BEIRUT, July 27 (Reuters) – Israel pummelled Lebanon with air and artillery strikes on Thursday, but opted against launching a major invasion in pursuit of Hizbollah guerrillas.
Bodies lay in the streets in some isolated border villages, where the fighting has trapped terrified civilians, the International Committee of the Red Cross said.
“In every fight, we are sheep for the slaughter,” said Hafez Ebeid, 65, who had fled his border village of Marwaheen to the relative safety of Sidon, the biggest city in the south.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s security cabinet decided to stick with a strategy of air strikes and limited ground incursions rather than mounting a full-scale invasion.
“At the moment the army is not bound by time, it can act as long as needed,” a political source said after the meeting.
It convened a day after nine Israeli soldiers were killed in Lebanon, the army’s heaviest one-day loss in the 16-day-old war.
Israeli forces have been trying to push Hizbollah back from the border and end rocket attacks since the Shi’ite group captured two soldiers in a raid on July 12, but the army is wary of getting bogged down by guerrilla warfare in south Lebanon.
Dozens of Hizbollah rockets landed in northern Israel on Thursday, wounding four people. More than 1,400 rockets have hit Israel since the conflict began after a cross-border raid into Israel by the Shi’ite militia on July 12, in which two soldiers were abducted.
The United States has given Israel a green light to pursue its assault on Lebanon by refusing to call for an immediate ceasefire or to let the U.N. Security Council do so.
France said it was disappointed an international conference in Rome on Wednesday had failed to call for hostilities to end forthwith and urged U.N. Security Council foreign ministers to meet early next week to work on a ceasefire resolution.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who visited Beirut and Jerusalem this week, said she would return to the Middle East if she thought she could clinch a lasting peace in Lebanon.
Her comments, made on arrival in Malaysia for a regional security conference, underlined Washington’s intention not to press Israel to stop fighting until Hizbollah guerrillas backed by Iran and Syria have been brought under control.
“I am willing and ready to go back to the Middle East at any time that I think we can move toward a sustainable ceasefire that can end the violence,” Rice told a news conference.
With anger among Arabs and Muslims mounting over Israel’s offensives in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, al Qaeda declared it would not stand by, and urged Muslims to fight.
“How can we remain silent while watching bombs raining on our people?” asked the group’s deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahri.
At least 437 people, most of them civilians, have been killed in Lebanon, according to a Reuters tally. Fifty-one Israelis, including 18 civilians, have been killed.
Lebanon’s health ministry said 401 non-combatants had been killed, of whom 58 remained unidentified, while 1,788 people had been seriously wounded. Hizbollah says it has lost 30 dead, and the allied Shi’ite Amal movement has reported 15 killed.
An ICRC report said one of its delegates had found about 700 people, including 300 children, sheltering in a mosque in Blida, a village near the embattled southern town of Bint Jbeil.
Other villages, running short of basic supplies, were living in fear. “Dead bodies had not been removed from the streets and others were still buried in rubble,” the ICRC said.
Israeli planes destroyed radio masts north of Beirut and hit trucks in eastern Lebanon, killing three drivers, security sources said.
Warplanes and artillery also blasted targets in the mainly Shi’ite south, killing a motorcyclist.
An opinion poll published on Thursday showed 95 percent of Israelis still believed the offensive in Lebanon was justified.
The Lebanon conflict has largely overshadowed separate fighting in the Gaza Strip, which shows no sign of abating.
Israeli attacks killed three people, including a 75-year-old woman, in Gaza on Thursday, medics said, a day after clashes in which 24 Palestinians died. Israel has killed 146 Gazans in a month-long offensive to recover a soldier seized by militants.
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said a U.N. resolution should call for the disarmament of Hizbollah, the unconditional release of its two Israeli captives and creation of a security buffer zone in south Lebanon.
He said France was also pushing for the release of Lebanese prisoners held in Israel, deployment of the Lebanese army in the south and guarantees of respect for Lebanese sovereignty.
A U.N.-mandated multinational peacekeeping force could only be sent to the border if there was a lasting ceasefire, he said.
Israel believes a large international force may need to stay in south Lebanon for years until the Lebanese army is capable of dealing with Hizbollah itself, a senior Israeli official said.