The Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah surprised Israel with a bold daylight assault across the border on Wednesday, leading to fighting in which two Israeli soldiers were captured and at least eight killed, and elevating recent tensions into a serious two-front battle.
Israel, already waging a military operation in the Gaza Strip to free a soldier captured by Palestinian militants on June 25, immediately responded by sending armored forces into southern Lebanon for the first time in six years.
The toll was the highest one for the Israeli soldiers in several years, and combined with the deaths on Wednesday of at least 22 Palestinians, including many civilians, in fighting in Gaza, it was the deadliest day in the Arab-Israeli conflict since Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip last year. And the violence continued into the early morning hours, when an Israeli airstrike heavily damaged the Palestinian Foreign Ministry building in Gaza.
Even though Israel has overwhelming military superiority in both southern Lebanon and Gaza, the new fighting signaled the emergence of a conflict that has blown past the limits of local confrontation into a regional crisis. [Page A14.] And some analysts suggested that the similarity between the Hezbollah raid and the earlier one in Gaza by fighters with the Islamic faction Hamas and its allies, both intended to gain leverage through captured Israeli soldiers, pointed to increasingly closer relations between the groups.
As with the Gaza conflict, Israel ruled out negotiations with the Lebanese captors of the Israeli soldiers. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he held the Lebanese government responsible for the assault by Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim group that participates in Lebanese politics but also continues to battle Israel.
"I want to make clear that the event this morning is not a terror act, but an act of a sovereign state that attacked Israel without reason," Mr. Olmert said. "The government of Lebanon, of which Hezbollah is a part, is trying to shake the stability of the region." Israel is demanding that all three soldiers be returned unconditionally and that militants stop firing rockets at Israelis from Gaza in the south and Lebanon in the north.
But both Hamas and Hezbollah are holding out for an exchange for a large number of Palestinian and other Arab prisoners held by Israel.
"The prisoners will not be returned except through one way - indirect negotiations and a trade," said the leader of Hezbollah, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, speaking to reporters in Beirut late on Wednesday. He suggested the possibility of a package deal. "The capture of the two soldiers could provide a solution to the Gaza crisis," he said. The operation had been planned for months, he said, though he added, "The timing, no doubt, provides support for our brothers in Palestine."
Hezbollah released a statement saying that the two soldiers had been transferred to "a safe place," but did not give any other details.
Two years ago, Hezbollah managed to push Israel to free more than 400 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners in exchange for an Israeli businessman held in Lebanon and for the bodies of three Israeli soldiers killed in a Hezbollah attack in 2000. Israel is currently holding close to 9,000 Palestinian prisoners, though the number of Lebanese prisoners is believed to be much smaller.
In the Gaza crisis, Egypt and other countries have tried to broker a deal, but the efforts appear at a standstill.
The White House released a statement condemning the Hezbollah raid, calling it an "unprovoked act of terrorism" and holding Syria and Iran responsible because of their longstanding support for the group. The United Nations representative to southern Lebanon, Gier Pedersen, also criticized the raid, calling it "an act of very dangerous proportions."
The fighting on the Lebanese border erupted around 9 a.m., when Hezbollah attacked several Israeli towns with rocket fire, wounding several civilians, the Israeli military said. Israeli civilians rushed into their bomb shelters and many remained there through the day.
But that attack was a diversion for the main operation, several miles to the east, where Hezbollah militants fired antitank missiles at two armored Humvees patrolling the Israeli side of the border fence, the military said. Of the seven soldiers in the two jeeps, three were killed, two were wounded and two were abducted, the military said.
Israel then responded with artillery fire, airstrikes and a naval bombardment that focused on about 40 sites in southern Lebanon. Most were believed to be Hezbollah strongholds, but roads and bridges were also hit in an attempt to keep Hezbollah from moving the captured soldiers farther north, according to the military. At least 2 Lebanese civilians were killed and more than 10 wounded in southern Lebanon, Lebanese officials said.
