U.S. Defends Israeli Air Strikes at Targets in Lebanon

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - The United States is urgently working to restore calm in southern Lebanon while defending Israel's recent attacks on Hizballah targets in the area. Administration officials blame the Iranian-backed Hizballah (Party of Allah) organization for the recent escalation in fighting, which continued overnight.

Israeli fighter jets struck three Hizballah facilities - including two based in Syrian-held areas of Lebanon - in the latest raids. Those raids came after Islamist gunmen killed an Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldier and an allied South Lebanese Army (SLA) soldier on Tuesday.

Six Israeli soldiers have been killed in the last two weeks, and six SLA soldiers have died in fighting since the beginning of the year. They include a top SLA commander, who had been slated to someday take over the SLA.

The United States, France and Syria are attempting to convene a multinational monitoring committee that was established four years ago in order to prevent a further escalation in fighting.

The U.S. has expressed its concern over the spiraling situation in Lebanon and called on both sides to exercise restraint.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said Israeli attacks on Lebanese power stations on Monday evening, which plunged half the country into darkness, were a response to the stepped-up Hizballah activity, in gross violation of a 1996 understanding.

"What the Israelis have done is to send a very clear signal about the fact they don't want this to escalate," she said.

Albright telephoned Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara to urge the Syrians - who maintain a large military force in Lebanon - to rein in Hizballah. Shara told Albright Syria was doing all it could.

The Islamic fundamentalist organization maintains it operates independently, but it is supplied through Damascus and it operates out of Syrian-controlled territory.

In Damascus, Shara was quoted as saying that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was trying to kill the peace process. But he agreed there was a need to hold an urgent meeting of the monitoring committee.

Barak has accused the Hizballah of violating the 1996 agreement, which prohibits attacks launched on or from civilian areas.

"Our operation intended to signal to the Lebanese government, to the Hizballah and even indirectly to the Syrians that Israel is not ready to accept unilateral violation of these agreements," Barak said.

The Israeli security cabinet met again Wednesday to decide on continuing action in south Lebanon. Senior officials were quoted by Israel Radio as saying the government would not tolerate violations of the 1996 agreement.

Meanwhile, Barak declared a state of emergency Tuesday evening in northern Israel, covering an area in which more than 250,000 Israelis live.

"Whatever it will take to defend our citizens, we will do it," Barak said, as "any free world government" would do facing the same situation.

Foreign Minister David Levy Wednesday told diplomats based in Israel that if Hizballah fired rockets at Israel, "the soil of Lebanon will burn." If Lebanon did not restrain Hizballah, he stressed, its "essential interests" would go up in flames.

Some 80 percent of the residents Kiryat Shemona, a town of more than 21,000 which has become accustomed to Hizballah Katyusha rocket attacks, have left the area for destinations further south, out of missile range.

Those who remained spent a third day holed-up in underground bunkers together with their neighbors. Many bunkers have been modernized to make them more comfortable, but some have no electricity or running water.