JERUSALEM, AP – In a major expansion of its ground offensive, Israel has decided to send troops deeper into Lebanon to clear out Hezbollah fighters and secure the territory until a multinational force is deployed there, senior officials said Tuesday
Israel hopes to complete the new push to the Litani River nearly 20 miles from the Israeli border in the next two weeks, Cabinet ministers said following a late Monday meeting.
The meeting came amid a 48-hour suspension of most airstrikes by Israel, which was imposed after an airstrike over the weekend in the southern Lebanese town of Qana killed 56 Lebanese, more than half of them children. The attack sparked international outrage.
Hezbollah also drastically cut back rocket attacks Monday, after firing an average of more than 100 rockets a day in three weeks of fighting.
By early Tuesday, however, Israel had resumed air raids. Warplanes targeted a Hezbollah stronghold deep inside Lebanon and Hezbollah fighters battled with soldiers near the border. The Israeli army also reported heavy fighting between its troops and Hezbollah in the south Lebanon village Ayt ash Shab.
Diplomatic efforts to end the crisis faltered Monday, despite increased world pressure for a cease-fire after the devastating strike in Qana. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the offensive would continue until Hezbollah has been neutralized.
“We will not give up on our goal to live a life free of terror,” Olmert said.
President Bush also resisted calls for an immediate halt to fighting, saying any peace deal must ensure that Hezbollah is crippled. He said Iran and Syria must stop backing the Shiite militant group with money and weapons.
“As we work with friends and allies, it’s important to remember this crisis began with Hezbollah’s unprovoked attacks against Israel. Israel is exercising its right to defend itself,” Bush said Monday.
Israel’s Cabinet decision paved the way for a significantly broader ground offensive.
Up to now, several thousand soldiers had been engaged in the operation, fighting house-to-house battles with hundreds of Hezbollah fighters in Lebanese towns and villages close to the border. Last week, the Cabinet called up some 30,000 reserve soldiers, many of whom reported to their bases earlier this week to begin training.
Defense official said they expected thousands more soldiers to be sent to Lebanon as part of the expanded offensive. “We have reached the stage where we have to expand the operation,” said Defense Minister Amir Peretz, without giving the dimensions of the next phase.
Senior Israeli officials and media reports said Tuesday that troops were given permission to move as far north as Lebanon’s Litani River, which meanders through the southern part of the country, and at some points is 18 miles from the Israeli-Lebanese border.
In a first stage, tanks and ground forces would move up to four miles into Lebanon, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not allowed to discuss government decisions with reporters.
Political commentator Emmanuel Rosen outlined the Security Cabinet’s decision on Army Radio, saying troops would in some cases even go beyond the Litani. Justice Minister Haim Ramon, speaking on the same program, said Rosen apparently “knows what he is talking about,” but declined to refer directly to the Cabinet decisions.
Ramon, a member of the Security Cabinet, said he hoped the push would be completed in a week to 10 days, to create the conditions for a multinational force to deploy there. Another Cabinet minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, said he expected the offensive to take up to two weeks.
Peretz said Israel would also target vehicles carrying weapons from Syria to Lebanon, but reiterated that Israel was not trying to draw Syria into the war. Israel has repeatedly accused Syria of allowing Iranian-made weapons to be shipped through its territory to Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.
Syrian President Bashar Assad called on his army Monday to increase readiness to cope with “regional challenges.” Travelers from Syria have reported that some reservists have been called up for military duty — a sign that Syria is concerned the fighting in Lebanon could spill over.
Thousands of Lebanese, meanwhile, took advantage of the lull in airstrikes to make a dash for safety farther north after weeks trapped in homes in the war zone, afraid to move because of intense missile strikes on roads.
Across the south, cars and trucks packed with women and children, mattresses strapped to the roofs and white flags streaming from the windows, made their way to the coast, then turned north. They passed flattened houses, shattered trees and burned-out cars strewn on the roadside.
Some described living on a piece of candy a day and dirty water as the fighting raged.
“All the time I thought of death,” said Rimah Bazzi, an American visiting from Dearborn, Mich., who spent weeks hiding with her three children and mother in the house of a local doctor in the town of Bint Jbail, scene of the heaviest fighting.
In the northern Israeli town of Nahariya, residents began emerging from shelters. Supermarkets were fuller than before and more people were in the streets, walking along the beach and shopping.
Israel said it would investigate the Qana attack, but army officials said Tuesday they did not know when findings would be released.
Olmert, meanwhile, apologized for the civilian deaths.
“I am sorry from the bottom of my heart for all deaths of children or women in Qana,” he said. “We did not search them out. … They were not our enemies and we did not look for them.”
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said she expected a U.N. resolution for a cease-fire within a week, but also cautioned that “there’s a lot of work to do.” As part of a truce deal, a U.N.-mandated international force would be deployed in southern Lebanon to ensure guerrillas do not attack Israel.
Israel wants a strong, armed force with a mandate to confront militants, and Ramon reiterated Tuesday that Israel seeks NATO involvement. Israel feels U.N. peacekeepers, deployed in south Lebanon since 1978, are at best useless.
Hezbollah’s allies Syria and Iran also quietly entered the diplomacy on Monday. Egypt was pressing Syria not to try to stop an international force in the south, diplomats in Cairo said. Iran’s foreign minister traveled to Beirut for talks with his French and Lebanese counterparts.
At least 524 people have been killed in Lebanon since the fighting began, according to the Health Ministry. Fifty-one Israelis have died, including 33 soldiers and 18 civilians who died in rocket attacks.