Hizbollah fighters killed eight people in a rocket barrage on Israel and three Israeli soldiers in clashes in Lebanon on Thursday, the deadliest day of the war for Israel in 23 days of fighting.
As world powers struggled to agree on a UN resolution to end the fighting, both sides threatened to escalate the war.
In a televised speech, Hizbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said the group would target Tel Aviv if Israel attacked central Beirut. Israel vowed to destroy Lebanon’s infrastructure if the threat was carried out.
“If you strike Beirut, the Islamic resistance will strike Tel Aviv and it is able to do so,” Nasrallah said, in the first apparent confirmation that Hizbollah has longer-range missiles capable of hitting the city 130km from the border.
Despite an intensive air and ground campaign to wipe them out, Hizbollah fighters continue to unleash rockets and battle Israeli troops on the ground in Lebanon.
Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora said the war had killed 900 people in Lebanon and wounded 3,000, with a third of the casualties children under 12. He said a million Lebanese, a quarter of the population, had been displaced and infrastructure devastated. The Reuters tally of Lebanon deaths is at least 685.
Sixty-seven Israelis have been killed in the war including 40 soldiers. Al Arabiya television said a fourth soldier was killed on Thursday but there was no official confirmation.
The Israeli army has carved out a “security zone” of 20 villages in south Lebanon up to six kilometres from the border and will stay until an international force arrives, Israeli television said.
The United States, France and Britain hope for a UN Security Council resolution within days that would call for a truce and maybe strengthen existing UN peacekeepers until a more robust force can be formed, UN officials said.
The US State Department said it still hoped for an agreement by Friday on a resolution to end the fighting. But splits between the United States and France, a possible leader of the new force, over the timing of a ceasefire have complicated diplomatic efforts to halt the war.
France’s UN ambassador said he was less confident that a Security Council resolution could be adopted within days.
“Yesterday morning I was confident that we could have a resolution adopted in the coming days, but by the end of the day I was less confident,” Jean-Marc de la Sabliere said.
The Lebanon war, which erupted after Hizbollah snatched two Israeli soldiers in a raid across the border on July 12, has coincided with an Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip to recover another captured soldier and halt Palestinian rocket fire.
Israeli forces killed five Palestinian fighters and three civilians, including a 10-year-old boy, in the Gaza Strip on Thursday, witnesses said. Israel’s offensive in the strip, which it quit last year, has cost at least 161 Palestinian lives.
Israeli aircraft launched strikes on 70 targets in southern Lebanon and Beirut overnight.
Jets bombed Hizbollah-dominated suburbs of Beirut for the first time in days overnight and hit a bridge in the northern Akkar region, as well as targets in the eastern Bekaa Valley and roads near the Syrian border, a Lebanese security source said.
Planes repeatedly bombed targets around the southern town of Nabatiyeh and shelling cut a road in the southern Bekaa Valley.
Heavy Israeli air strikes and shelling also hit the area around the southern village of Blat, north of Marjayoun.
Two Lebanese civilians were killed in an Israeli air strike on a car in a village east of Tyre, security sources said.
Ground war expands
Israel is expanding the ground war in southern Lebanon.
Seven brigades, or up to 10,000 troops, were fighting Hizbollah on Thursday, Israeli army radio said. Israel’s Channel Two television said Defence Minister Amir Peretz asked the army to prepare for a possible push north to Lebanon’s Litani river.
UN peacekeepers of the UNIFIL force said the Israelis had made two new incursions into Lebanon in the past 24 hours and kept hold of five other areas previously seized.
A Lebanese security source said 80 Hizbollah fighters had been killed so far â€” well below the Israeli estimate.
An Israeli inquiry into Sunday’s bombing of Qana, where up to 60 Lebanese civilians died, said the military had made a mistake, but accused Hizbollah of using civilians as human shields. Amnesty International said the probe was inadequate.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in remarks published on Thursday he expected a UN vote on a truce next week.
The United States and France, diplomats said, are ironing out differences on an initial resolution calling for a truce, a buffer zone and the disarmament of Hizbollah.
But Paris has insisted it will not send troops without a truce and an agreement in principle on the framework for a long-term peace deal by Israel, Hizbollah and the Beirut government. Washington wants a force as soon as fighting stops.
Once fighting ended, talks would begin at the UN on a second resolution for a permanent ceasefire all combatants could accept and authorising an international force in the south.
Jordan calls for united Arab stand
In Amman, meanwhile, King Abdullah urged a united Arab stand on Israel’s onslaught on Lebanon during talks with Arab League Secretary General Amr Musa.
“It is necessary to elaborate a united Arab stand to deal with the current crisis in Lebanon,” the King told Musa, according to the Jordan News Agency, Petra.
The King also reiterated calls for an immediate ceasefire in Lebanon “to spare the Lebanese people further deaths and destruction”.
Musa, who is on a regional tour to muster Arab efforts to end the violence in Lebanon, earlier criticised the “paralysis” of the United Nations Security Council and its inability to call for a ceasefire in Lebanon.
“All Arab and international efforts aimed at stopping the bloodshed in Lebanon are blocked by the paralysis of the Security Council,”Â PetraÂ quoted Musa as saying after talks with Prime Minister Marouf Bakhit.
Also yesterday, King Abdullah telephoned Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi to discuss the Lebanese crisis.
The King urged European countries to intensify their efforts to push for an immediate ceasefire.