Israel agreed to halt bombing for 48 hours and allow besieged civilians safe passage out of southern Lebanon, U.S. officials said Sunday, a concession granted under intense pressure after one of its airstrikes hit a house full of women and children, killing as many as 56 people.
The strike, the deadliest in Israel’s 19-day offensive, derailed U.S. diplomatic efforts in the region, at least for now, forcing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to cancel a trip to Beirut, and galvanized demands for an immediate end to the fighting.
Until late Sunday, both Israel and the U.S. had turned aside calls for a truce, saying Hezbollah militants, who have been firing hundreds of rockets at towns in northern Israel, would merely use it to regroup. As recently as Saturday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had told Rice that his country needed another 10 to 14 days to prosecute its offensive, Israeli officials said Sunday.
But the bombing in the Lebanese town of Qana ignited an outcry that neither Washington nor Israel could ignore.
“There is no place on this sad morning for any discussion except for an immediate cease-fire and an international investigation into Israeli massacres,” Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said at a news conference in Beirut shortly before his government announced that Rice would not be coming.
Siniora, who has been at odds with Hezbollah in the past, also said he “thanked” the Islamic militant group for its “sacrifices.”
This morning, Rice said she was leaving Israel with an “emerging consensus on what is necessary for both an urgent cease-fire and a lasting settlement. I am convinced we can achieve both this week.”
She urged world leaders to act on a peace proposal, which she said would include an international force that would provide humanitarian aid, guard borders and block illegal arms shipments, but leave disarming Hezbollah to the Lebanese army.
The Israeli strike in Qana demolished a three-story house, sending tons of concrete crashing onto Lebanese families who had taken refuge in the basement. More than half were children, sleeping when what appears to have been a precision-guided bomb hit.
Israel expressed “deep sorrow” for what it called a tragic mistake, and said Hezbollah was using the town to fire rockets into northern Israel.
Officials said they were unaware of the large number of civilians in the building and noted that civilians had been ordered out of Qana.
“One must understand the Hezbollah is using their own civilian population as human shields,” Israeli Foreign Ministry official Gideon Meir said. “The Israel Defense Forces dropped leaflets and warned the civilian population to leave the place because the Hezbollah turned it into a war zone.”
Israel last week ordered all civilians to leave south Lebanon, a swath of territory reaching from the Israeli border to the Litani River, about 20 miles north.
Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said a full investigation of the incident would be conducted. The government released video clips that it asserted showed rockets being fired from civilian areas in the town.
But the televised images of stiffened, dust-covered bodies of children being pulled from the wreckage spread rage throughout the Arab world and beyond. Angry, fist-pumping demonstrators marched on the United Nations headquarters in Beirut and, later, the U.S. Embassy.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called an emergency session of the Security Council and reiterated pleas for an immediate cease-fire. Close allies and even the pope demanded that the United States relax its insistence that a broader peace deal precede a cease-fire.
Some allies who have been preparing to offer troops for an international stabilization force stepped up pressure on the U.S. to halt the Israeli bombing, if only temporarily.
Rice and her aides met throughout the day with Israeli officials. Initially, the Israelis held firm, saying they would continue to press ahead with the offensive against Hezbollah.
But after sessions that dragged late into Sunday evening, the Israelis relented. The deal was so hard-fought that it came about only at midnight and was announced by the U.S. alone. Several Israeli officials contacted were unaware of it.
The 48-hour suspension applies only to aerial operations, officials said. At the same time, Israel “reserved the right to take action against targets preparing attacks against it,” an official said, suggesting that the fighting may not cease completely.
By 2 a.m. today, Israel had halted its airstrikes, though ground operations continued along the Lebanese border, the Israeli military said.
U.S. officials said that during the 48-hour hiatus, the U.N. would arrange a 24-hour period of supervised evacuations from south Lebanon, a swath of hilly land that has become a smoldering, crumbled wasteland in the last 2 1/2 weeks.
The United States “welcomes this decision and hopes that it will help relieve the suffering of the children and families of the Lebanese,” said State Department spokesman Adam Ereli, who announced the bombing halt. Speaking in Jerusalem, he noted that the 24-hour safe passage period might be extended.
The fighting, in which more than 500 Lebanese, mostly civilians, and 52 Israelis have been killed so far, was triggered when Hezbollah abducted two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid July 12, then killed eight others who pursued them.
A few hours after the bombing halt was announced, the U.N. Security Council called for an end to the violence in Lebanon. In a unanimous statement, the council expressed “extreme shock and distress” over the bombing in Qana, but did not condemn the Israeli strike.
An earlier version of the statement included reference to an “immediate cessation of hostilities,” but that was taken out. Afterward, the French and Russian envoys said the statement was a compromise. Each expressed disappointment that it did not call for stronger action.
John R. Bolton, the U.S. envoy to the U.N., said the administration did not want to “jump to conclusions about cease-fires and other matters.”
“As we’ve said repeatedly, we don’t think that simply returning to business as usual in the Middle East is a way to bring about a lasting solution,” Bolton said.