Israel also sent ground forces into Lebanon, and a tank hit an explosive planted in the road, killing all four soldiers inside, the Israeli military said. Another soldier was killed while trying to rescue those in the tank.
The Israeli incursion was the first such operation in southern Lebanon since Israel pulled its troops back into Israel in 2000, ending two decades of occupation.
Political and military analysts in Egypt and Israel said the recent events seemed to stem from a growing relationship between Hamas and Hezbollah. While there is no direct evidence of coordinated attacks, several analysts said they believed that the two kidnappings were part of a single plan reflecting a trend that began several years ago, with Hezbollah trying to teach Hamas its methods. "What took place from Hezbollah today, in my opinion, is tied to their relationship with Hamas," said Dr. Wahid Abdel Meguid, Deputy Director of the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Egypt. "Hezbollah developed a strong relationship with Hamas, the most manifest form of this relationship is Hezbollah's role in training the Hamas cadres."
Hezbollah and Hamas are part of a complex four-way relationship with each other and Iran and Syria. Iran helped to create, finance and train Hezbollah. Hamas's political leader, Khaled Meshal, lives and works in Damascus. The expectation among political and foreign affairs analysts is that Hamas and Hezbollah would never have taken such provocative actions without at least the tacit approval of their sponsors in Tehran or Damascus.
Meanwhile, Gaza endured another bloody day. Hours before the Hezbollah attack on Wednesday, Israeli troops moved in force into central Gaza for the first time, expanding the operation intended to secure the release of the captured soldier there, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, and stop rocket fire into Israel. Israeli tanks, armored personnel carriers and armored bulldozers entered at the Kissufim crossing on the eastern side of Gaza and cut off the southern third of the territory from the rest of the strip.
The Israeli Air Force also dropped a bomb on a home in Gaza City at around 3 a.m., saying its targets were Hamas leaders. But the blast killed nine members of the Salmiyeh family, according to Dr. Jumaa al-Saqqa, the spokesman for Al Shifa Hospital, where the bodies were taken. There were visiting Hamas leaders in the house at the time of the bombing, but they escaped with only minor injuries, Palestinians said.
The owner of the house, Nabil Abu Salmiyeh, who was reported to be a Hamas member, was killed along with his wife, Salwa, and seven of their children, ages 7 to 18, Dr. Saqqa said.
The Israeli military said the main target was Muhammad Deif, the head of Hamas's armed wing. Israel says Mr. Deif is behind scores of attacks against Israeli civilians. The military, which has tried to kill Mr. Deif at least four times in recent years, said he was wounded in the bombing.
However, Hamas officials refused to say whether Mr. Deif was at the house at the time of the bombing, and insisted he was safe.
In two separate gun battles near the town of Deir al-Balah, Israeli soldiers killed 10 Palestinian militants and wounded at least seven more, Palestinian security and medical officials said.
At least 12 more Palestinians were killed in other Gaza incidents, many of them in airstrikes around Khan Yunis and Deir al-Balah, not far from where the Israel troops entered Gaza.
Early on Thursday, a strike by Israeli aircraft heavily damaged the Foreign Ministry building in Gaza. There were reports of injuries, though it was unclear whether they included people inside the ministry, which is controlled by Hamas, or in nearby buildings.
In Beirut, residents gave out sweets in celebration of the kidnapping, while convoys of young men drove through the downtown district, waving Hezbollah's signature yellow flag. Late into the night, residents monitored news reports about Israeli maneuvers and airstrikes.
Fouad Siniora, Lebanon's prime minister, sought to distance the government from the Hezbollah raid after an emergency cabinet meeting. He noted that the Lebanese government was "not aware of and does not take responsibility for, nor endorses what happened on the international border."
Greg Myre reported from Jerusalem for this article, and Steven Erlanger from Gaza City. Hassan M. Fattah contributed reporting from Beirut, and Michael Slackman from Cairo.