Forced to suspend its air war in southern Lebanon after as many as 56 civilians were killed in an airstrike, Israel searched today for other means of pressing its offensive against Hezbollah.
The abrupt American announcement late Sunday here that Israel would halt airstrikes in the border zone for 48 hours appeared to catch even some senior Israeli officials by surprise. Early today, Israeli Justice Minister Haim Ramon told Army Radio that the bombing hiatus did not mean an end to military action.
“This decision will allow us to continue the war over time, and it will take off some of the political pressure, so I am sure this is the right decision for now,” he said. “It is not stopping the war.”
Earlier on Sunday, Israel had pledged to continue fighting despite the deaths in the Lebanese village of Qana.
Israeli ground forces continued to operate along the border overnight, the Israeli military said early today, but airstrikes over Lebanon had halted, it added, by 2 a.m.
The government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert expressed deep sorrow over the carnage in Qana, which eerily recalled a similar disaster in the same village at the height of an Israeli offensive in Lebanon a decade ago.
But even before the American announcement, the incident galvanized debate within Israel over the timing and nature of any comprehensive accord to end the fighting in Lebanon.
There is a widespread belief among Israeli policymakers and military commanders that the country’s forces have yet to sufficiently weaken the Shiite militia.
Some politicians and analysts believe Israel’s bargaining position could be weakened by horrific images from the airstrike, which Israel said was aimed at Hezbollah fighters who used the village as a staging ground for hundreds of rocket launches targeting Israeli cities and towns.
Israel’s reaction to the wave of international condemnation also reflected growing frustration over what it sees as the world’s unwillingness to apportion blame to Hezbollah for embedding its fighters and weaponry among civilians.
“There is not one person whose heart is not crushed when children are killed,” Justice Minister Ramon told the Israeli Cabinet on Sunday, according to Army Radio. “But Israel is not the one that spilled the blood of the Lebanese children. Hezbollah is the one that spilled that blood.”
Israel contended its forces were unaware of the civilians in Qana and said villagers had been repeatedly warned to flee.
“We are trying our best to prevent civilians from being located in targets hit by us, but there is no certainty here,” Brig. Gen. Amir Eshel, the air force deputy chief of staff, told reporters in Tel Aviv. “We didn’t think there were civilians in this particular building.”
Israel said it would conduct a full investigation of the strike. Among the issues it will try to resolve is the discrepancy between when Israeli forces reported bombarding the building, soon after midnight, and the time, nearly seven hours later, when witnesses said the building collapsed.
Since the start of the offensive, Israel said, Hezbollah fighters have carried out more than 150 rocket launches from Qana, including some staged from close by the building that was hit.
Earlier on Sunday, Olmert told his Cabinet that Israel would press its campaign against Hezbollah, which continues to fire rockets on northern Israel. At least 140 rocket strikes were reported Sunday.
“We will not blink ... and we will not stop the offensive despite the difficult circumstances,” Olmert was quoted by Israeli media as telling ministers during the meeting, convened shortly after the Qana attack. “It is the right thing to do.”
The strike in Qana revived memories of Israeli shelling in April 1996 that killed more than 100 Lebanese civilians who had sought refuge at a U.N. peacekeepers’ base. The deaths brought that offensive to a speedy close and may have helped cost then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres the election weeks later.
“For two weeks we’ve been talking about the ‘Qana syndrome,’ ” said Emanuel Rosen, the diplomatic affairs correspondent for Israel’s Channel 10. “And indeed it happened -- and in no other place than Qana itself.”
Israel Radio’s military affairs correspondent, Carmela Menashe, called the incident Israel’s “nightmare scenario,” that mass casualties should occur and particularly in a place so laden with symbolism as Qana.
Before the Qana strike, the outlines of a possible U.S.-brokered deal to end the fighting were beginning to take shape. But Israel had hoped that cease-fire calls could be staved off for another week to 10 days while it sought to further erode Hezbollah’s fighting capabilities and destroy more of its arsenal.
Cabinet minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, a former deputy defense minister, said Israel could not budge from its core demands: that Hezbollah be driven back from the frontier to a line beyond which it could not launch short- and medium-range rockets at Israel, and that the militant group release the two Israeli soldiers it captured July 12, sparking the offensive.
“What happened today was a tragedy,” Ben-Eliezer said. “But this doesn’t mean we should raise our hands and forfeit everything Israel has sacrificed so far. Stopping the operation would be a tremendous victory for Hezbollah, for Syria, and even more for Iran.”
Others, though, argued that Israel should shift its focus from the battlefield to the bargaining table.
“We are trying to explain to the world that we don’t mean it -- this didn’t work in ’96 and it’s not working now,” said leftist politician Yossi Beilin. “It is in our interest not to continue the [military] operation, but to seek important achievements through negotiation.”
Most mainstream Israeli politicians described the event as an unavoidable tragedy given that Hezbollah had positioned itself among civilians, but a few said Israel should have held itself to a higher standard of ensuring civilian safety.
One of the strongest such observations came from dovish lawmaker Avshalom Vilan, a former officer in the elite Sayeret Matkal unit. He was quoted by Israel Radio as saying that even though the military intended no harm to civilians, “a black flag clearly waves over it.” A black flag is an Israeli military term for an illegal order.
The strike in Qana also adds a difficult dimension to Israel’s dealings with the Palestinians.
Thousands took to the streets in the Palestinian territories to denounce Israel and vow revenge. “Bomb Tel Aviv!” they chanted. Some Arab citizens of Israel joined in demonstrations.