JERUSALEM – Israeli special forces clashed with Hezbollah gunmen in southern Lebanon on Wednesday as fighting between Israel and the militant Islamic group entered its second week with no sign of a diplomatic solution.

Lebanese officials reported that 55 people died there Wednesday as a result of Israeli air and artillery attacks, the highest single-day total since the fighting began. In Israel, a Hezbollah missile struck Nazareth, the childhood home of Jesus, killing two Arab-Israeli children and wounding 18 others.

Israeli troops also battled Palestinians in a Gaza refugee camp and surrounded a Palestinian Authority building in Nablus in the West Bank, where they accused militants of working on behalf of Hezbollah to create more chaos.

The Israeli incursion into southern Lebanon was a relatively rare ground confrontation in a conflict that’s been fought primarily by air, artillery and rockets.

Two Israeli soldiers were killed in the fighting, which took place north of the Israeli town of Avivim.

There was no word on Hezbollah casualties.

Late Wednesday, the Israeli military said it dropped 23 tons of explosives on what it believed was a bunker in the Bourj al-Barajneh area of southern Beirut that was holding top Hezbollah militants. Hezbollah later issued a statement to various news media saying none of its leaders were killed in the strike.

A key goal of Israel’s military campaign is to drive Hezbollah militants from southern Lebanon, where they launched last week’s attack that killed eight Israeli soldiers, led to the capture of two others and sparked the past week’s violence.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan is pushing for a beefed-up international force to patrol the border. But Israeli leaders are lukewarm to the idea and demand that the frail Lebanese government take control of the border.

The Bush administration so far has kept its distance from the conflict, except to support Israel’s right to defend itself against terrorist attacks.

In Lebanon, Prime Minister Fuad Saniora renewed his calls for an immediate cease-fire.

“Lebanon deserves life,” Saniora told a group of diplomats in Beirut. “What kind of life is being offered to us now?”

“Hezbollah is destroying Lebanon and preventing its independence,” said Shimon Peres, Israel’s vice prime minister, after meeting with the European Union’s diplomatic liaison. “If the existing 50,000 Lebanese soldiers will not stand up against this and thus enable 7,000 Hezbollah terrorists to rule Lebanon, we will not tolerate such a situation.”

Lebanese officials said the death toll from Israeli attacks has now topped 300, the vast majority of them civilians.


Sami Haddad, Lebanon’s minister of economy and trade, told reporters in Beirut that Israeli attacks have struck cars and vans carrying large families, apartment buildings, Beirut’s airport and dozens of other targets.

“The ferocity and inhumane aggression has reached unbelievable proportions,” he said.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called his Canadian counterpart, Stephen Harper, to express regret for an air strike that killed eight Canadian-Lebanese citizens. The attack fueled criticism that Israel is punishing innocents for the actions of a rogue military group over which they have no control.

In Washington, Israel supporters in Congress were expected to endorse a resolution supporting Israel’s military campaign and condemning Hezbollah and its allies for instigating the fight.

“Some in this building may want to insist that maybe Israel’s response is disproportionate to the attacks that it has suffered,” said Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., a key Republican leader. “I think the majority of the members of the House will stand up and stress Israel’s historic commitment to minimizing any civilian casualties, and, at the same time, be able to defend itself and its population.”

Israeli pilots have flown more than 2,000 missions over Lebanon. Hezbollah has launched some 700 rockets into Israel in strikes that have killed 16 people.

On Wednesday, Ravia Abed Taluzi, 3, and his 7-year-old brother, Mohammed, died when a rocket struck the Christian town of Nazareth. They were the first known Arab-Israeli fatalities of the conflict.

“Hezbollah is firing rockets at towns holy to Christians and killing Muslims,” said Israeli government spokesman David Baker.

At least six Palestinians were killed and five Israeli soldiers injured in the fighting in Gaza after Israeli troops raided the Mughazi refugee camp in central Gaza.

Three Palestinians were reported killed in the face-off in Nablus. On Tuesday, a bomb there killed an Israeli soldier.

Israeli police near Tel Aviv also arrested a suspected suicide bomber after a frantic search, the second time in three days that Israeli authorities tracked down a suspected suicide bomber. Palestinian militants may be attempting to destabilize Israel as it manages two complex battles on its northern and southern borders.

So far, Israelis overwhelmingly supporting the government’s aggressive attempts to free its soldiers and end persistent rocket attacks on both fronts, polls have found.

But Uri Dromi, a former government spokesman who now serves as international outreach director for the Israel Democracy Institute, said Israeli leaders will have to begin preparing the public for a compromise that falls short of the government’s demands for complete disarmament of Hezbollah and guaranteed peace on the Israel-Lebanon border.

“The question marks are starting to surface,” Dromi said. “You look at the chats and the blogs, and I sense that people are starting to say: Now what?”

Even if Israel falls short of dismantling Hezbollah, Dromi said, Israel will have gone a long way toward re-establishing itself as an intimidating military power in the Middle East.

“It’s a street fight, and you really need to once in a while stand up and fight back, even for the sake of next time, maybe they will think twice before they hit you,” Dromi said. “And that’s a lot in the Middle East.”


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