Israel set for big push north to Litani

The Israeli security cabinet voted on Wednesday for a major escalation of the Lebanese conflict, authorising the army to advance to the Litani river, up to 18 miles north of the border, to halt rocket fire from Hizbollah guerrillas.

The decision was made as Israeli troops battled Hizbollah forces near the border, almost a month after they first crossed it. Arab media said 11 Israeli soldiers were killed in Wednesday’s fighting, although the Israeli army confirmed only five deaths.

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbollah leader, expressed defiance in a televised speech, saying Israeli attacks had failed to weakenthe group’s rocket capabilities and warning that its fighters would turn south Lebanon into a “graveyard” for invading troops. The Israeli military strategy approved by the 12-member security cabinet would take its forces well inside Lebanon, beyond the embattled city of Tyre on the Mediterranean coast. According to one minister, this phase of the ground battle might last 30 days.

Other ministers indicated, however, that Israel may defer launching a fresh offensive to see if international efforts to end the fighting can produce a formula that the country could accept.

An extended ground offensive could complicate those diplomatic efforts. The US State Department spokesman in Washington urged Israel to exercise “the utmost care” in avoiding civilian casualties.

Officials at the United Nations in New York indicated growing difficulties in negotiating a peace deal in the Security Council. Divisions emerged between France and the US, joint sponsors of a weekend resolution calling for a “cessation of hostilities”, over how to deal with Arab objections to the plan.

Jacques Chirac, the French President, threatened to introduce his own resolution if no compromise was reached but said he hoped there could still be an agreement. “I can’t imagine that there would be no solution because that would mean the most immoral result – that we accept the current situation and that we abandon an immediate ceasefire,” he said.

France and the US are at odds in particular over the timing of the deployment of an international force and Israel’s withdrawal – reflecting the conflicting views of Israel and Lebanon and its Arab allies.

Lebanon wants the UN to call for an immediate Israeli withdrawal after the ceasefire, with the Lebanese army, supported by an enhanced version of the existing UNIFIL peace keeping force, taking its place.

Israel, backed by the US, says it won’t withdraw its forces until an international force begins to deploy in its place, to prevent the resurgence of Hizbollah forces.

As diplomacy faltered, the violence in Lebanon continued. UN officials said Israeli warplanes struck next to the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp, killing two people. Lebanese media reported that air raids on the home of a Hizbollah political member in the Bekaa valley killed him, his wife and five children.

The Israeli security cabinet met for six hours before approving the escalation plan put to it by Amir Peretz, defence minister, and Lt-Gen Dan Halutz, chief of the general staff. Defence assessments suggest that an advance to the Litani might cost the lives of 300-500 soldiers. The plan was approved by nine votes, with three abstentions. There were varying estimates of how long such an operation would take. Eli Yishai, a minister who abstained from the vote, said the military assessment was 30 days. But he added: “I think it will take a lot longer.”

Israel is counting the financial cost of the conflict. The defence ministry asked the treasury for a supplementary budget of Shk5bn (€894m) for its first 30 days.

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