JERUSALEM, AP -Israel declared Tuesday it was ready to fight Hezbollah guerrillas for several more weeks, raising doubts about international efforts to broker an immediate cease-fire in the fighting that has killed more than 260 people and displaced 500,000. The military said early Wednesday it sent some troops into southern Lebanon in search of tunnels and weapons.
Despite the diplomatic activity, Israel is in no hurry to end its offensive, which it sees as a unique opportunity to crush Hezbollah. The Islamic militants appear to have steadily built up their military strength after Israel pulled its troops out of southern Lebanon in 2000.
Israeli warplanes struck an army base outside Beirut and other areas in south Lebanon on Tuesday, killing 27 people, and Hezbollah rockets battered Israeli towns, killing one Israeli. Five big explosions reverberated over Beirut early Wednesday, and missiles hit towns to the east and south of the capital.
At daybreak Wednesday, a small number of Israeli troops were operating just across the border inside southern Lebanon, looking for tunnels and weapons, the Israeli military said without providing any more details.
The incursion came a day after Israel indicated that it might send large numbers of ground troops into the southern Lebanon, but Israel’s U.N. Ambassador Dan Gillerman denied Wednesday’s operation was part of any such operation.
“What is going on at the moment is a number of Israeli ground troops very near to the border on the Lebanese side, trying to destroy some Hezbollah outposts,” he told CNN.
“This is an operation which is very measured, very local,” he said. “This is no way an invasion of Lebanon. This is no way the beginning of any kind of occupation of Lebanon.”
Israel’s forecast of a lengthy campaign, coupled with President Bush’s evident reluctance to bring pressure on Israel to agree to a cease-fire, seemed to quash any hopes for an early resolution of the crisis, now entering its second week.
Hundreds of Americans and Europeans fled Lebanon aboard ships, and hundreds of other foreigners prepared to evacuate in coming days. Many Americans complained over what they saw as a slow U.S. response. And after criticism from Congress, the State Department dropped plans to ask Americans to pay for their evacuations on commercial vessels.
About 200 Americans gathered near the fortified U.S. Embassy compound Wednesday to be taken to Beirut’s port to board a ship out of the country.
Families in southern Lebanon, the site of most Israeli airstrikes, drove north on side roads, winding among orange and banana groves and waving improvised white flags from their car windows.
In an interview with the BBC, Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said Israel is “opening the gates of hell and madness” on his country. He urged Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran, to release two captured Israeli soldiers but said Israel’s response had been disproportionate.
Bush said he suspects Syria is trying to reassert influence in Lebanon more than a year after Damascus ended what had effectively been a long-term military occupation of its smaller, weaker neighbor.
“We have made it very clear that Israel should be allowed to defend herself,” Bush said in Washington. “We’ve asked that as she does so that she be mindful of the Saniora government. It’s very important that this government in Lebanon succeed and survive.”
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert blamed Iran for sparking the clashes between Israel and Hezbollah, saying the country was trying to distract the world from the controversy over its nuclear program.
The offensive was sparked by the soldiers’ capture July 12 but has now broadened into a campaign to neutralize Hezbollah.
“I think that we should assume that it will take a few more weeks,” Maj. Gen. Udi Adam, head of the army’s northern command, told Army Radio.
The army’s deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Moshe Kaplinski, said Israel has not ruled out deploying “massive ground forces into Lebanon.”
Israel, which has mainly limited itself to attacks from the air and sea, had been reluctant to send in ground troops because Hezbollah is far more familiar with the terrain and because of memories of Israel’s ill-fated 18-year-occupation of south Lebanon that ended in 2000.
But Kaplinski said Israel had no intention of getting bogged down for a second time.
“We certainly won’t reach months, and I hope it also won’t be many more weeks. But we still need time to complete the operation’s very clear objectives,” he told Israel Radio.
Israeli Cabinet minister Avi Dichter said the country may consider a prisoner swap with Lebanon to win the soldiers’ release, but only after the military operation.
