PM Olmert calls Hezbollah border attack an 'act of war'

By Gideon Alon, Aluf Benn, Amos Harel and Yoav Stern, Haaretz Correspondents and Haaretz Service

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Wednesday declared that Hezbollah's attack on the northern border earlier in the day, during which two Israel Defense Forces soldiers were kidnapped, was "an act of war."

The two were seized as rockets were fired at northern towns, during residents took to their bomb shelters.

Olmert, who was to hold an emergency cabinet meeting later Wednesday, said the attack was not an act of terror but an attack by a sovereign state on Israel.

He said that Israel held the Lebanese government responsible for the attack, vowing that the Israeli response "will be restrained, but very, very, very painful."

Defense Minister Amir Peretz also said that the responsibility for the sharp escalation on Israel's northern border lies with the Lebanese government.

Senior Israel Defense Forces officers said Wednesday that "if the abducted soldiers are not returned we'll turn Lebanon's clock back 20 years."

The IDF held a buffer zone in southern Lebanon for 18 years, from the outbreak of the Lebanon War in 1982 until the withdrawal of its last troops in May 2000.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. General Dan Halutz said that the abduction is a turning point in the region, and that the Lebanese government is responsible for the crisis.

At the Knesset, rightist legislators called on the government to declare war in response to the abduction. Former Knesset speaker MK Reuven Rivlin (Likud) said "we cannot move on without responding after such an incident."

"We must come to grips with the fact that we are at war and act accordingly," he said.

MK Ariyeh Eldad (National Union-National Religious Party) said that the abduction of soldiers in the north and that of the soldier on the Gaza Strip border prove there is no escape from facing terrorism.

"Terror can only be stopped by going out to war in the north and in the Gaza Strip and destroying terror organizations," he said.

Likud faction chairman MK Gideon Sa'ar said "only very aggressive moves would rehabilitate Israel's weakened deterrence and the Likud will support such moves, if they are made."

MK Effi Eitam (NU-NRP) called on Peretz to resign. According to Eitam, all the warnings against fleeing from southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip have materialized.

"There is no other choice. War has been forced upon us, we must go out to war and break the siege of terror. We must carry out a response that would rock Lebanon and the Hamas government," Eitam said.

MK Avshalom Vilan of the leftist Meretz party said "something disconcerting is happening at the defense establishment. Events are recurring and the Israel Defense Forces is not finding the appropriate remedies."

The spokesman of Hamas in Lebanon, Osama Hamdan, said Hezbollah's seizure of two soldiers in a raid Wednesday strengthens the position of the Hamas as a whole, which captured an Israel soldier on June 25.

"We have proven to this enemy (Israel) that the one option is the release of Palestinian, Lebanese and Arab captives. All captives, without exception," Hamdan told Al-Jazeera television.

"What happened has strengthed the issue of the captives, and the enemy will submit to our choice, which is the exchange of the captives in return for the release of the soldiers," he said.

Hamdan did not say whether Hamas had consulted with Hezbollah over Wednesday's seizure. But he said they may be subsequent "coordination and an understanding" between the two groups, suggesting they might coordinate their demands.

Israel has carried out several prisoner swaps with Hezbollah in the past to obtain freedom for captured Israelis. In January 2004 swap, an Israeli civilian and the bodies of three IDF soldiers killed by Hezbollah were exchanged for 436 Arab prisoners and the bodies of 59 Lebanese fighters.

In 1985, three IDF soldiers captured in Lebanon in 1982 were traded for 1,150 Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners.