AVIVIM, Israel—The deadly fight began before dawn Wednesday, as Israel's famed Golani Brigade slipped among the apartment blocks on the edge of Bint Jbail.
Among the nation's most elite unit, the Golani had been chosen to clear out the last Hezbollah fighters from a deserted city of 20,000. Israeli forces had controlled the hills around the town for days, but their intelligence services believed that as many as 50 fighters remained, hiding in basements, waiting. Military spokesmen said they were thought to be preparing a final, glorious attack.
"They weren't looking to survive," said Israeli Capt. Doron Spielman.
Still, the Israelis weren't ready for what hit them. As they entered a manmade canyon, gunfire rained down from the ridge and from the upper stories of empty apartment buildings. Mortar rounds poured in. Closer to the ground, Hezbollah fighters launched rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank missiles. It would later be described as a hornets' nest.
"Overnight, the Hezbollah strength had at least doubled, and there were perhaps as many as 150," said Maj. Zvika Golan. "The attack came from all sides."
In the first minutes of the battle, at least eight Israeli soldiers were killed. Many more were wounded. Israeli officials said it was an hour before others were able to start evacuating the dead and wounded because the barrage was so fierce.
In fact, Golan said it was an hour before the brigade figured out where the fire was coming from and could return fire.
The deaths of the eight soldiers and that of another soldier in a town nearby made Wednesday the deadliest day of the two-week-old war for the Israeli military.
Israel Defense Forces spokesman Mitch Pilcer called the attack "highly coordinated. Rockets, gunfire, mortars, they all began at once."
He said Israeli soldiers had to move their dead and wounded about a mile away from the fighting so that helicopters could land safely and evacuate them.
"After that, it was house-to-house fighting, door to door," Pilcer said. "All day long."
Bint Jbail is nestled in the steep, rocky hills along the border. Smoke from the fighting spread above the valley as the day wore on.
Hezbollah fighters had been waiting in apartments, in basements, anywhere there was cover. On numerous recent occasions, Pilcer said, Israeli soldiers have found Hezbollah fighters firing from the second floor of a building while a family was still on the first floor, so the soldiers had to be cautious in counterattacking.
The fighting continued past dusk, a steady drum of Israeli artillery fire along with semi- and automatic weapons fire and what military officials described as Hezbollah mortar fire. Military officials estimated that 50 Hezbollah fighters were killed.
Bint Jbail is a 10-minute walk from the Israeli border. But Golan and others note that Israel isn't occupying Lebanon, so more fighters could filter in.
Maj. Gen. Udi Adam, head of Israel's northern command, which includes the Lebanese border, said Israelis understand this.
"It's a war, and in a war there are days like this," he said, from position in a small forest near the border. "I think that the population in Israel know what war is and that you have to expect casualties."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHICS (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060726 MIDEAST pm, 20060726 Mideast casualty
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