Israeli tanks and troops rammed through U.N. barricades and swarmed into villages in the fog-shrouded hills of southern Lebanon Thursday on what Israeli officials said was a mission to seek Shiite Moslem guerrillas and destroy mobile rocket launchers that have rained erratic fire on northern Israel.
The advance north to the villages of Kafra and Yater by tanks and armored personnel carriers was believed to be the largest beyond the nine-mile self-proclaimed Israeli "security zone" in southern Lebanon since the Israeli invasion in 1982.
The Israelis encountered stiff resistance as Palestinians and previously moderate Lebanese Moslems were reported joining with Hezbollah _ the fundamentalist Party of God _ guerrillas in a fight that threatens to escalate into a major battle.
Two Israeli soldiers and at least three guerrillas were reported killed in the fighting. In addition, two U.N. peacekeeping soldiers from Fiji were seriously wounded in crossfire, and two other U.N. soldiers were slightly wounded.
The exact size of the Israeli force pushing into southern Lebanon was difficult to estimate. U.N. peacekeepers said 18 tanks and 22 armored personnel carriers were involved. Other information from Lebanon and Israel put the number of tanks as high as 36, but the number of personnel carriers lower than 22.
The Israeli invasion and fighting with Hezbollah is being viewed as a tit-for-tat spiral of violence, begun when three Israeli soldiers were hacked to death in their tents in Israel last week. Israeli officials say they believe Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank staged the assault.
The ensuing Israeli bombing of Palestinian refugee camps in southern Lebanon on Sunday was probably a reaction to that.
But observers say a separate sequence of events, probably long planned, led to the expanded bloody clashes this week.
The springboard was Israel's assassination of Sheik Abbas Musawi, head of the Moslem fundamentalist Hezbollah movement. He was killed by Israeli helicopter gunship forces as he drove with his wife and child from a rally in south Lebanon later in the day Sunday.
The fundamentalists have fired about 100 rockets into the security zone and northern Israel since Musawi was assassinated. The rockets have caused no injuries and relatively light damage.
Israel responded with air strikes and artillery barrages aimed at some 20 Shiite villages used as bases by Hezbollah.
A spokesman for the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, the official name for the peacekeeping group set up after an earlier invasion by Israeli in 1978, said the Israelis broke through a U.N. barrier of armored vehicles at the village of Shribbin on the road to Kafra and Yater.
"They did it by smashing through our vehicles by tanks and bulldozers," said Timur Goksel, the spokesman. "There were some fistfights, there were some arguments, and there was some physical pushing back and forth, but nobody used weapons."
Facing overwhelming numbers of Israeli troops who are supported by tanks and aircraft, the 5,800-man U.N. force was powerless to stop the Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
On Thursday, again there was not much Nepalese peacekeepers could do but push and throw punches at Israeli soldiers barging through a U.N. checkpoint. The U.N. policy is not to fire unless fired upon, and for the lightly armed peacekeepers to shoot at an Israeli invading force could be suicidal.
The U.N. soldiers who were wounded were caught in a crossfire elsewhere, he said.
In addition to troops from Fiji, Ireland and Nepal, the U.N. force has contingents from Finland, France, Ghana, Italy, Norway and Sweden.
Thirteen hours after the first Israeli tanks and bulldozers rammed through the barricade of vehicles hastily piled across a road to stop their advance, the situation was increasingly chaotic.
Goksel said gunmen belonging to several guerrilla factions were streaming to the area to confront Israeli troops after a call to arms by the newly appointed head of Hezbollah, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah.
"The area is being flooded by all sorts of fighters from all over Lebanon, and they are pressing through our checkpoints," Goksel said. "We are under intensive pressure. Everybody's coming . . . from all over south Lebanon."
The move beyond the security zone brought a swift protest from the U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Ghali, who called on Israel to withdraw its forces immediately.
Rather than single out Israel, the Bush administration made high-level diplomatic contacts with all sides, urging "the exercise of maximum restraint in order to bring the violence to an end," State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said Thursday.
An Israeli military spokesman said the army had gone into Kafra and Yater to locate missile launchers and guerrilla strongholds, and would "stay in the area for a limited time, returning to base when its mission is completed."
Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir told army radio that Israel had not set a precise limit on its stay in the villages. "Obviously we won't stay there forever, and we won't stay there for long," he said. "I hope it will all end soon."
In villages surrounding Kafra and Yater, men carrying bundles of clothes, suitcases and transistor radios roamed the debris-littered streets trying to find a ride to safety. Women embraced their infants and ran behind their husbands, with tearful children in tow.
Although Israeli government leaders insist that the killing of Musawi and the subsequent offensive against Hezbollah guerrillas were for purely military and security reasons, some Israelis are skeptical, particularly among the left-of-center opposition.
They question whether politics is also at work, given the fact that both major political parties, Likud and Labor, were choosing their leaders this week for national elections in June. A get-tough approach at this point probably would not hurt the governing Likud, critics argue.
Shamir won renomination from his right-wing Likud Party Thursday night as expected, turning Israel's election campaign into a showdown between the veteran prime minister and newly confirmed Labor Party leader Yitzhak Rabin.
Shamir, who has served as prime minister for six of the last eight years, easily defeated Housing Minister Ariel Sharon and Foreign Minister David Levy, his two challengers, in a vote by Likud's central committee. Shamir received 46.4 percent of the votes, Levy 31.2 percent and Sharon 22.3 percent.
Despite his victory within the party, however, some Likud officials conceded that Shamir could face a tough challenge in the June 23 general election from Rabin, a former prime minister and defense minister who Wednesday unseated longtime rival Shimon Peres as head of the left-wing Labor Party.
Rabin has rivaled Shamir in popularity polls, although his party continues to trail Likud. He has a more hawkish image than Peres, and argues that he can attract centrist voters away from Shamir by offering a mixture of toughness and commitment to Arab-Israeli peace talks.
_ New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Cox News Service, AP