By Jonathan Finer, Robin Wright and William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, July 31, 2006; 6:52 PM
JERUSALEM, July 31 -- Israel rejected the prospect of a cease-fire in the coming days in its war with Lebanon's Hezbollah militia, launching new ground and air operations against the radical Shiite Muslim group a day after announcing a 48-hour partial suspension of airstrikes in the wake of a devastating attack on a south Lebanese village.
Later Monday, Israel's security cabinet unanimously approved a widening of the ground operations in Lebanon in a four-hour meeting, government officials said.
The security cabinet also decided that airstrikes in Lebanon would resume "in full force" after the suspension expires in another day, a meeting participant said, according to the Associated Press. The group rejected any cease-fire until an international force was deployed in southern Lebanon, AP reported.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, speaking to a gathering of mayors in Tel Aviv, earlier ruled out a cease-fire until two Israeli soldiers seized by Hezbollah have been returned and the threat from Hezbollah rocket attacks has been removed.
"The fighting continues," he said. "There is no cease-fire, and there will not be any cease-fire in the coming days."
He spoke just hours after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reported general agreement on terms for a U.N. Security Council cease-fire resolution to end hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah. "I take with me an emerging consensus on what is necessary for both an urgent cease-fire and lasting settlement," Rice told reporters in Jerusalem before flying back to Washington. "I am convinced we can achieve both this week."
Amid the confusion, a meeting scheduled at the United Nations Monday to discuss a new multinational force for southern Lebanon was postponed. A U.N. official said the meeting will be held when "there is more political clarity," Reuters news agency reported.
In Washington, a prominent Republican senator, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, urged President Bush to call for an immediate cease-fire and work to restore an image of U.S. fairness in its approach to the Middle East. He also recommended the appointment of an experienced statesman to serve as a special envoy empowered to lead the U.S. engagement in the Middle East.
In Damascus, President Bashar al-Assad told the Syrian army it must remain prepared in the face of Israel's "barbaric war" in neighboring Lebanon.
"We are facing international circumstances and regional challenges that require caution, alert, readiness and preparedness," Assad said in a speech. "The barbaric war of annihilation the Israeli aggression is waging on our people in Lebanon and Palestine is increasing in ferocity," he told the army, which has been on alert since the fighting began July 12.
Israel's defense minister told parliament the army would continue to "expand and strengthen" its ground campaign against Hezbollah. Israel interrupted a promised 48-hour pause in aerial bombardments in southern Lebanon to strike an area near Taiba, where Israeli soldiers and Hezbollah militants had fought.
"We are only attacking in cases when we need to protect our forces or civilians," an Israeli military spokesman said after the airstrikes, which came about 12 hours into the 48-hour period. "We are firing on open areas to prevent armed cells approaching our forces."
In his speech in Tel Aviv, Olmert defended Israel's decision to launch the cross-border offensive nearly three weeks ago in response to Hezbollah's abduction of two Israeli soldiers and the killing of three others in a raid into Israel. The Shiite militia said its aim was to force Israel to release Hezbollah militants it was holding.
"We decided that there was no other way than to react robustly because we had no alternative," Olmert said. "It was absolutely out of the question to allow a terrorist organization north of our border to continue reinforcing. We couldn't allow them to build up more rockets, more missiles, stockpiling all sorts of deadly weapons."
He said restraint would have led to future rocket and missile attacks, resulting in "irreparable damage."
Olmert reminded Israelis that he had predicted the campaign would not be easy. "We knew at the time . . . that it would be difficult and even painful, and sometimes very painful," he said. "We said that we would have to demonstrate a great deal of patience, a great deal of resolution to order to get to all the places where the terrorists were hiding and to hit their launching sites and that we would pay the dearest price of all -- human life."
Before boarding a plane to return to Washington, Rice expressed confidence in achieving a Security Council cease-fire resolution this week. Her comments came a day after an Israeli airstrike in the Lebanese town of Qana killed 57 civilians, most of them children.
The extensive loss of life in Qana, which a shaken Rice called "tragic," prompted the cancellation of her planned trip to Beirut and sparked large anti-American protests in Lebanon. At an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council, Secretary General Kofi Annan delivered some of his harshest criticism to date of the Israeli offensive.
But the attack also led the Israeli government to agree to the limited pause in airstrikes, and to allow a 24-hour period of safe passage for civilians to leave Lebanon's ravaged south.
On Monday, however, the Israeli military reported a new ground incursion into Lebanon, saying troops had been sent into the Aita al-Shaab area to fight Hezbollah guerrillas.
Israeli warplanes also bombed targets in south Lebanon, and two villages were reported hit by Israeli artillery shells. One Lebanese soldier was killed and three others were wounded when an airstrike destroyed their vehicle, Reuters reported.
For its part, Hezbollah fired two shells at the Israel border town of Kiryat Shmona Monday. No injuries were reported.
Hezbollah also claimed to have rocketed an Israeli warship off the coast of the Lebanese city of Tyre. Israel denied that any of its ships were hit.
Israeli officials said they regretted the Qana attack, which was the bloodiest in three weeks of fighting, but blamed Hezbollah militants for firing rockets from civilian areas.
They emphasized that airstrikes would continue if Hezbollah kept firing rockets into northern Israel, or if Israel determines that a rocket launch was imminent. By early afternoon (6:30 a.m. EDT), the air force had struck near Taiba, and the first rocket attacks of the day had been reported in northern Israel.
Rice told reporters that she believed groundwork was being laid for a permanent end to the conflict, which began July 12. Officials with her said passage of a cease-fire resolution could be quickly followed by the deployment of the first contingents of an international stabilization force to help put a cease-fire into effect.