In the meantime, the warfare continued Sunday. Hezbollah fired at least 140 rockets into northern Israel, wounding several people. And Israel opened a second ground offensive hours before the bombing halt was agreed to, sending troops into an area across the border from the northern town of Metulla.
Late Sunday, 80 to 100 Israeli soldiers hiked past the border fence into Lebanon as more than a dozen tanks and armored personnel carriers were lined up at the border. Earlier, eight Israeli soldiers were reported wounded in clashes in and around the village of Adessa, across the border from an Israeli community called Misgav Am.
The newest front sits about 15 miles north of the Lebanese villages of Maroun el Ras and Bint Jbeil, the focus of fighting last week. The push is part of Israel’s effort to establish a 1.2-mile-deep swath inside the Lebanese border free of Hezbollah fighters.
Sunday’s tragedy in Qana had resonance in recent history, for the town’s name is inextricably associated with mass civilian casualties. In 1996, during its so-called Grapes of Wrath offensive in pursuit of Palestinian guerrillas based in Lebanon, Israel mistakenly shelled a U.N. compound in Qana where civilians were sheltering. About 100 were killed.
As news of the Qana deaths spread Sunday, thousands of demonstrators massed in Beirut’s rebuilt downtown demanding the expulsion of U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey D. Feltman.
Briefly breaking into a U.N. office and smashing several official cars in front of a government office building, the demonstrators chanted: “America get out. Beirut is a free country.” They surged toward government buildings surrounded by Lebanese soldiers, but Hezbollah officials linked arms and slowly pushed them back.
Speaking before the crowd, a Hezbollah member of parliament, Hussein Hajj Hassan, said Rice was “persona non grata.”
Elsewhere in the Arab world, the reaction was also fierce.
Hamas, the Islamist group that leads the Palestinian Authority government, expressed solidarity with Hezbollah and the Lebanese people, and said Israel would suffer retaliation.
“In the face of this open war against the Arab and Muslim nations all options are open, including striking the heart of the Zionist entity,” Hamas lawmaker Mushir Masri said. Protesters in Gaza City stormed a U.N. compound.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has backed U.S. policy in the region, said in San Francisco that “what has happened in Qana shows this is a situation that simply cannot continue.”
Speaking to the Security Council, Annan said: “I am deeply dismayed that my earlier calls for immediate cessation of hostilities were not heeded, with the result that innocent life continues to be taken and innocent civilians continue to suffer.”
Analysts said the bombing halt might allow a revival of diplomatic endeavors.
“It maybe allows a little cooling off to let some diplomacy kick in,” said William Quandt, a professor at the University of Virginia who served as a Middle East expert under President Carter. “A lot depends on whether the Israelis are essentially ready to bring it to an end,” he said. “They went in presumably to crush Hezbollah.... At some point they have to ask whether they’ve done enough to declare victory.”
The Qana incident weakened the Bush administration’s position in the Middle East, which was already severely strained, and the 48-hour halt in airstrikes could relieve some of the pressure, said Flynt L. Leverett, a Middle East expert who served at the National Security Council, State Department and the CIA.
“The United States’ ability to protect Israel” in international bodies such as the U.N. Security Council “is being stretched very thin, and I think Israel is offering this measure, this suspension, to try to relieve some of that pressure,” Leverett said.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
A bloody day
An Israeli airstrike demolishes a three-story home in Qana, killing as many as 56 members of two extended families who are asleep in the basement. More than half of the dead are children. In a second ground invasion, Israeli soldiers march across the border to the west and north of the Israeli town of Metulla as more than a dozen tanks and armored personnel carriers line up along the border. Eight Israeli soldiers are reported wounded in clashes in and around the Lebanese village of Adessa.
Hezbollah fires at least 140 rockets into northern Israel, wounding several people.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert expresses “deep sorrow” for the Qana deaths, but blames Hezbollah guerrillas for using the area to launch rockets. Israel says it will conduct a full investigation of the deadly attack. Angry crowds protest the airstrike in Cairo, Beirut and Gaza City. In Lebanon, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora calls for an unconditional cease-fire. Syria also demands an immediate cease-fire, and President Bashar Assad calls the attack a massacre. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak condemns the bombing. In Jordan, King Abdullah II calls it a “horrible crime” and asks the international community to find a quick solution.
Israel agrees to halt air attacks on southern Lebanon for 48 hours after talks in Jerusalem with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. A U.S. official announces the decision; Israeli officials offer no comment. The U.N. Security Council passes a statement expressing “extreme shock and distress” over the Qana attack, but does not condemn it. The incident forces Rice to cancel a visit to Lebanon.
Sources: Times staff reporting, the Associated Press
Times staff writers Rone Tempest in Beirut, Ken Ellingwood and Damon Winter in Metulla, Josh Meyer and Greg Miller in Washington, Walter Hamilton at the U.N. and Tracy Wilkinson in Rome contributed to this report.