Northern Israel tense as army, Hezbollah trade fire

JERUSALEM — Amid dozens of rocket attacks on Israel, tensions are again running high in southern Lebanon.

The Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah movement launched 30 rockets at Kiryat Shmona and other northern Israeli communities Saturday night. The Katyushas left one Israeli woman lightly injured and caused damage to several buildings.

The rocket attack came after the Israel Defense Force shelled an area near a Lebanese village in the southern Lebanon security zone earlier in the day. Two Lebanese civilians were reportedly killed in the Israeli shelling.

Israeli gunners then responded to the Katyusha attack with an assault on 15 Shiite Muslim villages in southern Lebanon, forcing hundreds of Lebanese families to flee.

With Hezbollah vowing a series of additional rocket attacks against Israel, top-level diplomats from Israel and the United States held intensive contacts to prevent an escalation of the violence.

At Sunday's weekly Cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Shimon Peres credited the United States with intervening on Israel's behalf and securing a Syrian commitment to calm the situation.

Israeli Foreign Minister Ehud Barak phoned U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher after the rocket attack to discuss the situation.

The Prime Minister's Office sent Israel's apologies to U.S. Ambassador Martin Indyk for what it said were the unintentional deaths of the civilians.

The northern border has been tense in recent weeks, but Saturday's rocket attack came after a relatively quiet period.

Israeli residents in the north had been ordered into shelters earlier Saturday after the region was put on alert in the wake of the day's clashes in southern Lebanon.

An IDF statement confirmed that Israeli troops had opened fire on a group of armed people traveling outside the Lebanese village of Yatar, adding that local media were reporting that the dead were civilians.

After the incident, Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah declared that the fundamentalist group would shell settlements in northern Israel to retaliate.

"I recommend that [Israelis] stay in their shelter today, tomorrow and the day after," he said in a statement.

He called the IDF shelling a violation of a U.S.-mediated understanding reached in July 1993 in which Israel and Hezbollah agreed to refrain from attacking civilian targets.

In a statement earlier last weekend, Nasrallah declared that Hezbollah had adopted a new policy of sending suicide bombers to hit Israeli targets, adding that the policy would continue until Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon.

Despite the rise in tensions, Israel's Inner Security Cabinet decided last week that there were no political or military justifications at this time for a massive army action against Hezbollah.

Northern residents were allowed out of shelters Sunday morning, as work to assess the damage began.

President Ezer Weizman visited Kiryat Shmona to meet with residents and assess the situation, while Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu arrived to survey damage and meet with community leaders.

The attacks came as northern resorts were gearing up for the busy Passover holiday vacation. Ron Kolakovsky, manager of a resort in the north, said no cancellations had yet been made in the wake of the attacks.