RASHAYA, Lebanon (AFP) – Israeli troops backed by tank units were battling Hezbollah fighters in south Lebanon as the United Nations criticised both sides for blocking aid supplies to 120,000 stranded civilians.
Israel said Thursday it had put plans to broaden its month-old offensive against the Shiite Muslim guerrillas on hold to give diplomats at UN headquarters in New York a chance to redraft a ceasefire resolution.
But there was no let-up in hostilities. Israeli warplanes dropped leaflets on Shiite districts of Beirut warning residents to leave immediately and a gunboat hit an old lighthouse in the first direct strike on the heart of the capital in three weeks.
UN humanitarian chief Jan Egeland blamed both sides for aggravating a crisis that has left almost one million people homeless, some of them cut off in south Lebanon, which Israel wants to turn into a buffer zone against rocket attack.
“It’s a disgrace really because the parties to the conflict, Israel and Hezbollah, could give access in a heart beat, and then we could help 120,000 people in southern Lebanon,” Egeland told a news conference in Geneva.
“If there’s one thing that will be the most critical — even more critical than food — over the next days and weeks, it’s fuel.”
Four hospitals in the south of the country have run out of fuel needed for generators that are crucial for surgery and stocking drugs, Egeland said.
In Beirut, panic-stricken residents of three Shiite-inhabited districts fled for safety after Israeli jets dropped leaflets telling them to leave.
“You must immediately evacuate these areas, and evacuate all areas from which Hezbollah elements carry out terrorist acts,” the leaflets said.
Some packed into cars carrying mattresses and suitcases, while others waited desperately for taxis to take them to safer areas.
The threat to the suburbs came after Israel said it had delayed a major new ground offensive to drive the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah out of south Lebanon.
Israeli Public Security Minister Avi Dichter said the timing of a new offensive “depends to a great extent on what is happening in New York,” where the UN Security Council struggled to negotiate a ceasefire resolution.
The White House said divisions between council members, Lebanon and Israel made it impossible to set a date for a vote, but it warned the warring parties against any “escalations” in a conflict that has killed more than 1,000 people in a month.
“We want an end to violence and we do not want escalations,” spokesman Tony Snow said. “It’s a message to all parties.”
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who declared open war Israel after his south Beirut home and headquarters were bombed, warned that south Lebanon would become a “graveyard” for the Middle East’s most powerful army if it invaded.
A Lebanese army officer an Israeli armoured column entered Marjayun, a major border town about 10 kilometres (six miles) inside Lebanon, and that troops were occupying building inside the Lebanese army barracks.
The mainly Christian town was the headquarters of Israel’s proxy South Lebanon Army militia until the Jewish state ended its previous 22-year occupation of south Lebanon in May 2000.
The Lebanese army has so far stayed on the sidelines of the conflict, which began on July 12 when Israel launched a massive campaign by air, land and sea after Hezbollah captured two of its soldiers in a cross-border raid.
The government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora has offered to deploy 15,000 troops north of the frontier to help enforce a UN ceasefire resolution, provided Israeli forces pull out immediately hostilities come to an end.
Members of the UN Security Council have for days been wrestling with a draft resolution which called for an immediate end to the fighting but would allow Israel to take defensive action and to remain temporarily in Lebanon.
The United States, Israel’s top ally which provides several billion dollars in aid to the Jewish state each year, wants Israeli troops to be able to remain until an international force arrives, fearing that Hezbollah could take back control of the border area.
“We must exhaust all diplomatic options. Important efforts for a solution are being deployed in New York,” Israeli Justice Minister Haim Ramon said. “It’s a matter of a few hours, maybe 24 hours, let’s be patient.”
Ramon is a member of the security cabinet, which on Wednesday approved the army’s plans to pour more troops into south Lebanon after a six-hour meeting and gave Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defence Minister Amir Peretz the authority to decide when to start the broader offensive.
Dichter reiterated that the aim of a broader ground offensive against Hezbollah was “to significantly reduce rocket fire” which claimed the lives of two more people in northern Israel on Thursday, one of them a baby.
The deaths, in the Arab village of Dir el-Assad, brought to 38 the number of Israeli civilians killed in the past month.
Lebanese officials say more than 1,000 civilians have died since July 12, mostly as a result of Israeli bombing raids, and that close to one million, a quarter of the population, have fled their homes.
Nasrallah warned on Wednesday that the army faced far higher casualties if it expanded its assault on Lebanon.
“I tell the Zionists that you can invade but this will be very expensive,” he said in a television broadcast.
“You will not be able to stay on our land … we will transform our dear south into the graveyard of the Zionist invaders and if there is no other way than a confrontation then welcome to the large-scale ground operation.”
On Wednesday, the army confirmed it had lost 15 soldiers in its biggest single-day toll of the conflict, taking to 80 the number of troops killed since start of the campaign.
On Thursday, Lebanese police reported that four Israeli tanks were destroyed and burnt near Marjayun. Hezbollah’s television channel Al-Manar said 13 or 14 tanks had been knocked out.
Police said an Israeli armoured column was locked in fierce fighting at nearby Khiam, where Hezbollah guerrillas were still dug in and firing anti-tank rockets, hours after Israeli artillery rained about 1,000 shells on the town.
Medical relief agency Doctors Without Borders (known by its French initials MSF) said it would defy an Israeli threat to bomb all vehicles moving south of Lebanon’s Litani River — a region which includes the port of Tyre.
“To forbid all forms of movement, without distinction, will lead to even more civilian deaths and suffering,” MSF’s international president Rowan Gillies said.
But the UN World Food Programme said it had cancelled plans to send convoys to south Lebanon.
Despite its military superiority, Israel’s armed forces have found it much harder than expected to crush the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah and to quell its deadly rocket attacks.
Most of the residents of the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona have left in the first evacuation of an entire town since the creation of Israel in 1948.
Insisting in his broadcast that his arsenal had not been seriously depleted by the Israeli offensive, Nasrallah urged Arab residents of Haifa to allow Hezbollah free rein to press on with missile attacks against Israel’s third city.