After the Lull, Israel Plans to Stay on Attack
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared Monday that Israel had no intention of ending its battle against Hezbollah any time soon, despite a fragile lull in fighting that allowed some humanitarian supplies to reach civilians in war-battered Lebanon.
Amid overnight clashes between Israeli troops and Hezbollah guerrillas in the border zone, Israel’s “security Cabinet” -- Olmert’s inner circle of senior advisors -- unanimously voted early today to widen the ground offensive with more raids into Lebanon.
Israeli officials described a 48-hour hiatus in major airstrikes as a “humanitarian gesture” rather than any prelude to a speedy cease-fire, which U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had asserted could be reached this week. Airstrikes diminished considerably Monday, but were not halted entirely.
Israel, which previously had been flying scores of bombing sorties daily, launched four air attacks Monday and a series of strikes early today at access routes in the eastern Bekaa Valley. Israeli forces also fired artillery barrages at border towns that Israel said were meant to back up its troops in the area.
U.S. officials were said to be concerned that the Israeli military was not abiding fully by terms of the U.S.-brokered pause in aerial attacks. Rice said Israel had been asked for an explanation of the strikes, and that Israeli officials had characterized them as providing “close support” for ground troops.
Hezbollah rocket fire, too, diminished but did not stop altogether. The guerrillas, who fired more than 150 rockets at Israel on Sunday, sent three more across the border late Monday, causing damage but no injuries, the Israeli military said early today.
“The fighting continues,” Olmert said in a nationally televised speech to municipal officials from cities in northern Israel, which has borne the brunt of Hezbollah rocket fire. “There is no cease-fire, and there will not be any cease-fire in the coming days.”
The mayors, whose cities and towns have been hit by a total of nearly 1,800 rockets and missiles since the start of fighting July 12, responded with rousing applause.
Earlier, Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Israel intended to intensify its military campaign.
“If an immediate cease-fire is declared, the extremists will rear their heads anew,” Peretz told lawmakers during a stormy special session of Israel’s Knesset. Several Arab lawmakers were ejected for heckling the defense minister over civilian casualties in Lebanon, including nearly 60 deaths in an Israeli airstrike a day earlier in the village of Qana.
Under intense U.S. pressure, Israel agreed late Sunday to temporarily halt its air war to allow civilians to reach safety and humanitarian supplies to move freely.
But Peretz and other senior officials repeated what U.S. officials had said Sunday -- that Israel would continue its ground offensive and strike from the air if there was a threat to its soldiers, an imminent rocket launch toward northern Israel or an opportunity to target senior Hezbollah officials.
“A humanitarian gesture is not meant to harm the goals of the offensive,” Peretz said. “The army will expand and deepen its operation against Hezbollah.”
Throughout Lebanon, humanitarian agencies rushed to take advantage of the announced halt to airstrikes. But confusion over the terms of the airstrike moratorium, badly damaged roads and dwindling fuel supplies slowed the process.
“As the day unfolded we discovered that conditions weren’t much different than they were before,” said Cassandra Nelson of the international relief organization Mercy Corps. “Suddenly what we thought was a cease-fire was not a cease-fire.”
Nonetheless, Nelson said Mercy Corps still planned to take a convoy of food today to the town of Marjayoun in southeast Lebanon, where it had found that 2,000 people were without basic resources.
Amer Daudi, a spokesman for the World Food Program, said the organization was continuing to take the precaution of asking Israeli forces for safe passage on a convoy-by-convoy basis. But Daudi said the WFP planned to increase from a single daily convoy to four, of 15 trucks each.
“We welcome the change, but it is still just a drop in the bucket over what we need,” Daudi said.
The 20-day-old war has displaced between 800,000 and 900,000 Lebanese, and an additional 100,000 are still unable to get out of combat zones, said United Nations relief coordinator for Lebanon Mona Hammam.
Refugees trickled along the roads leading out of Bint Jbeil, most of them limping on foot. They stood on the side of the road, flagging down passing cars and begging for rides.
Ali Zindian, a 44-year-old builder from another town in the area, said all his neighbors had fled.
“There’s nobody there,” he said. “Nobody at all.”
Occasional caravans sped past, every available inch of space filled. Young boys were crammed into an open car trunk; spotted cows crowded the back of a truck.
Taxis were reportedly charging $1,000 to drive to safer areas in the north -- a sum many of those left behind said they could not pay.
Long lines of cars have begun to form at gas stations, the result of the Israeli naval blockade that has kept tankers from reaching Lebanese ports. Officials estimated that the fuel supply to power plants would run out within two days.
Even with the danger from the air diminished, U.N. humanitarian aid team leader Jamie McGoldrick said the few remaining navigable roads were too narrow to handle the heavy trucks required to carry the supplies needed in the south.
The only route open goes through the rugged Chouf mountains. “These are mountain villages and tourist towns not built for turbocharged highway trucks,” McGoldrick said. “The trucks overheat and break down.”
Improvised bridges traversing the Litani River, replacing those destroyed by the Israelis, were jammed with traffic in both directions -- refugees from the south and aid workers from the north.
In Srifa, a central Lebanese town near the Litani, survivors took advantage of the bombing lull to dig out the decomposing remains of their loved ones. The survivors said there were as many as 35 bodies still under the rubble.