White House spokesman Tony Snow declined to react to Kaplinski’s comments, but said the administration opposed a return to the situation before the outbreak of violence.
“A cease-fire that would leave intact a terrorist infrastructure is unacceptable,” Snow said. “So what we’re trying to do is work as best we can toward a cease-fire that is going to create not only the conditions, but the institutions for peace and democracy in the region.”
Diplomatic efforts to end the fighting, which has killed at least 237 people in Lebanon and 25 in Israel, continued Tuesday, as a U.N. mediation team met with Israeli leaders a day after speaking with Lebanese officials in Beirut.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said a cease-fire is impossible unless the soldiers captured by Hezbollah in a cross-border raid are released and Lebanese troops are deployed along the border with a guarantee that Hezbollah would be disarmed. Her comments indicated Israel would not demand that Hezbollah be disarmed before any cease-fire deal can take effect.
A proposal to send a new international force to bolster the 2,000-member U.N. force in south Lebanon gained momentum.
Western nations have proposed the stronger force as part of a possible cease-fire agreement, and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Tuesday that a new force must be “considerably” larger and better armed than the current force, which is viewed as weak and ineffectual. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also called for the introduction of a strong peacekeeping operation.
Livni said Israel’s experience with the current U.N. force was “not satisfactory,” and it prefers no such force in the long-term, but left open the possibility of a temporary international force.
In a statement, Olmert said he would be cautious about a new force. “It seems to be it’s too early to debate it,” he said.
The Israeli air force kept up its strikes early Wednesday with two major blasts that appeared to be from hits in Beirut’s southern suburbs. Missiles also hit Chuweifat — a coastal town where several factories are located, just south of the capital — and Hadath, a mainly Christian town just east of Beirut, local television said. There were no immediate word of casualties.
On Tuesday, Israeli jets struck across southern Lebanon, hitting a military base at Kfar Chima as soldiers rushed to their bomb shelters, the Lebanese military said. At least 11 soldiers were killed in an engineering unit and 35 were wounded, it said. The base is adjacent to Hezbollah strongholds often targeted by recent Israeli strikes.
Lebanese Defense Minister Elias Murr denounced the strike as a “massacre,” saying the regiment’s main job was to help rebuild infrastructure. The Lebanese army has largely stayed out of the fighting, confining itself to firing anti-aircraft guns at Israeli planes. But Israeli jets have struck Lebanese army positions.
Israel did not give a reason for the strike on the base.
Nine members of the same family were killed when a bomb hit their house in the village of Aitaroun, near the border, Lebanon’s state-run news agency said, citing the police. Israeli warplanes also struck southern Beirut, and hit four trucks that Israeli officials said were bringing in weapons.
“That is intolerable terrorist activity,” said Capt. Jacob Dallal, an Israeli army spokesman.
Hezbollah guerrillas fired a barrage of rockets into northern Israel on Tuesday afternoon, killing a man in the town of Nahariya and setting fire to the top of a two-story apartment building.
At least 100 rockets fell into Israel, hitting a string of towns, including the city of Haifa.
More than 750 rockets have hit Israel since the violence began, forcing hundreds of thousands of Israelis to take cover in underground shelters.
Some 500,000 people have been displaced in Lebanon by the violence, according to the U.N.’s most recent estimate.
With the fighting unabated, foreign citizens fled Lebanon on Tuesday.
Military helicopters ferried 120 Americans from the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, and 200 more left on a ship chartered by Sweden to rush out nearly 1,000 Europeans. About 180 British also left on a warship.
But a plan to evacuate more of the 25,000 Americans in the country on a cruise liner, the Orient Queen, was delayed a day.
Lebanese-American Jonathan Chakhtoura said he was extremely disappointed with the Americans’ response.
“Every time I call to see what’s going on the lines are busy. When they answer, they say they don’t know,” the 19-year-old fashion design student said. “A lot of people don’t know what is going on. There is so much confusion. If it’s security they are worried about, then I think we will be more secure if we know what is going on.”