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Israeli Attacks Increase; Hezbollah Vows 'Open War'

As the Mideast crisis continued to intensify, the head of Lebanon's militant group Hezbollah declared "open war," and Israel said it would not stop its military campaign until Hezbollah was disarmed.

Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah spoke in a recorded message played soon after Israeli planes destroyed his home and offices in southern Beirut. Spokesmen said Nasrallah and his family were not hurt. Nasrallah's message played on Hezbollah's own TV station, Al-Manar, and drew celebratory gunfire from his Shiite supporters. "You wanted an open war," he said addressing Israelis, "and we are heading for an open war. We are ready for it."

Nasrallah then announced that his fighters had rocketed an Israeli military ship from which air raids on Beirut had been launched. An Israeli army spokesman confirmed the attack, which was reported to have been carried out by an unmanned drone, a troubling sign for Israel that Hezbollah has a greater arsenal than believed. Israel did not immediately respond to a report on Al-Jazeera that it was searching for four missing soldiers from the ship.

Israeli continued to bomb Beirut's airport runways Friday, and continued its sea blockade, cutting the country off from the outside world. It also struck fuel tanks at one of Beirut's two main power stations. Lebanese spokesmen said the death toll now topped 70, almost all civilians.

France condemned Hezbollah as "irresponsible," and Israeli’s actions as "totally disproportionate."

Lebanon's Prime Minister, Fouad Siniora, asked the White House to pressure Israel to stop, but spokesman Tony Snow said, "The president is not going to make military decisions for Israel." Snow also said neither side would likely agree to a ceasefire at this point, but that the president President had urged Israel to limit civilian casualties.

At a meeting of the United Nations Security Council called by Lebanon, Israeli Ambassador Dan Gillerman declared that by capturing two Israeli soldiers earlier this week, the militant group Hezbollah "has taken the whole of Lebanon hostage."

Gillerman then seemed to appropriate the Bush administration's rhetoric about the Arab world when he said Israel seeks only "to achieve the goal of a free, prosperous, and democratic Lebanon." Jabbing his arm across the room at Lebanon's ambassador, Gillerman said, "You know we are doing the right thing, and if we succeed, Lebanon will be the beneficiary."

Across Israel's north, a government spokesman said some 250 thousand people had taken to bomb shelters as Hezbollah fired dozens of Katyusha rockets. They struck in towns across the area, injuring dozens. Four Israeli civilians and eight soldiers have been killed in the escalation. Hezbollah stunned Israel Thursday by striking the port city of Haifa, a place that was believed to be beyond the reach of Hezbollah's firepower. In his broadcast speech Friday, Hezbollah's Nasrallah warned of more hits "beyond and beyond Haifa."

Hezbollah has acted with near autonomy in South Lebanon ever since Israel ended a 22-year occupation there in 2000. Lebanon's own fragile government is a delicate mix of Sunni, Shiite, and Christian members, and is unable to confront Hezbollah without risking internal conflict. For many Lebanese, the past days' events are an eerie reminder of the 15-year civil war they endured.

The fighting has sparked fears of a wider Mideast war because Hizbollah derives financial and moral support from both Syria and Iran. Damascus also exerts some political control over Lebanon, even though last year it pulled out tens of thousands of soldiers who had been stationed there for decades.

Shibley Telhami, of the University of Maryland, told NPR that the next level in the conflict will inevitably lead to Syria. "Clearly at some point," he said, the Bush administration is "going to have to activate diplomacy in ways they have not been prepared to do."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.