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Israel steps up attacks after cease-fire deal

Israel stepped up its airstrikes on Lebanon early Saturday, killing at least 15 civilians, not long after the U.N. Security Council voted on a resolution to halt the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas.
UN Agrees To Send Peacekeepers To Lebanon
Right to left, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan watches as French Foreign Minister Phillippe Douste-Blazy and Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Muller raise their hands to vote Friday at U.N. headquarters in New York City approving the Lebanon cease-fire resolution.Stephen Chernin / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Israel stepped up its airstrikes on Lebanon early Saturday, killing at least 15 civilians, not long after the U.N. Security Council voted on a resolution to halt the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas.

On Friday, the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution that calls for an end to the war between Israel and Hezbollah, and authorizes 15,000 U.N. peacekeepers to help Lebanese troops take control of south Lebanon as Israel withdraws.

The resolution offers the best chance yet for peace after more than four weeks of fighting that has killed more than 800 people, destroyed Lebanon’s infrastructure, displaced hundreds of thousands of people and inflamed tensions across the Middle East. Drafted by France and the U.S., it was adopted unanimously.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert endorsed the resolution late Friday, after a day of brinksmanship including a threat to expand the ground war. Lebanon’s Cabinet was to consider the draft on Saturday, but Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the Lebanese government assured her that it supported the text.

The next point of contention will be when to implement the cessation of hostilities. Israel said its campaign would continue until Sunday, when its Cabinet will meet to endorse the resolution. Long columns of Israeli tanks, troops and armored personnel carriers streamed over the border early Saturday.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he planned to meet Lebanese and Israeli officials as soon as possible to determine the exact date of a cease-fire.

Fighting continues
The attack Saturday that killed 15 struck several homes in the village of Rachaf, about 10 miles from the Israeli border, said Lebanese officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Warplanes also fired near Lebanon’s northern border with Syria, severing access to the Arida crossing — the last escape route for besieged Lebanese and for humanitarian aid entering the country from Syria. The United Nations has a depot for relief supplies at the site.

Israeli jets targeted the highway linking Arida with the northern city of Tripoli, the officials said. The highway was heavily damaged in Qleiaat, blocking the passage to and from Arida. The crossing remained open, and vehicles were driving off-road to reach the crossing point.

A bridge near another northern border crossing, Abboudiyeh, was struck Friday, killing at least 12 people, hospital and security officials said. Lebanon’s largest checkpoint to Syria — Masnaa, in the eastern Bekaa Valley — has been closed since July 29, after repeated airstrikes there.

Israel has said its attacks on Lebanon’s roads and bridges sought to halt the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah. But the strikes on Lebanon’s infrastructure have also slowed the flow of humanitarian aid, fuel and food to civilians throughout the country.

There are still believed to be many illegal paths used to cross between Lebanon and Syria.

Speaking after the cease-fire vote, Rice said the “hard work of diplomacy” was only beginning with the passage of the resolution and that it would be unrealistic to expect an immediate end to all violence. She said the United States would increase its assistance to Lebanon to $50 million, and demanded other nations stop interfering in its affairs.

“Today we call upon every state, especially Iran and Syria, to respect the sovereignty of the Lebanese government and the will of the international community,” Rice told the council. Iran and Syria back Hezbollah and supply it rockets and other weapons.

“We will now end to work very hard,” Rice told reporters afterward. “This is a first step but it is a good first step.”

Questions linger
With tough language in remarks before the vote, Annan said hundreds of millions of people around the world shared his frustration that the council had taken so long to act. That inaction has “badly shaken the world’s faith in its authority and integrity,” he said.

“I would be remiss if I did not tell you how profoundly disappointed I am that the council did not reach this point much, much earlier,” he said.

The Security Council resolution leaves out several key demands from both Israel and Lebanon in efforts to come up with a workable arrangement.

Despite Lebanese objections, Israel will be allowed to continue defensive operations — a term that Arab diplomats fear the Israeli military will interpret widely. A dispute over the Chebaa Farms area along the Syria-Lebanon-Israel border will be left for later; and Israel won’t get its wish for an entirely new multinational force separate from the U.N. peacekeepers that have been stationed in south Lebanon since 1978.

Lebanese remain skeptical
Lebanon’s acting foreign minister, Tarek Mitri, suggested that his nation would accept the resolution though he said its call for a cessation of fighting could not be implemented. He criticized it for allowing Israel to continue some operations.

“A cease-fire that by its terms cannot be implemented is no cease-fire,” Mitri said. “A cease-fire that retains the right for one side the right not to cease firing is not a cease-fire.”

There is also no call for the release of Lebanese prisoners held by Israel or a demand for the immediate withdrawal of Israeli troops. Although the draft resolution emphasizes the need for the “unconditional release” of the two Israeli soldiers whose July 12 capture by Hezbollah sparked the conflict, that call is not included in the list of steps required for a lasting cease-fire.

Diplomats said the negotiators’ main goal had been to come up with a draft that spells out a lasting political solution to the hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah along the Israel-Lebanon border. The standoff has bedeviled the region for more than two decades.

“You never get a deal like this with everybody getting everything that they want,” Britain’s Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said. “The question is, has everybody got enough for this to stick and for it to be enforceable? Nobody wants to go back to where we were before this last episode started.”

Deal calls for 15,000 peacekeepers
At the heart of the resolution are two elements: It seeks an immediate halt to the fighting that began July 12 when Hezbollah militants kidnapped two Israeli troops along the Blue Line, the U.N.-demarcated border separating Israel; and it spells out a series of steps that would lead to a permanent cease-fire and long-term solution.

That would be done by creating a new buffer zone in south Lebanon “free of any armed personnel, assets and weapons other than those of the government of Lebanon and UNIFIL” — the acronym of the U.N. force deployed in the region since 1978. The force now has 2,000 troops; the resolution would expand it to a maximum of 15,000.

South Lebanon had been under de facto control of Hezbollah, a Shiite militia, for several years until Israeli forces occupied parts of it after the start of the fighting last month. The political solution would include implementation of previous Security Council resolutions calling for Hezbollah’s disarmament.

Under the resolution, UNIFIL would be significantly beefed up to help coordinate when 15,000 Lebanese troops deploy to the region. As Lebanese forces take control of the south, Israeli troops would withdraw “in parallel.”

Other resolutions may follow
Israel is chiefly concerned that Hezbollah not be allowed to regain its strength in south Lebanon once a cessation of hostilities goes into effect. It had originally demanded the creation of a new multinational force separate from UNIFIL, which it claimed was powerless.

Several diplomats said UNIFIL would essentially become so strong that it will not resemble the weaker force it once was.

The resolution gives Annan one week to report back on how well it has been implemented. The council leaves open the possibility of another resolution to further enhance UNIFIL’s mandate and other steps to achieve a permanent cease-fire.

The draft also asks Annan to come up with proposals within 30 days on resolving various border disputes including the one over Chebaa Farms. Lebanon had wanted a direct demand in the draft that Chebaa Farms be put under U.N. control.

Friday’s tumultuous events began with a decision by Olmert, after consultations with his defense minister, to send troops deeper into Hezbollah territory. Still, that order was coupled with signals from Israel that it could halt the offensive if a cease-fire arrangement met its demands, particularly for a strong multinational force.

Diplomats at the U.N. said the adoption of the resolution must spur them to solve the wider conflict in the Middle East, particularly between Israel and the Palestinians. The Lebanon war has overshadowed the turmoil there, caused by the capture of an Israeli soldier on June 25.

Qatar’s Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassem Al Thani said that in the coming days Arab states would submit formal requests for a Security Council meeting in September to hammer out a new regional peace plan.