Hezbollah and Israelis battle over key villages

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 08-Aug-06 | Source: International Herald Tribune

Israeli soldiers take up positions during an incursion in southern Lebanon near the village of Aitrun Thursday Aug. 3, 2006.
BEIRUT Battles between Israeli forces and Hezbollah militia raged Tuesday across southern Lebanon as diplomats at the United Nations struggled to keep a peace plan from collapsing over Arab demands for an immediate Israeli withdrawal.

Military planners in Jerusalem said they would push even deeper into Lebanon to root out rocket sites.

Attempts to draw a cease-fire blueprint came down to a test between a step-by-step proposal backed by Washington and Lebanon's insistence - supported by Arab countries - that nothing can happen before Israeli soldiers leave the country. In New York, Arab envoys and UN Security Council members tried to hammer out a compromise.

Lebanon put its offer on the table, pledging up to 15,000 troops to a peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon after Israel pulls back and saying Hezbollah's days of running a state within a state would end.

The military plan had added significance because it was backed by the two Hezbollah members in Lebanon's cabinet - apparently showing a willingness for a lasting pact on the part of the Islamic militants and their main sponsors, Iran and Syria.

Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert, called the proposed Lebanese troop deployment "interesting" and said Israel would favor leaving southern Lebanon once it no longer considered Hezbollah a direct threat.

But the rocky hills of southern Lebanon gave a different picture. Ground fighting continued in attempts to control crucial villages and strategic ridges near the Israeli border, including sites used for Hezbollah rocket barrages that have reached deep into Israel during the heaviest Arab-Israeli battles in 24 years.

Fierce skirmishes broke out around the village of Bint Jbail, a Hezbollah stronghold that Israeli has tried to capture for weeks. An Israeli solider and 15 Hezbollah guerrillas were killed in the fighting, the Israeli military said. There was no comment from Hezbollah.

Hezbollah TV also reported predawn attacks on Israeli forces near the Mediterranean city of Naqoura, about 4 kilometers, or 2.5 miles, north of the border. The report claimed that some Israeli soldiers were killed or wounded.

The Israeli Army confirmed clashes and casualties in western Lebanon, but did not say whether it or Hezbollah had suffered losses. It also did not give the location of the fighting.

Israel, meanwhile, expanded airstrikes around Lebanon, including the Hezbollah heartland in the Bekaa Valley.

The clashes followed one of the bloodiest days of the four-week conflict. At least three Israeli soldiers and 49 Lebanese died Monday - including 10 in a rocket attack in a Beirut suburb just hours after Arab League foreign ministers wrapped up a crisis meeting that threw their full diplomatic weight behind Lebanon.

It set the baseline demand for the Security Council: a full Israeli withdrawal or no peace deal is possible. The message was given in a tearful address by Lebanon's prime minister, Fouad Siniora, and carried to the United Nations by Arab League envoys.

Siniora's government voted unanimously to send 15,000 troops to stand between Israel and Hezbollah should a cease-fire take hold and Israeli forces withdraw.

The move was an attempt to show that Lebanon has the will and ability to assert control over its south, where Hezbollah rules with near autonomy, bolstered by channels of aid and weapons from Iran and Syria.

Lebanon has avoided any attempt to implement a two-year-old UN resolution calling for the disarmament of Hezbollah, fearing it could touch off civil unrest.

Siniora, speaking to Al Arabiya television, praised Hezbollah's resistance, but said it was time for Lebanon to "impose its full control, authority and presence" over the war-weary country.

"There will be no authority, no one in command, no weapons other than those of the Lebanese state," he said.

Siniora also took a jab at Hezbollah's sponsor, Syria, which ended a nearly three-decade military presence in Lebanon last year.

"Syria should get used to the fact that Lebanon is an independent state," he said without mentioning Hezbollah's other patron, Iran.

The coming days should offer signs as to whether a cease-fire plan has a chance.

The original proposal, drafted by the United States and France, demanded a "full cessation of hostilities" on both sides and a buffer zone in southern Lebanon patrolled by Lebanese forces and UN troops. But the plan did not specifically call for a withdrawal. Critics said it would give room for Israeli defensive operations.

France's UN ambassador, Jean-Marc de La Sablière, promised Monday to take into account Lebanon's stance. But he did not say whether France was prepared to add such language to the text.

Washington and Paris were expected to circulate a new draft in response to amendments proposed by Qatar, the only Arab country on the 15-nation Security Council, and other members, diplomats said. A vote was not expected before Wednesday at the earliest.

The proposed changes include a call for Israeli forces to pull out of Lebanon once the fighting stops and to hand over their positions to UN peacekeepers. Arab states also want UN forces to take control of the disputed Shebaa Farms area, which Israel seized in 1967.

Siniora also asked for Israel to provide a full map of all land mines in southern Lebanon.

Qatar's foreign minister, Hamad bin Jassem Al Thani, warned of "a civil war in Lebanon" between Hezbollah and government forces if the Security Council did not make changes to the U.S.-French draft resolution. "This is what we don't want to happen and Lebanon won't bear it," he said on the Al Jazeera network.

In Texas, President George W. Bush said Monday that any cease-fire must prevent Hezbollah from strengthening its grip in southern Lebanon, asserting that "it's time to address root causes of problems."

Israel sent mixed signals. The government said it was studying Lebanon's pledge to contribute troops to a potential peacekeeping force.

But just hours earlier, Defense Minister Amir Peretz outlined plans to drive deeper into Lebanon to try to destroy Hezbollah rocket batteries, which have kept up a nearly relentless barrage on northern Israel.

Peretz said a new Israeli push - expected to be approved by Israel's security cabinet Wednesday - would extend as far as the Litani River, about 30 kilometers, or 18 miles, north of the Israel- Lebanon border.