Scaling a pile of debris, Haj Ali Dkaroub, 42, said he had been through the grisly process once before, after an Israeli bomb attack destroyed his home in 1993. “This is nothing new,” he said.
Meanwhile, a neighbor called to a foreign journalist, demanding that he look at a human foot poking from the rubble of what was once his house.
On the outskirts of Beirut, many Lebanese from predominantly Shiite southern suburbs came back to assess damage, their support for Hezbollah seemingly stronger.
“Even if Hezbollah is broken up militarily, it wins because Hezbollah is the people -- in the south, in the center, in the Bekaa Valley and here in the suburbs,” said Khalil Masri, 43, as he and his son loaded food and clothing from his apartment in the devastated Beir-Abed neighborhood south of Beirut.
Whole residential blocks of the neighborhood east of Beirut’s international airport were reduced to rubble by Israeli bombing. Highway overpasses leading into the neighborhood were dropped to the ground, cars were blown into the median, and every pane of glass was broken for blocks on end.
Waed Abuali, 27, said the only thing remaining of his family home was the entryway. Wearing a Miami Dolphins football jersey, Abuali said he sympathized with Hezbollah but was not a member of the party.
“I’m educated,” said Abuali, an engineering student. “I’m not Hezbollah but I am Shia. We have to support Hezbollah. We can’t be defeated.”
Along the Israeli-Lebanese frontier, where Israel says it intends to carve out a mile-wide no-go zone, ground fighting continued Monday and early today.
Israeli artillery strikes targeted several villages, including Kfar Kila, Adessa and Taibe, and columns of smoke could be seen rising from Kfar Kila for much of the day. The Israeli army said some of the artillery fire was in response to a Hezbollah rocket attack on a tank near Taibe.
The new operations focus on an area about 15 miles northeast of where fighting centered last week, near the border villages of Maroun el Ras and Bint Jbeil.
An Israeli airstrike north of the town of Tyre targeted a vehicle that Israel said it had believed carried a senior Hezbollah leader. The bombardment instead killed a Lebanese army officer and wounded three others.
“According to an initial investigation, the senior Hezbollah member was not in the vehicle at the moment of the attack,” the Israeli military said in a statement. The army expressed regret for the mistake.
Israeli aircraft also struck the Beirut-Damascus highway close to the Syrian frontier, targeting a truck importing weapons from Syria, the army said.
In addition to the three rockets, Hezbollah fired three mortar shells into northern Israel, the army said. No injuries were reported.
The fighting has killed at least 570 Lebanese, though some officials have put the toll as high as 750. Fifty-two Israelis, including 33 soldiers, have been killed.
Some Israeli commentators warned that the 48-hour restriction on air activity could deprive the Israeli military of much-needed momentum.
“The prime minister’s decision to halt the aerial activity in southern Lebanon is odd, to say the least,” military affairs correspondent Alex Fishman wrote in the Yediot Aharonot daily. “It curbs ... the process of wearing down Hezbollah, and effectively begins a cease-fire process under the least favorable conditions for Israel.”
Even in the aftermath of the strike in Qana, the Israeli government retains broad public support for its war aims. The offensive has also quelled -- for now -- the bitter infighting endemic to Israeli coalition politics.
“People understand that we are under a different type of threat, and we need to put a stop to this threat,” said Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the opposition Likud Party. “I say to the government: Don’t give up, don’t surrender to pressure. Go all the way and finish the job.”
Israel has said it will investigate the strike in Qana, which killed an estimated 56 people, 37 of them children. Olmert on Monday again expressed regret over the airstrike, which Israel said was aimed at Hezbollah fighters using the village to launch rockets.
“I am sorry from the bottom of heart for all deaths of children or women in Qana,” Olmert said. “We did not seek them out.... They were not our enemies.”
King reported from Jerusalem and Tempest from Beirut. Times staff writers Ken Ellingwood in Metulla, Israel; Paul Richter in Washington and Megan Stack in Bint Jbeil and Times photographer Robert Gauthier in Srifa contributed to this report.
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Airstrikes diminish for a day
Airstrikes diminished, with Israel launching four air attacks Monday in support of ground operations, targeting the villages of Kfar Kila, Adessa and Taibe. A series of strikes early today targeted access routes in the eastern Bekaa Valley. Operations focused on an area about 15 miles northeast of last week’s fighting near Maroun el Ras. An airstrike north of Tyre targeted a vehicle that Israelis said they believed carried a senior Hezbollah leader. Aircraft also struck the highway to Damascus, targeting a truck transporting weapons from Syria, the Israeli army said.
Hezbollah fired three rockets and three mortar shells into northern Israel.
Details were still being worked out for the deployment of an international U.N. force in southern Lebanon. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s Mideast trip was cut short and a U.N. meeting postponed after Sunday’s deadly airstrike in Qana.
A temporary halt to air attacks allowed humanitarian supplies to reach some civilians in Lebanon, but damaged roads and dwindling fuel supplies slowed the process. The U.N.'s World Food Program announced plans to increase its single daily convoy to four, of 15 trucks each. Refugees and aid workers jammed improvised bridges over the Litani River that replaced those damaged by bombing.
Sources: Times staff reporting, the Associated Press