Sunday Telegraph: Iran was thrust to the forefront of widening conflict in the Middle East last night when Israel and America blamed it for supplying the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah with sophisticated weapons to fight a proxy war against the Jewish state. The Sunday Telegraph
By Harry De Quetteville in Tiberias
Iran was thrust to the forefront of widening conflict in the Middle East last night when Israel and America blamed it for supplying the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah with sophisticated weapons to fight a proxy war against the Jewish state.
Israeli intelligence claimed that 100 Iranian Revolutionary Guards were in Lebanon helping Hezbollah, and that their weapons would enable Hezbollah to strike with devastating force at Israel’s armed forces and civilian population as far south as the capital, Tel Aviv.
The joint accusation came as two waves of Hezbollah rockets fell on the city of Tiberias on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, normally packed at this time of year with holidaymakers, and making good the group’s threat to strike deep into northern Israel.
Meanwhile Israel widened its military campaign in Lebanon, which has so far killed more than 80 people, mostly civilians.
For the first time, warplanes hit targets in northern Lebanon, including a border crossing point to Syria, but the worst casualties remained in the south where at least 20 villagers who were trying to escape the fighting were reported killed when their convoy was apparently hit by an Israeli rocket attack.
The victims, including 15 children, were fleeing the village of Marwaheen only a mile or so from the border after being ordered by Israeli forces to do so or see their houses flattened.
Israeli aircraft also struck Hezbollah’s main office in Beirut and hit petrol stations, bridges and roads across the country.
The escalating war, and the effects of Hezbollah’s enhanced new arsenal, were also clear at sea, as an Israeli warship with 80 sailors on board was towed back to the country’s northern port of Haifa after being struck by a long-distance missile.
The rocket started a huge blaze and knocked out the ship’s steering system, with one crewman confirmed dead and three others missing.
Israel said that Iranian soldiers had helped Hezbollah with the attack. Meanwhile United States intelligence agencies in Washington have disclosed that Iran may have supplied some of its most feared and up-to-date weapons to Hezbollah.
The munitions in question are Iran’s 240mm Fajr3 missile, which has a range of 25 miles, and the 333mm Fajr5, with a range of about 45 miles, carrying a warhead of up to 90kg.
Israeli military sources said the warship was hit by a Chinese-designed, Iranian-built C80 radar-guided missile.
“We can confirm that it was hit by an Iranian-made missile launched by Hezbollah,” said Brig Gen Ido Nehushtan.
The range of such missiles means that the crippled ship will not be safe even when it docks for repairs in the city of Haifa, 20 miles south of the Lebanese border.
But, newly armed and newly determined, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, promised that Haifa would not mark the limits of the Lebanese group’s attacks, and extended-range versions of the weapons in its control could reach Tel Aviv, more than three times as far.
The reality of the threat became clear when Tiberias, a holiday and retirement town 22 miles from the Lebanese border, yesterday became the target deepest into Israel that Hezbollah has ever struck. Five rockets landed in the city, two in residential areas, in the first attack it has faced since the 1973 Yom Kippur war. There were no injuries to add to the four Israelis who have already been killed by Hezbollah rockets in recent days. In one apartment block a missile ripped through the top three floors, punching a hole in a wall before splintering furniture and shattering windows.
“The people in those apartments were away, so we were very, very lucky no one was killed,” said Ron Cobi, 34, whose parents were in the flat one floor further down. “My parents are in their 70s and very shocked and scared. Right now they’re in the building’s bunker.”
Hezbollah’s ability to hit Israeli targets such as the warship has fundamentally altered the balance of power on the battlefield. While Israel, which is widely thought to possess nuclear weapons, retains one of the best-trained, best-equipped armies in the world, its principal adversaries in the past six years have been poorly equipped Palestinian -militants.
In Gaza and the West Bank, the worst that Israeli armour has to face are Kalashnikov-wielding enemies, who sometimes wear suicide belts in a usually fruitless attempt to increase their killing power.
That imbalance has enabled Israeli forces to remain on the ground in Gaza for the past three weeks, sustaining only one casualty. In the first days of the war on the northern front, the military death toll has passed 10.
In Gaza, Palestinian casualties since the conflict began reached almost 80 yesterday, after two more people were killed in Israeli air strikes. At least one was reported to be a bystander as Israel hit what it described as a “rocket -factory”.
President George W Bush himself singled out Damascus rather than Teheran for most criticism yesterday as a backer of Hezbollah. Asked about reports that Syria and Iran had been “operationally involved” with Hezbollah’s attacks, Mr Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, said: “At the end of the day people have choices to make and Syria is making bad choices They have a choice to make and so far they made a wrong choice.”
Additonal reporting: Toby Harnden, Washington, and Alec Russell, Moscow.