BEIRUT, Lebanon — Israeli warplanes struck deep inside Lebanon early Tuesday, witnesses reported, hitting an area that is a stronghold of Hezbollah guerrillas. The strikes came hours after Israel’s Security Cabinet approved widening the ground offensive in Lebanon.
The jet fighters struck Hermel, 73 miles north of the Israeli border in the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon.
Warplanes fired at least five air-to-surface missiles on the edge of the town, targeting a road linking eastern Lebanon to western regions and the coastline.
It was not clear what was hit and whether there were any casualties.
Another strike targeted an area near the Syrian border, about 6 miles north of Hermel, targeting the Qaa-Homs road, one of four official crossing points between Lebanon and Syria.
Tuesday's airstrikes means that two border crossings are out of order. Repeated airstrikes during the last three days made the crossing on the Beirut-Damascus highway impassable.
The remaining crossings are Lebanon's main transport links to the outside world. Israel has hit the Beirut international airport, forcing its closure, and has imposed a naval blockade. Late last week the airport began receiving aid relief flights on a repaired runway.
The latest bombings came despite a 48-hour Israeli suspension of air raids in Lebanon, prompted by an airstrike Sunday that killed at least 56 people, more than half of them children, on the southern Lebanese village of Qana. The pause, which ends early Wednesday, was to give time for an investigation into the Qana attack, but Israel said its warplanes would still hit targets that presented an imminent threat, and at least three strikes were launched Monday.
Airstrikes to resume ‘in full force’
Israel’s Security Cabinet early Tuesday approved widening the ground offensive and rejected a cease-fire until an international force is in place, a participant in the meeting said.
Airstrikes in Lebanon would resume “in full force” after the 48-hour suspension expires in another day, said the participant, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters.
Israel’s military had recommended the expansion of the offensive, which could take Israeli soldiers several miles deeper into Lebanon than their current operations nearer the border.
“The Security Cabinet approved a widening of ground operations without any objections,” a government official told Reuters.
Assad ratchets up Syrian army
On Monday, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told the Syrian military to raise its readiness, pledging not to abandon support for Lebanese resistance against Israel.
"We are facing international circumstances and regional challenges that require caution, alert, readiness and preparedness," Assad said. Travelers from Syria have reported that some reservists have been called up for military duty — a sign that Syria is concerned the fighting in Lebanon could spill over.
"The barbaric war of annihilation the Israeli aggression is waging on our people in Lebanon and Palestine is increasing in ferocity," Assad said in a written address on the occasion of the 61st anniversary of the foundation of the Syria Arab Army.
Meanwhile, Lebanese fled north in overflowing trucks and cars Monday, taking advantage of a lull in Israeli bombardment. Israel’s prime minister took a tough line, apologizing for the deaths of dozens of Lebanese civilians in a single strike but declaring there will be no cease-fire.
Diplomatic efforts to end the crisis faltered, despite increased world pressure for a cease-fire after the devastating strike in Qana.
Israeli warplanes hit Hezbollah fighters battling with soldiers near the border as the guerrillas fired mortars into Israel. The clashes signaled that the violence was not over, even though an Israeli suspension of most airstrikes in Lebanon — and a pause by the guerrillas on rocket attacks in northern Israel — brought both countries their quietest day since the conflict began three weeks ago.
Some 200 people — mostly elderly — escaped the Lebanese border town of Bint Jbail, where Israeli troops and Hezbollah guerrillas fought their bloodiest clashes.
Two residents dropped dead on the road out, one of malnutrition, the other of heart failure.
Some survivors described living on a piece of candy a day and dirty water as the fighting raged.
“All the time I thought of death,” said Rimah Bazzi, an American visiting from Dearborn, Mich., who spent weeks hiding with her three children and mother in the house of a local doctor.
Olmert: ‘There will be no cease-fire’
The lull was felt across northern Israel, too: In the town of Nahariya, residents who had been hiding in shelters for the better part of three weeks began emerging. Supermarkets were fuller than before and more people were in the streets, walking along the beach and shopping.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert apologized for the civilian deaths in the strike on Qana.
“I am sorry from the bottom of my heart for all deaths of children or women in Qana,” he said. “We did not search them out. ... They were not our enemies and we did not look for them.”
But he insisted Israel had no choice but to fight.
“There is no cease-fire, there will be no cease-fire,” he said. “We are determined to succeed in this struggle. We will not give up on our goal to live a life free of terror.”
The Israeli onslaught was sparked when Hezbollah snatched two soldiers and killed three others in a cross-border raid July 12.
Near the fighting, grass fires set by shelling blazed into the night sky from the hills outside the Lebanese border town of Marjayoun. U.N. peacekeepers struggled to get trucks full of aid supplies across the Litani River as artillery pounded only a few hills away.
Bush: Hezbollah provoked attacks
President Bush resisted calls for an immediate halt to fighting, underlining that any peace deal must ensure that Hezbollah is crippled. He said Iran and Syria must stop backing the Shiite militant group with money and weapons.
“As we work with friends and allies, it’s important to remember this crisis began with Hezbollah’s unprovoked attacks against Israel. Israel is exercising its right to defend itself,” Bush said.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice earlier in the day said she expected a U.N. resolution for a cease-fire within a week. But as she headed to Washington after a visit to Jerusalem derailed by the Qana strike, she struck a more pessimistic tone.
“There’s a lot of work to do,” she told reporters. “You have to get all the work done, you have to get it done urgently.”
The central focus for a peace deal has been the deployment of a U.N.-mandated international force in southern Lebanon to ensure guerrillas do not attack Israel. But details of the force still must be worked out. With talks continuing, the U.N. postponed a Monday gathering meant to sound out contributions to a force.
Death toll increases
At least 524 people have been killed in Lebanon since the fighting began, according to the Health Ministry. Fifty-one Israelis have died, including 33 soldiers and 18 civilians who died in rocket attacks.
After Rice’s intense diplomatic mission in the Mideast, efforts to put together a peace package now turned to the United Nations.
She said the U.S. will work to achieve a U.N. resolution on three fronts: the precise language of the U.N. resolution, working with Lebanon and Israel on the details of tough political questions and an agreement that leaves no ambiguity in the international force’s role and operations.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.