Israel pulls back from besieged town

Published July 30, 2006

BEIRUT, Lebanon - Israeli troops pulled back from a Lebanese border town Saturday after a week of heavy fighting with Hezbollah guerrillas who hailed the retreat as a victory. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice returned to the Middle East to push a refined U.S. peace plan.

The Israeli pullback from the town of Bint Jbail appeared to be in preparation for a new incursion along a different part of the border zone. Hours later, troops and tanks massed farther to the east on the Israeli side of the frontier, Lebanese security officials said early today.

Lebanese civilians were suffering the most from the fighting, which erupted after Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid July 12. On Saturday, warplanes struck outside the market town of Nabatiyeh, crushing a house and killing a woman, her five children, and a man in a nearby house, Lebanese security officials said. In the southern port city of Tyre, volunteers buried 31 victims of the bombardment in a mass grave, among them a 1-day-old girl.

Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah marked Rice's arrival with a threat to fire rockets even deeper into Israel. Appearing on Hezbollah television, Nasrallah claimed victory, saying Israel had failed to make a "single military achievement" during its 18-day offensive.

Still, Rice said she was encouraged by a tentative Hezbollah commitment to allow international troops into southern Lebanon and eventually disarm. She met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem Saturday evening, and was expected to stop in Lebanon though no visit was announced.

She said compromises will be needed from everyone.

"These are really hard and emotional decisions for both sides, under extreme pressure in a difficult set of circumstances," Rice said. "And so I expect the discussions to be difficult, but there will have to be give-and-take."

Nasrallah said he would cooperate with the Lebanese government in negotiations toward ending the crisis. But he suggested that disarmament would be off the table if conditions outlined by Lebanon are not met - including the resolution of a border dispute with Israel.

"No matter how long the war lasts, whatever sacrifices it takes, we are ready. We will not be broken or defeated," he said. "Many cities in the center (of Israel) will be targeted ... if the savage aggression continues on our country, people and villages."

Despite its intense bombardment of Lebanon - and heavy ground fighting near the border - Israel has been unable to stop barrages of hundreds of Hezbollah rockets. Guerrillas fired at least 90 rockets into Israel on Saturday, lightly injuring five people.

Israel has said it will launch a series of limited ground incursions into Lebanon to push back guerrillas, rather than carrying out a full-fledged invasion. The pullback from Bint Jbail suggested that thrust, launched a week ago, had ended.

Lebanese officials reported a massing of troops and tanks near the Israeli town of Metulla further to the northeast, on the tip of the Galilee Panhandle near the Golan Heights, suggesting another incursion could begin soon.

Like Bint Jbail, the Lebanese town of Khiam just across the border from Metulla is one of the largest towns in the border zone. Khiam has been under intense bombardment in recent days - including a strike that hit a U.N. post nearby and killed four observers on Tuesday.

On the Lebanon-Israel border, an Israeli strike hit near a U.N. peacekeepers' station, wounding two. The world body had just moved unarmed U.N. observers to the peacekeepers' posts for safety after the four deaths in Khiam.

The weeklong battle at Bint Jbail underscored Israel's difficulty in pushing back guerrillas who have been preparing for years for this fight, building up arsenals and digging in with tunnels and shelters in caves.

Bombardment by Israeli forces and rocket fire from guerrillas was intense Saturday morning around the Hezbollah stronghold, Lebanese security officials said.

Maj. Gen. Udi Adam, head of Israel's northern command, said Israel never intended to occupy Bint Jbail or to get "stuck in one place." He insisted the real mission - "to destroy infrastructure and kill terrorists" - had been a success.

Regardless, the pullback gave Hezbollah the opportunity to claim its fighters had driven out Israel's war machine.

Nasrallah said his guerrillas had dealt Israel a "serious defeat" in the town. "This elite force was fleeing and scurrying like mice from the battleground," he said.

At least 458 Lebanese have been killed in the fighting, according to a Health Ministry count Friday based on the number of bodies in hospitals, plus Saturday's deaths.

Thirty-three Israeli soldiers have died, and Hezbollah rocket attacks on northern Israel have killed 19 civilians, the Israeli army said.

Israel kills a militant leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad

NABLUS, West Bank - Israeli troops killed a top leader of the radical Palestinian Islamic Jihad in a West Bank raid Saturday, the group said.

Palestinian Islamic Jihad said the leader of its militant wing in Nablus, Hani Awijan, 29, was killed by Israeli undercover troops. They came to arrest him while he was playing soccer with friends and relatives, the group said. Another militant was also killed.

The army confirmed soldiers operated in Nablus and said a militant was killed in an exchange of fire.

Over the past 17 months, Palestinian Islamic Jihad has been responsible for all 12 suicide bombing attacks in Israel, killing 71 people.

Israel started an intensive military campaign after Hamas-linked militants tunneled under the border and attacked an Israeli army post on June 25, killing two soldiers and capturing a third.