Israel vows to keep fighting; Rice meets with Olmert

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 25-Jul-06 | Source: International Herald Tribune

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice listens as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert make a statement to the media before their meeting in Jerusalem.
JERUSALEM Israel is determined to keep fighting Hezbollah and will take "severe measures" against the Lebanese guerrillas, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Tuesday, signaling there will be no letup in Israel's two-week military offensive.

Olmert spoke in Jerusalem at the start of a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who called for a cease-fire, but not at any price.

"We need to ensure that we will not return to the previous situation," Rice said.

"And that is why we have, and President Bush, has talked about an enduring cease-fire, an enduring cessation of violence which would indeed make the security situation better than it was before," Rice said. "We need to begin to really lay the ground work for an enduring peace in this region."

Israel has demanded that as part of a truce, Hezbollah be dismantled and the Lebanese army be deployed on the Israeli-Lebanese border, but has indicated it would accept an international peacekeeping force in the area. The Lebanese government insists there be a truce before a longer-term deal is worked out.

Olmert said that for now, Israel's offensive would continue.

"Israel is determined to continue on in the fight against Hezbollah. We will ... stop them. We will not hesitate to take severe measures against those who are aiming thousands of rockets and missiles against innocent civilians for the one purpose of killing them," Olmert said.

Olmert acknowledged the Israeli offensive has caused humanitarian problems and said he would work with the U.S. to try to alleviate them. Some 750,000 Lebanese have been displaced by the fighting.

Almost 400 Lebanese have been killed in Israel's air, land and ground offensive. Israel launched the operation July 12, after Hezbollah attacked an Israeli border patrol, killing eight soldiers and kidnapping two.

A total of 40 Israelis have been killed, including 24 soldiers.

Olmert blamed Hezbollah for the suffering of the Lebanese civilians.

"We are aware of the state of humanitarian affairs of the population of Lebanon as a result of the brutality of Hezbollah," he said. "I think I can say in complete sincerity that Lebanon and Israel are both victims of this brutal terrorist, murderous organization."

Olmert said that "15 percent" of the Israeli population has been forced to live in bomb shelters since Hezbollah began raining rockets on northern Israel. Rice said the United States recognizes that both Israeli and Lebanese civilians are suffering as a result of the fighting.

Also on Tuesday, Israeli troops sealed off the southern Lebanese town of Bint Jbail, moving to complete the takeover of the Hezbollah stronghold after a day and night of fierce fighting, military officials said.

A senior army commander outlined the scope of the two-week-old campaign for the first time, saying Israel plans assaults on other Lebanese border towns but would keep the ground offensive in southern Lebanon.

The operation to take Bint Jbail got under way before dawn Monday, with troops encountering heavy resistance. By Tuesday, military officials said Israeli forces had surrounded the town and sealed it off, seizing houses on the outskirts.

"There is fighting from every direction, including from the air. We are hitting terrorists, we have also taken several prisoners in this fighting. The enemy has more than a few casualties, and overall we are now stabilizing the situation to completely take over the village," Lt. Col. Itzik Ronen, a deputy commander of a unit operating in the area, said in comments aired on Israel's Army Radio.

At least two Israeli soldiers have been killed in fighting in and around Bint Jbail, about a mile from the Israeli border.

Israel's commander in the western sector of southern Lebanon said troops planned to enclose additional border villages and focus on Hezbollah outposts and rocket launching sites.

"The intention is to deal with the Hezbollah infrastructure that is within reach," Col. Hemi Livni told Israel Army Radio.

"That means in southern Lebanon, not going beyond that."