Israel to enforce ‘security zone’ as heavy fighting continues in southern Lebanon

Israel will enforce a “security zone” in southern Lebanon until such time as a multinational force moves in to control the Lebanese border area, the minister directly responsible for the two-week-long military offensive said yesterday.

The remarks by Amir Peretz, the Israeli Defence Minister, appeared to set the seal on Israel’s conversion to the idea of a Western-led international military deployment to keep Hizbollah guerrillas from threatening it, if and when the still slow-moving diplomatic efforts to broker a ceasefire succeeded.

Beirut was heavily bombarded from the air yesterday after Israeli military aircraft killed six people in a pre-dawn raid on the southern Lebanese city of Nabatiyeh, and Israeli troops sealed off the town of Bint Jbeil, 15 miles farther south, which it regards as a Hizbollah stronghold.

Last night, four UN observers were killed in an Israeli airstrike on Beirut.

After meeting the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, on a visit to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, was at pains yesterday to say that any Lebanon ceasefire would have to be “enduring” as well as urgent, and that the US was seeking a “new Middle East”.

Ms Rice, who arrived in Rome last night to meet European and increasingly restive Arab leaders supposedly to thrash out terms of a putative ceasefire, said there was “no desire” on the part of US officials to come back weeks or months after a ceasefire because, she implied, Hizbollah had again found a way to undermine it.

Her remarks came as Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign affairs envoy, said he would be calling for a “ceasefire process” at the Rome summit, and added that unspecified European countries would have to take part. “Without European, without some Europeans, the force will not exist,” he said.

There have been suggestions in Israel that such a force, which it would prefer to be under the aegis of Nato, would require 20,000 troops – twice as many as the deployment currently being talked about in Western capitals.

While Mr Solana did not say so, France has been seen as a potential prime contributor.

Mr Solana refrained from saying he would call for an “immediate ceasefire” – apparently out of deference to Britain, which has joined the US in refraining from such a demand. Israeli officials have suggested that the US has informally given licence to Israel to maintain its ground, air and sea assault in Lebanon until the beginning of next week at the earliest.

A 15-year-old girl, Da’aa Abbas – the fourth Arab Israeli to die in the conflict – was killed in the Galilee village of Maghar, as Hizbollah launched an estimated 90 rockets at northern Israel.

The developments came amid continuing indications from senior Israeli officers, and troops at the border, of the stiff resistance put up by Hizbollah to the tank and infantry incursions into southern Lebanon over the past few days. Heavy fighting around the village of Maroun ar-Ras cost the lives of seven Israeli soldiers at the end of last week.

Brigadier General Shuki Shachar, the deputy head of the Israeli Defence Forces northern command, said the Army had taken the “the high positions” around Beit Jbeil to pursue its operations against Hizbollah rather than occupying the town itself after persuading most of its 20,000 civilians to leave.

He acknowledged that the civilians in the town – from the vicinity of which billowing grey smoke could be seen from the Israeli side of the border yesterday – would not be allowed back as long as Hizbollah threatened northern Israel. He said that fighters of Hizbollah “a fanatical organisation” had proved “highly motivated.”

As maintenance engineers returned from southern Lebanon near this border farming community, Major Eran Carraso, whose served in Lebanon before the Israeli withdrawal in 2000, said the effectiveness of Hizbollah forces had notably improved. “In those six years, they have a lot of training. This is difficult and much more dangerous.” He said the biggest problems were “anti-tank” – the missiles and land mines.

A 21 year old tank commander who had just spent 80 hours in Lebanon and gave only his first name, Erez, said the operation had been very different from his service in the West Bank. He said: “There were bullets flying over heads a well as mortars.” But saying that, Hizbollah were “cowards” because they fired missiles and then went into hiding, he added. “Of course I’m going to go back. We have to relieve the units who are in there now.”

Amid some Israeli media criticism of the losses suffered in ground fighting in southern Lebanon, Brigadier Shachar said the “balance of forces” had been changed, after days of air bombardment, when it was realised that Hizbollah had hundreds of well-hidden rocket launching sites and bunkers, which had been established in southern Lebanon over the past six years.

One of the more remarkable sights on the border yesterday was the return of a foot patrol with llamas, which the Israeli Army recently decided were especially suitable beasts of burden for operations inside the hilly terrain of southern Lebanon.

The mounting toll

* Number of Lebanese people killed in the two-week conflict: 422, of whom 375 were civilians.

* A further 27 Hizbollah guerrillas have been killed and 20 Lebanese soldiers.

* Number of Israeli dead since the conflict began: 42, of whom 18 were civilians and 24 soldiers.

* Number of Palestinians killed by Israel in the Gaza Strip since the capture of Cpl Gilad Shalit: 121.

* Number of Israeli air strikes on Lebanon yesterday: 100.

* Hizbollah rockets fired yesterday: 80.

* The Israel Defence Force claimed yesterday to have hit 10 Hizbollah buildings.

* That adds up to an estimated $1bn ($600m) in damage to infrastructure.

* Number of Lebanese bridges destroyed: 105

* The number of Israeli bridges destroyed: 0.

* Number of Lebanese ports bombed: 3.

* Estimate of the number of Lebanese people displaced in the fighting: 750,000.

* Lebanon has 2,000 UN troops who have been in the south since 1978.

* The value of arms exported to Israel from the UK in the past 18 months: £25m.

* The number of Britons evacuated from Lebanon by yesterday evening: 2,526.

* Israel’s military spending: $9.45bn (in 1995); Lebanon: $540

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