South Lebanon feels brunt of Israeli attacks

Airstrikes Thursday destroyed roads and bridges and killed at least 52 civilians.

Mohammed Akkash's voice cracked as he listed the names of his 10 grandchildren who were killed just hours earlier in an Israeli air raid on his son's home.

"The youngest one, Safat, was just 6 months old. Is a 6-month-old baby a resistance fighter? What happened is a crime," he says, as other mourners sitting on plastic seats outside his home nodded quietly in agreement.

Throughout the dusty hill villages and deep valleys of south Lebanon, similar displays of grief and anger were evident Thursday as the district reeled beneath the most intensive series of Israeli airstrikes mounted in 10 years. Roads and bridges here were systematically blown up, part of Israel's strategy of targeting the militant group Hizbullah's infrastructure that has effectively cut off south Lebanon from the rest of the country.

Sayyed Adil Akkash, a Shiite Muslim cleric allegedly connected to Lebanon's Hizbullah party, was killed along with his wife and 10 children in a predawn air raid in which up to 40 missiles struck his three-story home on a stony hillside outside this village. The missiles leveled the building, leaving a pile of rubble and coating a field of green tobacco plants in a thick layer of dark gray dust.

The whisper of Israeli jets could be heard as they passed high above, hidden by the scudding clouds.

"It's a massacre," sobbed a woman, held up by her husband as they stepped gingerly though the rubble.

Mr. Akkash was apparently a member of Hizbullah, the militant anti-Israel group whose battle-hardened fighters on Wednesday grabbed two Israeli soldiers along Lebanon's border with Israel and killed eight more. Israel has vowed to restore its long vaunted powers of deterrence by striking a decisive blow against its Lebanese Shiite Muslim foe.

The soft thump of distant explosions echoed throughout the south Thursday as Israel pressed forward its attack. Israeli aircraft destroyed all the bridges crossing the Litani River, which cuts across much of south Lebanon. By midafternoon, it had become impossible to enter the border district along the coastal region, cutting off tens of thousands of civilians as well as UN peacekeepers deployed along the border.

Thursday, Hizbullah fired dozens of rockets deep into Israel, most of them conventional 122mm Katyushas. But Hizbullah announced that it had also fired, for the first time, a new rocket known as a Raad-1 at an Israeli air control center on Mount Meron, nine miles south of the border.

Also Thursday, at least one rocket fired from Lebanon hit Israel's northern port city of Haifa, but there were no reported injuries. In an interview with Al Jazeera Thursday, a Hizbullah spokesman denied that the group fired the rockets at Haifa.

But Hizbullah has warned that it would attack larger civilian targets if Israel bombed Beirut. "If they attack Beirut, we will attack Haifa," says Hussein Naboulsi, a Hizbullah spokesman. "So far we have not used the weapons that we are supposed to use," he adds, hinting at Hizbullah's alleged arsenal of long-range rockets. "If the situation escalates, something totally unexpected might happen."

Those were hardly reassuring words for Israel or for the Lebanese, many of whom had fervently hoped to have seen an end to their country becoming embroiled in the interminable Arab-Israeli conflict.

Israel abandoned its occupation zone in south Lebanon in 2000 and Syria withdrew its troops last year. Many Lebanese have hoped that despite a fractious political climate, the situation would steadily improve. Tourists have been returning to Lebanon in greater numbers with each passing year since the end of the 1975-90 civil war. Lebanon's stagnant economy relies heavily on the influx of wealthy Gulf tourists and expatriate Lebanese who come here each year, filling hotels and beaches.

Israel's military planners also seemed to have taken Lebanon's valuable tourist season into account when Israeli jets Thursday morning bombed the runways of Beirut International Airport, shutting the facility down and forcing all flights to be diverted to Cyprus.

"The services sector in Lebanon has worked so hard trying to generate some kind of industry, and now this has to happen," says Michael Karam, editor of Executive, a monthly English-language business magazine. "They are looking to the Lebanese government for some kind of leadership but they aren't getting it."

Overt criticism of Hizbullah, which participates in the government, so far has been relatively muted, with cabinet ministers biting their lips and instead focusing on arranging a cease-fire to end Israeli attacks.

"Lebanon's main demand is a comprehensive cease-fire and an end to this open-ended aggression," said Ghazi Aridi, Lebanon's information minister and close political ally of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, a staunch critic of Hizbullah.

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