Hezbollah OKs Truce; Israel Pushes North
Israel tripled the number of its combat troops in south Lebanon on Saturday, accelerating its push northward even as leaders on both sides of the border signaled acceptance of a U.N.-brokered truce aimed at stopping more than a month of fighting.
Israel’s Cabinet will meet to vote on the resolution today. Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah and the Lebanese government agreed Saturday to the United Nations’ demand for a full cessation of hostilities.
“This resistance is a reaction and whenever the hostile Israeli acts will stop, we will stop our retaliatory acts,” Nasrallah said in an address broadcast on Hezbollah’s television channel. But he also warned that the shooting wouldn’t stop: “We in Lebanon should be vigilant and not think that the war is over.”
After a Cabinet meeting described by some participants as “heated,” the Lebanese government said it reluctantly agreed to the resolution’s provisions, which include a reinforced U.N. military presence in the country’s south.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the cease-fire would take effect at 8 a.m. Monday. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni predicted approval, saying, “The cease-fire is a U.N. decision, and Israel intends to agree to it.”
Although Livni said her country’s forces would halt their northward drive Monday, Israel’s top military commander promised to fight Hezbollah militants there for at least another week.
The cross-border incursion continues to cost Israel steep casualties. The military said 19 Israeli soldiers were killed Saturday during the expanded offensive, its highest single-day death toll during the conflict with Hezbollah. An Israeli helicopter was shot down in southern Lebanon, and the military said the five-member crew was feared dead. The Israelis said their troops killed 40 Hezbollah fighters, a claim the militia denied.
Israeli officials indicated that 30,000 Israeli troops were operating across the border. Hundreds of paratroopers were walking into the southern hills of Lebanon on Saturday, and hundreds more were being airlifted farther into Lebanese territory in a massive helicopter operation, witnesses and military officials said.
It was Israel’s biggest troop airlift since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, with heavy fighting reported around the Lebanese cities of Tyre and Sidon, as well as smaller towns such as Marjayoun, which Israel previously said it controlled.
Israel launched its campaign July 12 after the Islamic militant group captured two Israeli soldiers and killed eight others in a cross-border attack.
The United Nations resolution calls on Israel to “halt all offensive operations,” but many of the troops appeared to be carrying enough gear for a long stay.
Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, the army chief of staff, said it would probably take at least a week to learn the operational details of the U.N. resolution -- especially how the existing 2,000-member U.N. observer force will be converted into a more robust 15,000-strong contingent that will have the authority to make southern Lebanon a weapons-free zone.
Troops from France, Italy and Turkey are expected to make up the backbone of the bolstered U.N. force. The Security Council wants the troops to support the 15,000 Lebanese soldiers who will move into southern Lebanon as Israel withdraws.
“Until then, we have to stay,” Halutz told reporters gathered under camouflage netting at an army base near the town of Rosh Pina. He said Israel would use the time to continue to attack Hezbollah rockets, rocket launchers and infrastructure.
The government of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert faces sharp criticism from many Israelis who argue that a halt to the fighting would leave the country’s north within range of Hezbollah rockets.
The militant group fired 65 rockets into northern Israeli border towns Saturday. Israeli officers noted that the count was lower than usual and that the strikes were not as deep.
Israeli airstrikes hit more than 80 targets across Lebanon on Saturday, killing at least 20 people, Lebanese officials said. Fifteen people were killed when a house was destroyed in the town of Rashaf.
Israeli planes also continued to sever Lebanon’s links with the outside world, bombing the last significant road connection to Syria. The bombing all but cut off major shipments to Lebanon from Syria, one of Hezbollah’s primary backers.
Ambulances and trucks loaded with cargo sat on the Syrian side of the Arida border crossing. The road leading south along the Mediterranean coast into Lebanon was apparently struck by at least two missiles.
The choking of supply routes alarms many Lebanese, who fear that shortages in a country that depends on fuel oil for power generation could trigger chaos.
“Our biggest fear is that with fuel becoming depleted, the lack of electricity means food will start to rot and a lot of turmoil will be generated,” said Dr. Nadim Cortas, dean of the faculty of medicine at the American University of Beirut. Cortas said his 325-bed hospital would be able to function for no more than 11 days if electricity was cut off.
The deteriorating conditions were one factor pushing the Lebanese government toward acceptance of the U.N.'s conditions for a cease-fire. Lebanon’s Cabinet, which includes two Hezbollah ministers, approved the truce despite bitterness over the Israeli offensive and uncertainty about whether the resolution allowed for Hezbollah to maintain arms in southern Lebanon.
Prime Minister Fouad Siniora condemned Israel’s escalation of operations, saying that by “giving free rein to its war machine,” it had raised doubts among some Lebanese politicians about the merits of abiding by the Security Council’s orders.
But others argue that having inflicted more damage on Israeli forces than expected, Hezbollah was strategically wise to halt the fighting at this stage.
“Yes, there has been support for Hezbollah during this crisis, but even if they don’t say it, people blame Hezbollah too for some of the destruction,” said Farid Khazen, a Lebanese legislator. “It is the right decision to stop now. None of the parties has emerged from this war undamaged.”
But there is also widespread agreement that Hezbollah’s performance against Israel’s vastly superior military machine has boosted Nasrallah’s political standing in Lebanon.
“Nasrallah can stop now with the look and image of a hero,” said Fadia Kiwan, a political scientist at Beirut’s St. Joseph University. “Hezbollah has won this war because they resisted the Israeli machine longer than thought possible.”
Wallace reported from Beirut and Wilkinson from northern Israel. Times staff writers Borzou Daragahi in Arida, Lebanon, and Henry Chu in Jerusalem and special correspondent Maha al-Azar in Beirut contributed to this report.