By JTA Staff

TEL AVIV — Lebanon’s government appears to be realizing that it can no longer allow a terrorist group to control its country’s destiny.

As Israel continued its air and sea assault on Lebanon after Hezbollah killed eight soldiers in a cross-border raid last week and kidnapped two others, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora appealed Saturday for an immediate cease-fire and called for U.N. help in imposing government authority on the south of the country, an area that Hezbollah effectively controls.

Fighting intensified Saturday, with Hezbollah missiles hitting as far south as Tiberias on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Only light injuries were reported, but Israel imposed martial law in the north Saturday and deployed Patriot anti-missile batteries around Haifa.

Also Saturday, Israel for the first time hit central Beirut, but most of its attacks were focused on the capital’s southern cities and the eastern city of Baalbek, both Hezbollah strongholds.

Lebanese sources said 27 people were killed in Saturday’s strikes, bringing the total dead since the fighting began last week to 106 Lebanese and 15 Israelis.

On the Palestinian front, where Israeli forces have been trying to retrieve a soldier captured June 25 and end rocket fire on Israeli cities and towns, Israeli forces moved back into the northern Gaza Strip early Sunday, clashing with Palestinian gunmen. Two Palestinians were killed.

In Lebanon, Siniora criticized Hezbollah without naming the group, which is part of the government.

“The government alone has the legitimate right to decide on matters of peace and war,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion. Lebanon “cannot rise and get back on its feet if its government is the last to know.”

Until now, Lebanon has ignored U.N. Security Council resolutions ordering it to disarm Hezbollah and extend central authority down to the border with Israel.

Israeli officials have said that the current military operation is intended not just to retrieve the captured soldiers but to push Hezbollah back from the border and uproot the thousands of missiles that, with Iranian help, the terrorist group has installed in southern Lebanon and trained on Israeli cities.

On Friday afternoon, Israel destroyed Hezbollah’s Beirut headquarters and hit the private home of Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. Nasrallah, who stays constantly on the move, reportedly was unharmed.

Nasrallah made a fiery speech shortly afterward.

“You wanted open war,” he said, according to Reuters. “We are going to open war.”

Hezbollah continued its shelling of northern Israel on Friday, killing a boy and his grandmother in Moshav Meron. Dozens of people were injured throughout the day Friday as fresh barrages of Katyusha rockets hit the Galilee.

Also on Friday, Hezbollah hit an Israeli warship that had been firing missiles into southern Beirut. Israeli officials said Saturday that the body of St. Sgt. Tal Amgar, 21, from Ashdod, had been found aboard the damaged vessel, which was towed back to Israel.

Three other missing sailors are believed to be somewhere on board. The missing were identified as Sgt. Yoni Hershkovitz, 21, from Haifa; Cpl. Shai Atias, 19, from Rishon Letzion; and First St. Sgt. Dov Shteinshos, 37, from Carmiel.

Israel accused Iran of helping fire the missile, a charge Iran denied.

With Hezbollah missiles raining down, tens of thousands of residents of northern Israel hid in shelters or fled. A warning system that will give residents one minute to get to shelters before a rocket hits is due to be activated in Haifa on Sunday.

Israeli officials warned that Hezbollah may have missiles in its arsenal capable of reaching as far south as Tel Aviv.

A U.N. Security Council debate on the escalation Friday ended with no action.

On Saturday, President Bush — in Russia to attend the Group of Eight summit meeting of leading industrial nations this week — called on Hezbollah “to lay down its arms and to stop attacking” Israel.

The summit’s host, Russian President Vladimir Putin, urged Israeli restraint, as the United States and France prepared to evacuate their citizens from Lebanon.

Meanwhile, Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo adopted a resolution calling for Security Council intervention, but Saudi Arabia denounced Hezbollah and blamed it for provoking the conflict.

Hezbollah has said it will release the captured Israeli soldiers only in a prisoner exchange, but Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has ruled out any deal with the terrorist group.

A test of stamina now looms. Many wonder how far Olmert is willing to push the campaign, or whether Lebanon, facing economic meltdown, will bend first.

“The Israelis have no other option but to swap. Hezbollah does not give in very easily,” Timur Goksel, a professor at the American University of Beirut who was the spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon for many years, told Reuters.

But he also criticized Hezbollah for triggering the fighting and said the militia’s political standing was at risk.

“The only conclusion I can reach is that they have decided to divorce themselves from Lebanese politics,” he said.

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