BEIRUT, Lebanon—Israel expanded its air campaign against Lebanon on Friday in an apparent effort to prevent Hezbollah from receiving new supplies from Syria and Iran.
For the first time since the latest conflict began on July 12, Israeli warplanes attacked four bridges in largely Christian areas north of Beirut and hit a farm near the Syrian border, killing 33 workers who were loading fruit on trucks.
Hezbollah militants fired at least 200 rockets into Israel, killing three civilians and wounding a dozen more. Three rockets fell in a field about 50 miles inside Israel, the deepest penetration to date by Hezbollah missiles.
Lebanese officials said the strikes against the four major bridges north of the capital and the farm near the Syrian border isolated relief centers in Beirut and dashed hopes that Israel would allow a humanitarian corridor to ease the country's dwindling supply of fuel, medical aid and food.
The strikes halted the flow of humanitarian aid arriving via Syria and forced aid agencies in Beirut to cancel convoys loaded with humanitarian supplies destined for besieged villagers in the south.
"Beirut is pretty much cut off," said Nabil el Jisr, the coordinator for the Lebanese government's High Relief Commission.
With all major north-south arteries now in ruins, Lebanon essentially is cleaved into three separate chunks, each targeted by air strikes and struggling to provide for thousands of displaced families.
In largely Shiite Muslim southern Lebanon, a United Nations official said, Israeli ground forces have destroyed nearly all Hezbollah positions along the Israel-Lebanon border, but haven't stopped Hezbollah guerrillas from firing Katyusha rockets.
Ryszard Morczynski, a U.N. political affairs officer, said that Israel controls about 10 villages along the border, half as many as Israeli commanders have claimed. But, he said, "they are coming closer to this target every day."
"If the strategy is to stop Katyushas from falling on northern Israel, it has not worked," he said. "But if the strategy is to inflict heavy punishment, yes, Israel has destroyed nearly all the Hezbollah positions" along the border.
Israeli officials said they killed at least 16 Hezbollah fighters in fighting in a five southern Lebanon villages. The heaviest fighting took place at Markaba, where seven Hezbollah fighters and three Israelis died.
Israel said it had targeted a building after it detected a "large truck suspected of carrying weapons, crossing from the Syrian border into Lebanon." The Israelis tracked the truck to the building, the Israelis said in a statement. "Suspecting that the buildings were being used as storage points for weaponry, the IAF (Israeli air force) targeted the buildings," the statement said.
Lebanese television footage of the incident showed rows of bodies near the wreckage of a small building near fruit orchards. Baskets of fruit were strewn at the scene.
Four Lebanese civilians were killed and at least 13 were injured—10 of them severely—by Israel's early-morning attacks on the bridges north of the capital, said Ali Saad of the Red Cross in Beirut.
One of the attacks demolished a bridge in Junieh, a primarily Christian port city and vacation spot that, like most Christian areas, was considered relatively safe before Friday's strikes.
Israeli says it targeted the infrastructure to prevent Hezbollah from getting more weapons from Syria.
The Israeli offensive, however, has likely had little effect on the smugglers' routes, which lace from Syria throughout Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, said Barak Ben-Zur, a visiting military fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"There's no way to stop the flow of weapons from the Syrians, no matter what the Israeli air force can do," Ben-Zur said. "They are smuggling all the time. They are professionals with this kind of traffic."
Israel's ground operations this week achieved mixed success, said Morczynski, the U.N. peacekeeping official. They severely degraded Hezbollah's ability to fire rockets or resupply fighters in a belt of villages along the border, including the Hezbollah stronghold of Maroun al Ras—but none of these villages is much more than about a mile into Lebanese territory.
No villages are truly occupied because Israeli forces have preferred to stage brief incursions, then fall back across the border. But about 40 Hezbollah positions in and around those villages—places where fighters had been dug in with observation posts and places to sleep—have been bulldozed by tanks, he said.
If the Israeli military deploys a larger ground force, as its leaders have proposed, it could take over larger swaths of land. But it will require many more troops—more, perhaps, than the two additional brigades that some officials have suggested, and that could mean more casualties, Morczynski said.
"They have such a large army. If they commit more ground troops, of course they can control the area," Morczynski said. "The problem is, at what cost? How many casualties are they willing to absorb?"
ROCKET ATTACKS IN ISRAEL
The number of rockets that have struck various Israeli cities and towns as of Aug. 8, 2006, according to the Israeli police:
Kiryat Shmona: 485
Migdal Haemek: 2
Nazareth Illit: 1
West Bank (near Jenin): 1
(Allam reported from Beirut, Schofield from Jerusalem. McClatchy correspondents Shashank Bengali in Tyre, Lebanon and Drew Brown in Washington, D.C. contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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