BEIRUT, Lebanon, AP -Israel and Hezbollah sharply intensified fighting Saturday with airstrikes, rocket attacks and brutal ground fighting — an apparent bid to inflict maximum mutual damage even as the United States and France agreed on a draft U.N. resolution calling for a halt to the violence.
Even if the U.N. Security Council adopts the resolution early next week as expected, the task of winning agreement from the warring parties portended a far more bumpy diplomatic road than the one already traveled.
As it became clear a U.S.-French agreement on the text was drawing near, Israeli-Hezbollah fighting grew particularly intense over the past few days.
Israeli commandos battled Hezbollah guerrillas in a dramatic raid on an apartment building in the southern port city of Tyre on Saturday, while warplanes blasted south Beirut. The fighting across Lebanon killed at least eight Lebanese and two Israeli soldiers, while a Hezbollah rocket volley killed three women in northern Israel.
Early Sunday, Israeli missiles killed five people in two houses in the village of Ansar, near the southern market town of Nabatiyeh, witnesses and Arab media said.
Shortly after the diplomatic agreement was announced on the 25th day of the conflict, a Hezbollah Cabinet minister said militant Shiite guerrillas would not stop fighting until all Israeli troops leave Lebanon. The draft resolution makes no such demand.
“We (will) abide by it on condition that no Israeli soldier remains inside Lebanese land. If they stay, we will not abide by it,” said Mohammed Fneish, one of two Hezbollah members of the government.
Israeli officials said Israel, too, had no intention to end its offensive for the time being. Justice Minister Haim Ramon said Israel would not withdraw from a buffer zone in south Lebanon until an international force arrived.
“Even if it is passed, it is doubtful that Hezbollah will honor the resolution and halt its fire,” Ramon told Israel’s Army Radio. “Therefore we have to continue fighting, continue hitting anyone we can hit in Hezbollah, and I assume that as long as that goes on, Israel’s position, diplomatically and militarily, will improve.”
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met with senior ministers late Saturday. They approved continuation of the Lebanon offensive according to the present guidelines but did not discuss the draft U.N. resolution, officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
The Lebanese government said it objected to portions of the U.S-French draft resolution and would demand that some provisions be amended.
“The government has objected to the U.S-French draft resolution. It has made amendments to some of the provisions and has sent them to Lebanon’s U.N. representative,” an aide to Prime Minister Fuad Saniora told The Associated Press late Saturday.
The aide, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to make statements to the media, insisted that the government’s position did not amount to a flat rejection of the draft resolution.
As written, the resolution would be a difficult, if not impossible, pill for Hezbollah to swallow, particularly language calling for the “unconditional release” of two Israeli soldiers captured by the guerrillas in a cross-border raid July 12. The hostage taking prompted the Israeli onslaught in Lebanon.
Hezbollah snatched the two soldiers to use them as bargaining tools for the release of Arab prisoners held by Israel, including three Lebanese. While the draft resolution directs Hezbollah to release the Israelis unconditionally it only encourages “efforts aimed at settling the issue of the Lebanese prisoners detained in Israel.”
That language may prove the fundamental deal-breaker for Hezbollah, whose leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah vowed eight days into the conflict never to release the two Israeli soldiers without a prisoner exchange even “if the whole universe comes (against us).”
In the past two days, Hezbollah fired 365 rockets into Israel, including the deepest strike of the conflict — on Hadera, some 50 miles south of the border. Six civilians were killed in the attacks.
Over the same period, Israel conducted as many as 170 airstrikes on targets in Lebanon, killing at least 45 people.
The Israeli army also said Hezbollah has fired some 3,000 rockets into northern Israel since fighting broke out July 12.
The U.N. peacekeeping force in the south of the country, known as UNIFIL, reported what it called “intense shelling and exchanges on the ground” along the common border. Israel has taken control of a band of territory a few miles deep right across the frontier.
Israel has resumed nightly airstrikes on Hezbollah strongholds in south Beirut, and on Friday struck in the Christian heartland north of the capital, rocketing bridges and severing the last major road link to Syria and the outside world.
In the most dramatic operation, Israeli commandos battled Hezbollah guerrillas in a pre-dawn raid on an apartment building in the southern Lebanese port city of Tyre. The raid was the latest Israeli commando operation deep inside Lebanese territory aimed at taking out Hezbollah positions.
Both Israel and Hezbollah claimed victory in the Tyre battle — with Israel claiming it was “very successful” in taking out a key guerrilla unit involved in firing long-range rockets into Israel — including one that hit Hadera.
Lebanese military and rescue workers said at least five Lebanese — including a soldier at a nearby checkpoint — were killed in the raid. The Israeli military reported eight soldiers wounded, two seriously.
Israeli jets continued pounding targets late Saturday and early Sunday with strikes near Tyre, southern market town of Nabatiyeh and two separate roads in the north of the country, both of them leading to Syria.
So far, at least 580 people have died in the fighting in Lebanon including 502 civilians, 28 members of the army and 50 Hezbollah guerrillas. Added to the total deaths were five Syrian farm workers killed in an Israel airstrike just inside the Lebanese border in the Bekaa Valley whose deaths were not counted when the attack occurred Friday. A total of seven civilians and one soldier were killed Saturday. Three Syrian farm workers wounded in the Israeli airstrike also died.
The Israeli military said late Saturday it had killed more than 400 Hezbollah guerrillas since the fighting began.
Seventy-nine Israelis have died, including 46 soldiers and 33 civilians killed by Hezbollah rockets. The latest deaths were three Israeli women in a direct hit on a house in an Arab village and one Israeli soldier killed in fighting with Hezbollah.