During a refueling stop in Ireland, senior U.S. officials traveling with Rice said the airstrike near Taiba did not violate Israel's promise to suspend air attacks, because it was limited to "close air support" for ground operations.
"Generally the corridors are working. The aerial suspension is in effect. There was an exception for threats being prepared against Israel," one senior official said.
State Department spokesman Adam Ereli told reporters, "We're not back to square one at all. . . . We've advanced the ball considerably."
In Miami Monday, President Bush said the United States would work for a Security Council resolution this week that would "end the violence and lay the groundwork for lasting peace in the Middle East."
He made no specific mention of the Qana attack, but said that "we mourn the loss of innocent life, both in Lebanon and Israel." He said the United States is determined to deliver relief to those who are suffering.
In a speech at the port of Miami, Bush outlined "certain clear objectives" that must be achieved to secure peace: the Lebanese government must be empowered to gain control over all Lebanese territory, a multinational force must be dispatched to Lebanon quickly, Iran must end its military and financial support for Hezbollah, and Syria must also end such support and respect Lebanese sovereignty.
Casting the fighting across the Israeli-Lebanese border in broad terms, Bush said, "The current crisis is part of a larger struggle between the forces of freedom and the forces of terror in the Middle East."
On Capitol Hill, Sen. Hagel questioned how the "systematic destruction" of Lebanon could "enhance America's image and give us the trust and credibility" to lead a peace effort.
"The sickening slaughter on both sides must end now," he said in a floor speech Monday. "President Bush must call for an immediate cease fire. This madness must stop."
Hagel said the U.S. special relationship with Israel "need not and cannot be at the expense of our Arab and Muslim relationships." It is in Israel's interest as much as America's that "the United States be seen by all states in the Middle East as fair," he said. "This is the currency of trust."
Israeli military action "will not destroy Hezbollah," Hagel said, but it is "tearing Lebanon apart, killing innocent civilians, destroying its economy and infrastructure, creating a humanitarian disaster, further weakening Lebanon's fragile democratic government, strengthening popular Muslim and Arab support for Hezbollah, and deepening hatred of Israel across the Middle East."
The senator said Bush should appoint "a statesman of global stature, experience and ability to serve as his personal envoy to the region," and he suggested that either James A. Baker III or Colin L. Powell, both former secretaries of state, could fill this role.
While Rice spoke of an "emerging consensus," she did not indicate whether Israel or Hezbollah would agree to the terms being considered for the cease-fire resolution. European diplomats say she will faces some potentially bruising negotiations this week, when she is expected to go to New York to participate in Security Council discussions.
France and other Security Council members have urged an immediate and unconditional cease-fire, with arrangements worked out later to stabilize it. The United States wants the whole package at one time.
Rice said she hopes they can sponsor a joint resolution, as the two nations have in the recent past. She told reporters on her plane she planned to "push very hard" to win passage on a cease-fire by week's end. "It's time," she said.
The United States will move for a resolution centered on three parts. The first is a cease-fire. The second is a set of political principles or framework for a long-term settlement to ensure that the flashpoints are eliminated so that fighting does not erupt in the weeks, months or years ahead, Rice said. The third will outline the sensitive mandate for the new "international stabilization force," which will back up the Lebanese army as it spreads government authority throughout Lebanon, prevents the import of any new weapons to rearm Hezbollah, and keeps the peace.
The emerging consensus includes agreement on several points, Rice said. All armed groups would be prohibited in the zone where the international force is deployed. An international arms embargo, she said, must ensure that the only weapons allowed into Lebanon must be for the Lebanese government or the stabilization force.
No foreign troops except the stabilization force would be allowed in Lebanon. The Lebanese government and army would assume responsibility for disarming militias, with the "appropriate" assistance by the stabilization force, Rice said. Israel and Lebanon would fully accept the border as defined by the so-called Blue Line -- a potentially contentious issue that involves the disputed Shebaa Farms area.
On the airplane this morning, Rice indicated that Israel has already agreed to an arrangement that could end longstanding tensions with Lebanon over the Shebaa Farms territory.
Rice said the stabilization force would provide humanitarian assistance, aid the return of people who fled the fighting and help the Lebanese Army move to and police the border, Rice said.
The force, expected to be at least 10,000 troops, will be charged with helping to establish a "stable and secure" environment, especially in the battered south that has long been Hezbollah's stronghold. This provision would be central to the implementation of U.N. resolution 1559 and the 1989 Taif Accord that eventually ended the 15-year civil war.
"I believe our work has prepared the way for the United Nations Security Council to act on both an urgent and comprehensive basis this week," Rice said in her brief statement.
"These are important, yet temporary measures," Rice said. "An urgent and more permanent end to this violence is something that we all want, and that we must work together to achieve."
Assembling units of a stabilization force would be complicated. Several countries have indicated they might take part, and State Department Counselor Philip Zelikow has been working on the issue in Brussels and France over the past five days, U.S. officials say. France is leading candidate to command the force.
But the mere act of deploying troops, equipment, weapons, and vehicles will take significant time, military analysts said.
The skies over Israel and Lebanon remained relatively quiet for several hours after Rice departed for Washington this morning.
But Israel's ground campaign continued in a clutch of Lebanese towns north of the Israeli village of Metulla. Three Israeli soldiers were lightly wounded near Taiba when an armored troop carrier was struck by a missile. A tank that arrived to help them was also fired upon.
Within hours, Israeli aircraft had fired missiles into the area, and Israel Radio said the first Hezbollah rocket attacks of the day had struck the Israeli town of Kiryat Shemona, along the same section of the border as Taiba.
Wright reported from Shannon, Ireland. Branigin reported from Washington. Staff writer Debbi Wilgoren contributed from Washington.