Israeli forces pounded targets in southern Lebanon on Tuesday as the army executed orders from the government to expand the war against Hizbollah, the Shia Islamist movement.
The army said it killed 20 Hizbollah guerrillas inside the Lebanese border, but did not confirm a claim by the organisation’s television station that up to 35 Israelis were killed in fighting at the border town of Ainta al-Shaab.
The clashes came hours after Israel’s security cabinet approved plans to expand the ground offensive and to reject international pressure for an immediate ceasefire.
Officials said the objective of the operations was to cleanse a border buffer zone of Hizbollah forces before the eventual deployment of an international force. “The more the army can do, the less work has to be done by an international force,” one senior official said.
Israel Radio said the army would call up an additional 15,000 reservists, although a similar number already ordered to report for duty had yet to be deployed inside Lebanon.
Amid solid public backing for the military campaign, ministers warned it was unlikely Israel would completely liquidate Hizbollah or destroy all its rocket arsenal.
Amir Peretz, defence minister, said: “A terror organisation cannot be completely obliterated, since it can claim to exist and have influence even when operating very few militants.”
The Israeli military strategy appeared aimed at clearing an area several kilometres inside Lebanon. Operations on Tuesday focused both west of the Israeli panhandle that juts into Lebanon and north of the central border area. Fighting in the two areas could be a prelude to encircling Hizbollah forces.
Israel’s push came as world powers’ plans for an international force in southern Lebanon appeared to be facing resistance from Syria and Iran, the backers of Hizbollah.
Philippe Douste-Blazy, French foreign minister, met Manouchehr Mottaki, his Iranian counterpart in Beirut late Monday, in an effort to include Tehran in the discussions over Lebanon.
Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Egypt’s foreign minister, said after visiting Damascus that Syria opposed the creation of a new international force but would agree to an expansion of the current UN force in south Lebanon, an unarmed monitoring force seen as ineffectual.
Walid Muallem, Syrian foreign minister, was also quoted on Tuesday as warning against turning Lebanon into “another Iraq”. He said al-Qaeda could be attracted to Lebanon to fight foreign forces if the more robust international force envisaged was deployed without the consent of all parties, the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat reported. He made clear that Hizbollah was opposed to the force.
Hizbollah officials have not directly commented on the international force but they have backed a Lebanese government plan with an ambiguous description of the force. The plan calls for strengthening and increasing the current UN force to enable it to keep the peace effectively.
Some Lebanese politicians say the clause refers to a modest increase in the size of the existing UN force, but others interpret it as an acceptance of a much larger and stronger new force.
■The United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross were forced to delay the despatch of humanitarian aid to southern Lebanon yesterday because they failed to get security guarantees, Reuters reports from Geneva.
The World Food Programme (WFP) had planned to send three convoys from Beirut to the south and one to the north, but had to postpone two of them because neither Israel nor Hizbollah gave the needed assurances, said Christine Berthiaume, the UN agency’s spokeswoman in Geneva.
Four ICRC convoys of trucks were unable to leave Tyre in southern Lebanon with food, water and medicines for the same reason.
In Brussels, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, European external relations commissioner, said the 48-hour agreement on humanitarian aid had not worked and had not been adhered to by either side. “This is very disappointing and shows the depth of the problem,” she said.
Before setting off, the agencies give notice to the Israelis and Hizbollah of where they plan to go and when. Only if the two sides acknowledge the plans will they set out. They were to be accompanied by Lebanese Red Crescent Society ambulances to help evacuate civilian victims of the fighting.
The Finnish EU presidency said humanitarian aid pledged by the EU and individual member states now totalled €108m ($138m, £75m).