he told reporters.
"If the government of Lebanon fails to disarm Hizbullah as is expected of a sovereign government, it will continue to pay the price for its mistakes," Peretz said.
One senior IDF officer said that all terrorists in Dahiya, including Nasrallah himself, were fair targets for the IDF. "We will operate against all the terrorists who operate against us," he said, warning that civilians inside Dahiya could also be hurt in a possible IDF strike.
The officer also warned that Hizbullah would not be allowed to return to its outposts along the border with Israel. "If they do," he said, "they will be immediately shot."
The IDF, the senior military source said, had taken into consideration the possibility that Hizbullah would fire long-range rockets at Israeli cities like Haifa and Hadera, but warned that if such attacks occurred Israel would strike back hard, dealing a heavy blow to Lebanese government targets.
The IDF officer said that the current operation, dubbed "Operation Just Rewards," would be "long and harsh" and could last up to several months, or "as long as it takes to destroy Hizbullah's ability to launch attacks against Israel."
"Lebanon is under siege," OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Udi Adam said of the military's operations. "No one can go in or out - not by air, land or sea."
Meanwhile, IDF troops on Thursday operated under fire from Hizbullah to retrieve the bodies of soldiers who were killed on Wednesday when a huge bomb destroyed their tank. The incident followed shortly on the Hizbullah attack on an army outpost along the northern border that started the current conflagration.
Also on Thursday, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Mark Regev revealed that Israel had information that Hizbullah guerrillas were trying to move the soldiers kidnapped in that attack to Iran.
Israel's response to Hizbullah's brazen provocation has been powerful. Since Wednesday, over 100 targets have been hit inside Lebanon, including close to 30 homes in the south that the IDF said served as Katyusha launch sites. The Hizbullah-backed Al-Manar satellite television station in Beirut was also hit in an IAF bombing, as well as the Damascus-Beirut road and other bridges throughout the country. Lebanese officials said that close to 50 civilians had been killed in the Israeli attacks. The IDF said that most of the dead were Hizbullah terrorists.
The IDF, the senior officer added, was committed to retrieving the two soldiers kidnapped in Wednesday's attack, but said the current military operation was mainly meant to prevent terror groups from attempting to kidnap Israeli soldiers in the future. "We are going to operate differently than we have in the past," he said. "We will do everything we can to retrieve the soldiers but we are also working to restore Israel's military deterrence."
In addition to the international airport in Beirut, where runways were drilled with holes and gas tankers were destroyed, the IAF also struck two other airfields in Lebanon, including one near the Syrian border. The Beirut airport was shut down and incoming flights were diverted to Cyprus.
Israeli helicopter gunships late Thursday unleashed missiles on the airport, setting fuel storage tanks ablaze in the second attack on Lebanon's only international air facility, Lebanese security officials said. One helicopter gunship raked the fuel depots with machine-gun fire while three others fired air-to-surface missiles, the officials added. Officials said about a dozen projectiles struck the tanks on the eastern edge of the airport premises, and that several others missed.
Israeli planes also dropped leaflets on the southern suburbs of Beirut near the airport, a stronghold of Hizbullah where its main leaders are based, calling on residents to avoid areas where the organization operates.
"For your own safety and out of our wish to avoid harming the civilians who are not involved, you should refrain from being present in areas where Hizbullah exists and operates," said the leaflets, signed by the State of Israel.
The focus of the operation in Lebanon, Halutz told reporters during a briefing at military headquarters in the North, would be to restore Israel's deterrent capability against those in Lebanon who thought the IDF was irrelevant - a reference to Hizbullah.
"The goal is to create a new reality in the North," Halutz said. "Such attacks will not be tolerated."
Halutz added that the two abducted soldiers - Ehud Goldwasser, 31, from Nahariya, and Eldad Regev, 26, from Kiryat Motzkin - were believed to be alive. "We know the soldiers are alive and we hold the Lebanese government completely responsible," he said.
Adam said Thursday evening that the army had hit hundreds of targets in Lebanon since Wednesday night and would continue to strike at any target involved in attacks on Israel. Israel, Adam added, had not ruled out sending ground forces into Lebanon.
"The IDF will operate wherever it wants to," Adam said. "With time we will succeed in eradicating this threat entirely."
Zeidman, who was killed when a Katyusha struck a penthouse apartment in Nahariya, was married and living here with one of her three children, according to Jewish Agency spokesman Michael Jankelowitz. The agency was working to locate her other two children in Argentina, he added.
Marcus Leon, who was an acquaintance of Zeidman, said that she had been part of the wave of immigrants who came to Israel in 2002 to escape the economic crisis in Argentina. "She was a wonderful woman," said Leon, who came from Argentina around the same time.
Magen David Adom reduced to a minimum the number of staffers on leave in order to cope with the events in the north. All ambulance stations and emergency points have been bolstered with extra staff and equipment and the level of alertness has been raised.
MDA reported that it dealt with 40 wounded in the Nahariya area, 38 in Safed and eight who were physically wounded and 40 suffering from emotional shock in the Majd el-Kurum area. Wounded were transported by mobile intensive care units and ambulances to local hospitals.
US President George W. Bush backed Israel's right to defend itself and denounced Hizbullah as "a group of terrorists who want to stop the advance of peace."
But he also expressed worries the Israeli assault could cause the fall of Lebanon's anti-Syrian government. "We're concerned about the fragile democracy in Lebanon," Bush said in Germany in advance of the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg.