New York Times
July 26, 2006
By GREG MYRE and HELENE COOPER
JERUSALEM, July 25 ó Almost two weeks into its military assault on Hezbollah, Israel said Tuesday that it would occupy a strip inside southern Lebanon with ground troops until an international force could take its place.
The announcement raised the prospect of a more protracted Israeli involvement in Lebanon than the political and military leadership previously signaled or publicly sought. Officials have talked about limited raids into Lebanon, but now they seem ready to commit ground forces for at least weeks, if not months.
They said the zone would be much smaller than the strip of southern Lebanon roughly 15 miles deep that Israel occupied for nearly two decades before withdrawing in 2000.
As the war between Israel and Hezbollah continued, four unarmed United Nations observers were killed when an Israeli airstrike hit their observation post near the Israeli border, United Nations and Lebanese officials said. The Israeli Foreign Ministry said that Israel "regrets the tragic death" of the observers, and that it would investigate thoroughly.
The timetable and makeup of an international force remained vague, despite diplomacy by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on her second day of a trip to the region. Ms. Rice, who met with Israeli and Palestinian officials after a surprise trip to Beirut on Monday, secured commitments from Israel to allow relief aid into Lebanon, and said she would press Israel to ease border restrictions for Palestinians.
But she left without any sign of a quick end to Israelís military campaigns in Lebanon or the Gaza Strip.
The United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, in Rome for talks on the Middle East scheduled to start Wednesday, issued a statement saying that he was "shocked and deeply distressed by the apparently deliberate targeting" of the United Nations post by the Israeli military. He said the post, at Khiam, was clearly marked, and called on the Israeli government to conduct a full investigation. The official New China News Agency said one of the dead was a Chinese observer.
Elsewhere in southern Lebanon, in fighting over the two Hezbollah strongholds of Bint Jbail and Marun al Ras, Israel said it had killed the Hezbollah leader in the area, Abu Jaafer, and 20 to 30 Hezbollah fighters in a 24-hour period. At least six people were killed in two neighboring houses in a predawn raid on the southern town of Nabatiye.
Hezbollah continued to strike at Israel, firing nearly 100 rockets as of Tuesday night, the Israeli military said. The groupís leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, threatened missile strikes "beyond Haifa." Hezbollah is believed to have missiles able to reach Tel Aviv.
Another Hezbollah leader, Mahmoud Komati, deputy chief of the groupís political arm, told The Associated Press that Hezbollah was surprised by the force of Israelís reaction to its capture of two Israeli soldiers. He said Hezbollah had expected "the usual, limited" response such as commando raids or limited attacks on Hezbollah strongholds.
Israelís defense minister, Amir Peretz, said Israelís plan for a buffer zone inside Lebanon was being worked out and did not provide details. "We will have to build a new security strip, a security strip that will be a cover for our forces until international forces arrive," he said.
"We are shaping it, but you canít draw a single line that will become a permanent line along the entire zone," Mr. Peretz said on Israeli radio. "Unless there is a multinational force that will enter and take control, a multinational force with the ability to act, we will continue to fire against anyone who enters the designated strip."
Israeli officials, mindful of the Israeli publicís reluctance to repeat its long occupation of southern Lebanon, say they do not plan a major ground invasion, and do not intend to hold large parts of Lebanese territory for extended periods. Israeli leaders say they want the Lebanese Army to assume control of the border eventually.
Israeli troops do not yet have control over the border strip. A senior government official said Israeli forces intended to clear out Hezbollah strongholds in border villages as the military is already doing in Bint Jbail and Marun al Ras.
The military plans to move into other villages as well, but "this will not be the re-establishment of the old security zone," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. "It is not remotely similar."
"If there is a strong international force, and if the Lebanese government is serious about establishing sovereignty on its border, then we will gladly leave," the official said.
Ms. Rice, meanwhile, won a promise from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel to allow relief flights into Beirut International Airport, where the runways have been bombed by Israel. Ms. Rice also told the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, that she would press Israel to ease border restrictions for Palestinians.
Ms. Rice received a warm welcome from Mr. Olmert in Jerusalem, in contrast to the much cooler receptions she received in the West Bank city of Ramallah, and in Beirut on Monday.
But her visit to the West Bank had echoes of her surprise stop in Beirut. In both cases, she assured a largely powerless leader that the United States was sympathetic to the suffering of his people, though American leaders have stopped short of pressuring Israel to let up on its campaign against militants.
Ms. Rice pointedly characterized Mr. Abbas as the "duly elected president" of the Palestinian Authority, and said "the Palestinian people have had to live too long" under harsh conditions.
