August 14, 2006
By Conal Urquhart in Matulla, Mitchell Prothero in Beirut and Peter Beaumont in London
Israel dramatically defied a unanimous United Nations Security Council ceasefire resolution by escalating its ground war yesterday in southern Lebanon, asserting that it needed more time to ‘clean up’ Hizbollah.
Last night Kofi Annan, the secretary general of the UN, insisted that hostilities would end at 5am tomorrow, saying that both Israeli and Lebanese prime ministers had agreed to a ceasefire. But yesterday there was little sign of peace as Israel sent more armour and helicopters into Lebanon. Dozens of helicopters ferried infantry deep into Lebanon in a race to grab territory.
By the day’s end, 30,000 Israeli soldiers had crossed the border. Despite reports that some troops had reached the Litani, it was also their bloodiest day of fighting, with at least 11 killed and 70 wounded. Israel claimed that it had killed 40 Hizbollah fighters.
As the fighting intensified, senior Israeli officials remained at odds over how long it would continue. The foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, said she expected it to end on Monday, but the officer commanding the campaign, Major General Dan Halutz, said that he expected it to go on for another week.
Livni said the offensive had continued because the army requested an extension. ‘We said we would allow the army the time it needed and I think that will be until some time on Monday,’ she said.
For Hizbollah’s part, while it has said that it will abide by the ceasefire and co-operate with the deployment of the Lebanese Army in areas it controlled, Nasrallah said it reserved the right to resist Israeli troops on Lebanese soil. ‘We must not make a mistake – not in the resistance, the government or the people – and believe that the war has ended,’ added Nasrallah in a television interview. ‘The war has not ended. There have been continued strikes and continued casualties.
‘Today nothing has changed and it appears tomorrow nothing will change.’
The UN resolution, passed on Friday, calls for a ‘full cessation of hostilities’ and authorises up to 15,000 UN troops to enforce a ceasefire. It said Hizbollah must halt all attacks and Israel must stop ‘all offensive military operations’.
The apparently contradictory messages coming out of Israel seem designed to win as much time as possible to inflict damage on Hizbollah before a ceasefire comes into force.
Annan seemed confident a breakthrough had been achieved when he said last night he was ‘very happy’ that a cessation of hostilities would come into force at 5am GMT tomorrow. But he said it would be preferable for the fighting to end immediately.
On Israeli television yesterday, the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, appeared to condone the continued Israeli action, saying she hoped the shooting in the Israel-Lebanon war would end within ‘a day or so’.
Rice said the broadened Israeli offensive in Lebanon, which began on Friday a few hours before the UN ceasefire resolution, had been anticipated and was normal.
‘I understand that this is going on,’ she said of the Israeli push deep into Lebanon where an international force will move in alongside the Lebanese army. ‘My understanding is that this is part of the normal operations that were contemplated. When the ceasefire – the cessation of hostilities – comes into being, Israel will stop.’
Halutz said the ceasefire would begin when the UN soldiers had taken control of southern Lebanon. ‘We will continue to operate until we achieve our aims. We are fighting Hizbollah and will continue to fight it until a ceasefire is decided, but more than that, until it is decided what the mechanism for implementing [that ceasefire] is,’ he said.
Lebanon’s cabinet accepted the UN ceasefire unanimously and criticised Israel’s escalation of its offensive as a ‘flagrant challenge’ to the international community. The Lebanese prime minister, Fouad Siniora, said the cabinet would meet today to discuss implementation of the UN resolution. Siniora described the resolution as a triumph for Lebanese negotiators, compared to an initial draft. Nasrallah said the resolution had negative aspects but could have been worse.
Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, is facing increasing domestic criticism over the war, which began when Hizbollah captured two Israeli soldiers on 12 July.
In spite of overwhelming military superiority, Israel has failed to stop Hizbollah firing rockets at Israel and failed to dislodge Hizbollah guerrillas from areas close to the Israeli border.