ISRAEL ON Wednesday expanded its ground offensive in Lebanon, and Hizbollah’s leader vowed to turn southern Lebanon into a graveyard for Israeli troops and unleash more rockets on the city of Haifa.
With world powers divided on a UN resolution to try to end the four-week-old war, Israeli forces thrust deeper into Lebanon and at least 11 Israeli soldiers were reported killed in fighting.
Israeli television said the expanded offensive had already begun, with armoured columns moving into southern Lebanon under cover of intensive artillery fire.
“You won’t be able to stay in our land, and if you come in, we’ll force you out, we will turn our precious southern land into a graveyard for the invading Zionists,” Hizbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said in a televised speech.
“We want an end to all the aggression but if there must be a showdown, then we welcome a showdown in the field.” He warned Arab residents of Haifa to leave to avoid being hurt by Hizbollah rocket attacks on the Israeli city. â€œI have a special message to the Arabs of Haifa, to your martyrs and to your wounded. I call you to leave this city. I hope you do this. Please leave so we don’t shed your blood, which is our blood.â€
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s Security Cabinet authorised the move to send troops further, possibly to the Litani River, up to 20km from the border. A senior political source said the expanded offensive could last 30 days. US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Israel had a right to defend itself from Hizbollah but that Washington was very concerned about the humanitarian situation and Israel “must take the utmost care” to avoid civilian casualties.
The Israeli move could complicate UN diplomacy to halt the fighting, though Western diplomats said Israeli officials had assured them the army was prepared to halt the wider campaign within days if an agreement was reached at the United Nations.
There has been mounting domestic pressure in Israel to strike harder against Hizbollah, which has proved unexpectedly resilient against the Middle East’s most sophisticated army.
A Tel Aviv University poll showed 93 per cent of Israelis believed the campaign in Lebanon was justified, and 91 per cent backed the air strikes even if they destroyed Lebanese infrastructure and inflicted suffering on civilians.
Diplomats are still working on a UN resolution aimed at ending the war but no Security Council vote seems imminent.
US Assistant Secretary of State David Welch held talks in Beirut as part of efforts to win agreement for such a resolution, but appeared to have made little headway.
“All he is carrying is cosmetics for what remains a very ugly resolution,” Lebanon’s Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a key Shiite politician and Hizbollah ally, said after talks with Welch, who also met Prime Minister Fuad Siniora twice.
Lebanon wants an immediate ceasefire and a quick pullout of Israeli troops from the south, where it says 15,000 Lebanese soldiers backed by UN peacekeepers can move in.
Nasrallah said an initial draft resolution that did not call for an immediate Israeli withdrawal was “unjust and oppressive and gives the Israelis more than they wanted and demanded”.
The United States and France differ on when an international force, expected to be led by France, should move in and when Israel should withdraw. Israel says it will only withdraw when a foreign force and the Lebanese army take over to keep Hizbollah at bay, and the United States backs this position.
“The operating principle is that you don’t want to leave a vacuum in southern Lebanon,” McCormack said. “You don’t hand the keys back to the terrorists who started all of this.”
French President Jacques Chirac threatened to introduce his own resolution if no compromise was reached but said he hoped there could still be an agreement.
“I can’t imagine that there would be no solution … which would be the most immoral result, that we accept the current situation and that we abandon an immediate ceasefire,” he said.
At least 1,005 people in Lebanon and 101 Israelis have been killed in four weeks of bloodshed which erupted when Hizbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12.
Israeli forces pushed deeper into parts of Lebanon despite fierce Hizbollah resistance, Lebanese security sources said.
The sources said four Israeli soldiers had been killed in a rocket attack in the village of Aita Al Shaab and seven more died when Hizbollah blew up a booby-trapped house near the village of Debel, five kilometres from the border.
Al Jazeera TV said 15 Israeli soldiers were killed. Lebanese sources said at least three Hizbollah fighters had also been killed in the clashes. Israel’s army had no immediate comment.
Israeli planes bombed targets across Lebanon. Five people died in a raid in the Bekaa Valley town of Mashghara, medics said. Two people, including an 11-year-old boy, were killed in air strikes on a Palestinian refugee camp near Sidon.
More rockets hit northern Israel and four landed in the occupied West Bank. No casualties were reported.