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Monday, 14 August 2006

Israel approves cease-fire resolution

2 sides continue fight before halt takes effect

BOSTON GLOBE | August 14, 2006
By Matthew Kalman, Globe Correspondent

JERUSALEM -- The Israeli Cabinet approved the United Nations Security Council resolution calling for a cease-fire in Israel's fighting with Hezbollah yesterday. But both sides ramped up their attacks to improve their positions ahead of the truce, which went into effect this morning.

Signs of political crisis were evident in both Israel and Lebanon. A Lebanese Cabinet meeting was postponed yesterday indefinitely amid serious disagreements over the key issue of disarming Hezbollah fighters. In Israel, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert faced growing calls for his resignation at what one critic called a ``humiliating defeat."

More than 20 people were killed in violence yesterday, including 15 in Lebanon, an Israeli civilian, and seven Israeli soldiers. Early today, Lebanese officials said another 11 people were killed in Israeli air raids that included a village in the Bekaa Valley and the edge of a Palestinian refugee camp.

Airstrikes continued until about 15 minutes before the cease-fire started at 8 a.m. There were no immediate reports of fighting after it went into effect.

Yesterday, Israeli jets repeatedly struck a Hezbollah stronghold in southern Beirut. Hezbollah unleashed more than 250 rockets at northern Israel, its largest daily barrage in the conflict, killing an elderly man in his home in the western Galilee village of Yaarah and injuring dozens more across northern Israel, from Haifa to Kiryat Shemona, police said. Sirens wailed repeatedly during the day, sending residents running for cover in underground shelters where many have been stranded for more than a month.

Late last night, the Israeli military said it had downed two unmanned Hezbollah drones packed with explosives, the first time such a weapon had been launched.

About 30,000 Israeli forces pushed north into Lebanon on all fronts. A fleet of helicopters carried Israeli special forces commandos deeper into the nation, while tanks reportedly advanced across the countryside with infantry in their wake, seeking to expand Israeli control of the territory up to the Litani River and in some places beyond.

Israeli artillery pounded suspected Hezbollah targets in Beirut and locations across southern Lebanon including the port city of Tyre, where several petrol stations and buildings were destroyed. Apache helicopter gunships unleashed scores of missiles at houses, rocket launchers, and other targets marked by Israeli commandos, leveling dozens of buildings and sending huge columns of smoke and flame into the sky across the south of the country, Lebanese media reported.

There were pitched battles between Israeli and Hezbollah forces with casualties reported on both sides. The Israeli Army said seven of its soldiers were killed. It was unclear how many Hezbollah casualties there were.

Early today, the Israeli Army said it estimates that it has killed at least 530 Hezbollah guerrillas in the month of fighting, Reuters reported. The army said it had released the names of 180 fighters whose deaths had been confirmed.

One of the 24 Israeli military fatalities on Saturday was Uri Grossman, 20, the son of the celebrated Israeli author David Grossman. Uri Grossman was killed in a rocket attack on his tank. Two days earlier, his father signed a public protest calling for an end to the conflict.

A political impasse was brewing in Lebanon, despite the government's official backing for the UN resolution, which it announced on Saturday. A Cabinet meeting scheduled for yesterday to plan the deployment of the Lebanese Army to the south of the country was postponed after Hezbollah refused to disarm, a key element of the UN plan, according to reports on the Arabic satellite channel Al-Jazeera.

In a speech broadcast Saturday on his Al-Manar television station, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah grudgingly accepted the UN resolution but said that his forces had a ``natural right" to confront Israeli forces ``as long as there is Israeli military movement, Israeli field aggression, and Israeli soldiers occupying our land."

``Once we reach what is called the cessation of hostilities, the resistance will abide by it without hesitation," Nasrallah promised, adding that he had reservations about the ``unjust and unfair" resolution.

In Israel, the approaching cease-fire was greeted with mixed emotions. There was relief at the prospect of an end to the fighting and the return of hundreds of thousands of Israelis to their homes in the north of the country. But it was coupled with dismay at the poor performance of the government and the army, reflected in plunging support for Olmert and the army chief of staff, Lieutenant General Dan Halutz.

Israeli military chiefs said their troops would hold their positions and would continue to attack Hezbollah positions if fired upon. They estimated it would be up to two weeks before the 15,000-strong UN force is ready to take control of the territory Israel seized in the fighting.

``We are ready to respect the cease-fire and we hope the other side respects it. The IDF will respect the cease-fire, but will defend its forces, and if fire is renewed, it will act," said Major General Benny Gantz, commander of Israeli ground forces.

The cease-fire agreement also unleashed a wave of criticism against Olmert that has been building as the fighting dragged on without any success in ending Hezbollah rocket fire.

Prominent commentator Ari Shavit, writing in the Haaretz daily newspaper on Friday, called on Olmert to resign.

``You cannot lead an entire nation to war promising victory, produce humiliating defeat, and remain in power," wrote Shavit. ``There is no mistake Ehud Olmert did not make in the past month."

``Olmert began this war with almost wall-to-wall national support," said Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow of the Jerusalem-based Shalem Center think tank and a prominent Olmert supporter. ``He's ending this war with a frayed and wounded nation that feels itself to be leaderless."

But after the text of the UN resolution changed Friday, Olmert was hoping he had done enough to silence his critics.

Shimon Peres, Israel's deputy prime minister, said the Security Council resolution granted Israel ``maximum legitimacy."

``This resolution endorses Israel the whole way," Peres said. ``It says it was Hezbollah who attacked and has to return the kidnapped soldiers, and establishes a [buffer] zone with 15,000 Lebanese soldiers and a UNIFIL with more soldiers from different forces. "

But Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the rightist Yisrael Beiteinu Party, described the diplomatic gains as ``an illusion."

``The United Nations Security Council resolution essentially endorses Hezbollah as a legitimate force which will dominate the Lebanese Army within a year," Lieberman said. ``This is not a diplomatic solution but a temporary cease-fire with all that implies."

``If we have not succeeded in stopping the Katyushas, we have lost," said Moshe Arens, a former defense minister for the rightist Likud party. ``According to the Security Council resolution, in the current situation the state of Israel comes out humiliated. We are essentially giving Hezbollah and our enemies a shot of encouragement for another offensive against us."

On Israel's home front, Eliezer Goldberg, a retired supreme court judge and former state comptroller, said Israel's treatment of citizens in the north, hundreds of thousands of whom were forced to abandon their homes or sit in cramped, unventilated bomb shelters for a month, was ``negligent and irresponsible."

Weekend opinion polls suggested that Israelis did not believe Olmert handled the crisis successfully. Only 20 percent of respondents to a survey for Haaretz believed Israel had ``won" the conflict against Hezbollah, with 30 percent saying Israel was losing. The same poll saw Olmert's approval rating plunge to 48 percent from 75 percent a month ago.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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