But just as pointedly, she did not respond to Mr. Abbasís urgent appeal for cease-fires in region, to ease what he said was suffering "beyond the capacity of any human being to endure."
Ms. Rice and Mr. Abbas discussed the release of an Israeli soldier who was seized by Palestinian militants on June 25, setting off the current crisis in Gaza. But Mr. Abbas is seen as having little influence.
Hamas, which holds the Palestinian prime ministerís post and controls the cabinet, is demanding an exchange for a large number of Palestinian prisoners. Hamas militants were one of three factions that claimed responsibility for seizing the soldier.
The United States, along with Israel, regards Hamas as a terrorist group and has no official contact with it.
In Ramallah, just as in Beirut, demonstrators protested Ms. Riceís visit. About 250 turned out, with some carrying signs that said in Arabic and English, "Rice, Go Home." A general strike was called throughout the West Bank, and shops in Ramallah were closed as Ms. Riceís motorcade drove through the city, just north of Jerusalem.
With the Beirut airport closed, even Prime Minister Fouad Siniora of Lebanon had to make special arrangements to travel abroad. He boarded a United Nations helicopter near a conference center north of Beirut that took him to Cyprus. He was heading to Rome for the international conference, which Ms. Rice will also attend.
The Lebanese government has now adopted four Hezbollah conditions for a settlement as its own: giving the small disputed slice of border territory known as Shabaa Farms to Lebanon, returning three Lebanese prisoners held by Israel, ending Israeli flyovers into Lebanese airspace, and providing a map showing the location of Israeli land mines in southern Lebanon.
The issue of Shabaa Farms has been the public rationale for allowing Hezbollah, alone among civil war-era militias, to keep its weapons. It was, Lebanese officials have said, resisting continued Israeli occupation.
As the fighting continued, the Israeli military said its aerial attacks included bombing a Hezbollah rocket launching site near the southern city of Tyre, and hitting 10 buildings used by Hezbollah in southern Beirut.
In Mughar, in northern Israel, a 15-year-old Israeli Arab girl died in a Hezbollah rocket strike, family members said. Three other family members were wounded.
Israel also struck in Gaza, with the air force bombing three buildings used for making and storing weapons, according to the Israeli military.
A Palestinian teenager was shot and killed by Israeli troops near Gazaís border fence, Palestinian hospital officials said. The Israeli military said it had fired at people who had planted a bomb.
Palestinian militants fired several rockets into southern Israel on Tuesday, the Israeli military said.
[Reuters reported that on Wednesday, Israeli tanks moved into northern Gaza and killed a Hamas militant in airstrikes, witnesses said.]
Ms. Rice said: "It is time for a new Middle East. It is time to say to those that donít want a different kind of Middle East that we will prevail. They will not."
Ms. Rice and other administration officials have repeatedly blamed Hezbollah for starting the crisis in Lebanon with a raid into Israel on July 12 that resulted in the deaths of three Israeli soldiers and the capture of two more who were taken into Lebanon.
While strongly supporting Israel, the Bush administration does not want to see the democratically elected Lebanese government harmed by the current conflict.
"I have no doubt there are those who wish to strangle a democratic and sovereign Lebanon in its crib," Ms. Rice said. "We, of course, also urgently want to end the violence."
Saudi Arabia pledged a financial package of $1.5 billion to aid the Lebanese economy and help rebuild the country, the official Saudi news agency reported.
International support is building for a multinational force in southern Lebanon, but many issues are unclear, including which countries would send troops. An American official traveling with Ms. Rice said he believed that those questions would be worked out.
"I think you will hear about the impossibility of deploying an international force until the day it is deployed," the official told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue. "But there will be an international force, because all the key players want it."
In Rome on Wednesday, Ms. Rice is expected to talk with Arab and European officials about the makeup and mandate of such a force.
With the United Statesí military already stretched with commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, Ms. Rice has said she does not anticipate American troopsí being part of a force in Lebanon.
France is perhaps the most likely European country to contribute troops, given its history with Lebanon. France administered Lebanon as a protectorate from 1920 to 1943, and the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, who was killed in a car bombing last year that many believe was linked to Syria, was a close friend of the French president, Jacques Chirac.
But France is resisting the American idea of moving a force in quickly, insisting on a cease-fire first, followed by a political agreement between Israel and Lebanon that would also be accepted by Hezbollah, said Jean-Baptiste Mattéi, the French Foreign Ministry spokesman.
Greg Myre reported from Jerusalem for this article, and Helene Cooper from Ramallah, West Bank, and Rome. Jad Mouawad contributed reporting from Beirut, and Elaine Sciolino from Paris.