Special report: Israel and the Middle East
Israelis invade Lebanon after soldiers are seized
Conal Urquhart in Gaza City, Chris McGreal in Jerusalem and agencies
Wednesday July 12, 2006
Israeli troops fire artillery shells into southern Lebanon. Photograph: Avihu Shapira/AFP/Getty Images
Israeli tanks and troops today invaded southern Lebanon after Hizbullah captured two soldiers and killed several others.
The Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, described the capture of the soldiers an "act of war" by Lebanon, with today's developments compounding the ongoing political crisis over an abducted Israeli soldier being held in Gaza.
Palestinian militants holding Corporal Gilad Shalit have demanded that all Palestinian women and young people held in Israeli jails be freed in exchange for his release.
The Bush administration blamed Syria and Iran for today's kidnappings and violence, calling for the immediate and unconditional release of the two soldiers.
Hizbullah said it would not release them until Israel agreed to set free all Arab prisoners.
Its capture of the soldiers is a huge political embarrassment to Mr Olmert, coming only weeks after the seizure of Cpl Shalit last month.
He will be concerned that Hamas and Hizbullah could start working together to demand the release of prisoners as a condition for freeing the missing soldiers.
Several Israeli soldiers were killed in fighting after Mr Olmert ordered his forces into Lebanon in an attempt to rescue the abducted soldiers.
"These are difficult days for the state of Israel and its citizens," he said. "There are people ... who are trying to test our resolve. They will fail, and they will pay a heavy price for their actions."
The crisis facing Israel was compounded when its air force killed a family of nine, dropping a 550lb bomb on a house in a residential area of Gaza City early today.
Nabil Abu Salmiah, a lecturer at the Islamic University - who has been described by Israel as a Hamas activist - was killed, along with his wife and their five daughters and two sons.
Five of the dead children were aged between four and 11, and the other two were in their teens.
The deaths will be a severe embarrassment to Israel, which has killed around 40 civilians, many of them children, in missile and shell attacks over recent weeks.
Witnesses said the only members of the family to survive were two sons, one thrown out of the house by the explosion and another rescued from the rubble, and the eldest daughter, who was married and lived elsewhere.
The bombing is likely to be compared to a notorious attack in which an Israeli jet dropped a one tonne bomb on an apartment block four years ago, killing Salah Shehade, the Hamas military leader, and 14 other people, including nine children.
Sadullah Zant, 31, a relative and neighbour, said he had been asleep on his balcony when he heard two explosions within seconds of each other.
"My building moved up and down and I heard crashing and screaming," he said. "I ran out and I saw people emerging from the building covered in blood and dust. People were screaming, and you could still hear the jets overhead."
Witnesses said the second explosion came when a missile was fired from a helicopter at a car fleeing the area, suggesting that the men being targeted by Israel had already left the house when the bomb struck.
Israeli sources said they had been trying to kill Mohammed Deif, who had met other commanders of the Hamas military wing in the house.
A former leader of the Hamas military wing, he has been injured in three previous assassination attempts. Although he has been replaced as leader by Ahmed Jaabri, he remains an influential figure.
In a text message to the Associated Press, a Hamas spokesman wrote: "We deny the allegations that commander Mohammed Deif was wounded, and we confirm that he and his colleagues have survived."
The air strikes happened as the Israeli army entered new areas of the Gaza Strip.
Scores of tanks and armoured personnel carriers took up positions around Deir al Balah and Khan Yunis in central Gaza, blocking movement between the two halves of the strip.
Israeli troops killed at least 12 Palestinians, including one policemen and two militants, in four separate incidents in the central Gaza Strip, Palestinian medical officials said.
Mr Olmert has been pursuing a drawn-out strategy to win the release of Cpl Shalit - who is being held by Hamas's military wing and other groups - and to end Palestinian rocket attacks.
He has initiated a series of assaults on the Gaza Strip, put Gaza's 1.4 million residents under pressure with the destruction of the only power station and other infrastructure, and arrested members of the Hamas-controlled Palestinian government and MPs.
Israel and the Middle East
World news guide
Israel and the Palestinian territories
Commonly used terms in the Middle East conflict
How the Israelis and Palestinians came to war
Israel enters Gaza
Israeli Knesset (parliament)
Israeli ministry of foreign affairs
Israeli government site
Office of the Israeli prime minister
Palestinian Ministry of Information
Israel Insider (Israel)
Jerusalem Post (Israel)
Arabic Media Internet Network (Palestinian)
Palestine Chronicle (Palestinian)
Electronic Intifada (Palestinian)
Bitter Lemons (Israeli-Palestinian)
Printable version | Send it to a friend | Save story