Wednesday, July 19, 2006

U.S. Appears to Be Waiting to Act on Israeli Airstrikes

The New York Times

July 19, 2006
U.S. Appears to Be Waiting to Act on Israeli Airstrikes

WASHINGTON, July 18 — The outlines of an American-Israeli consensus began to emerge on Tuesday in which Israel would continue to bombard Lebanon for about another week to degrade the capabilities of the Hezbollah militia, officials of the two countries said.

Then, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would go to the region and seek to establish a buffer zone in southern Lebanon and perhaps an international force to monitor Lebanon’s borders to prevent Hezbollah from obtaining more rockets with which to bombard Israel.

American officials signaled that Ms. Rice was waiting at least a few more days before wading into the conflict, in part to give Israel more time to weaken Hezbollah forces.

The strategy carries risk, partly because it remains unclear just how long the rest of the world, particularly America’s Arab allies, will continue to stay silent as the toll on Lebanese civilians rises.

On Tuesday, the seventh day of the face-off, Israeli warplanes battered more targets in Lebanon, killing 30 people, including 11 members of the Lebanese Army, when bombs hit their barracks east of Beirut. Four of the dead were officers, and 30 more soldiers were wounded.

In southern Lebanon, nine members of a single family were killed and four wounded in an Israeli airstrike on their house in the village of Aitaroun, near the Israeli border.

Some 500,000 Lebanese have fled their homes to escape the violence, the United Nations estimated.

Hezbollah rockets again hit Israel’s port city of Haifa and Nahariya, a coastal town just south of the border, where one man died and several were wounded, one critically. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis continued to spend their time in shelters, and Haifa was largely shut down, with only grocery stores and pharmacies open. More than 130 rockets were fired, Israeli officials said.

American officials said Washington was discussing with its Arab allies and Israel how to beef up Lebanon’s borders, a central Israeli demand. Israel has been lukewarm to the idea of an international force in Lebanon, but is willing to consider such a deployment if it includes troops from major powers and is used to prevent Hezbollah from supplementing its arsenal.

On Tuesday, Israel said it blew up six more long-range rockets that it said were being transported by road into Lebanon from Syria.

American and Israeli officials are also contemplating a 12-mile buffer zone in southern Lebanon to keep Hezbollah away from the Israeli border. While disarming Hezbollah entirely remains Israel’s goal, it is no longer demanding that as a condition of a cease-fire, officials said.

Israeli airplanes have been pounding Hezbollah targets, in particular the two dozen or so long-range rockets in the militant group’s arsenal believed to be capable of hitting Tel Aviv.

Israel had made clear that it does not want Ms. Rice to begin a peacemaking effort yet, and the Bush administration has, for the time being, gone along with an Israeli request for more latitude. President Bush and American officials have resisted joining other world leaders in calling for an immediate cease-fire, reflecting the Israeli view that reaching a truce before destroying a significant number of Hezbollah’s missiles would open Israel up to the possibility of more attacks.

President Bush, as he has repeatedly, said Tuesday that Israel must be allowed to defend itself. “Everybody abhors the loss of innocent life,” he said, speaking at the White House before a meeting with Congressional members. “On the other hand, what we recognize is that the root cause of the problem is Hezbollah.”

“Some people are uncomfortable with the American position, and we’re very careful how we talk about it,” a senior American official said yesterday. “We are not going to be wagering with the lives of innocent people here,” he said, adding that privately, Bush administration officials are telling the Israelis that there is a limit to how much more time the United States will be able to give Israel. He spoke on condition of anonymity under normal diplomatic rules.

Beyond the desire to give Israel time to weaken Hezbollah militarily, administration officials said Ms. Rice should not go to the region until she can actually produce results. Israel, which is trying to destroy the military capacity of Hezbollah and secure the release of two captured soldiers, said it is targeting only Hezbollah and not the Lebanese Army, although attacks on Monday and Tuesday killed 19 Lebanese soldiers.

Again on Tuesday, cities and towns in southern Lebanon and the densely packed slums at the southern edge of Beirut that are Hezbollah’s stronghold bore the brunt of the barrage. While the Israelis say they have carefully targeted 1,000 sites thus far, the attacks seem to have spread almost randomly across the country.

A cement truck near Jbeil, also known as the ancient city of Byblos, up the coastline in Christian territory, was hit on Tuesday. The Israeli military said the vehicle was suspected of carrying weapons.

The Lebanese prime minister, Fouad Siniora, criticized the world for not stopping the Israeli offensive. “The international community is not doing all that is can in order to stop Israel continuing its aggression against Lebanon,” Mr. Siniora said in an interview in his Beirut office. “They are stopping short of exercising the necessary pressure on Israel while Israel is taking this as a green light.”

In other comments, he accused Israel of “committing massacres against Lebanese civilians and working to destroy everything that allows Lebanon to stay alive.”

As the bombs and rockets fell, diplomats and officials continued to debate the effectiveness of any new international force that could patrol the border and help Lebanon implement United Nations Security Council resolutions that call for Hezbollah to be disarmed and for the Lebanese government to extend its authority over the whole country.

A team sent by United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan met in Jerusalem on Tuesday with senior Israeli officials, including the foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, and top aides to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Mr. Olmert dropped in at the end of their meeting to explain the Israeli position, Israeli officials said, underlining his skepticism about how any new force might work.

Mr. Olmert, in a televised speech to Parliament on Monday night, said that Israel would continue fighting until its soldiers were free, the Lebanese Army was deployed along the border and Hezbollah was effectively disarmed in line with Security Council Resolution 1559. Hezbollah has consistently rejected those terms.

In the last seven days, the Israelis have carried out about 2,000 sorties by warplanes and attack helicopters and hit 650 targets, the Israeli Army said.

After meeting the United Nations envoys, Ms. Livni said Israel would insist that any settlement include provisions to ensure that Iran and Syria cannot rearm Hezbollah, perhaps through some form of international monitoring at the Syrian border and the Beirut airport. Israel has bombed the airport and routes from Syria, and has put a sea blockade on Lebanese ports.

Ms. Livni said that any settlement must “end the Iranian and Syrian control over Lebanese and Israeli lives” and repeated Israel’s demand that its three captured soldiers — two by Hezbollah and one by Hamas and other militants in Gaza — be released “immediately and without conditions.”

Mr. Annan said in Brussels that any force must have a different set of instructions from the current, toothless United Nations force, known as Unifil, still in southern Lebanon. “It is urgent that the international community acts to make a difference on the ground,” Mr. Annan said.

Giora Eiland, until recently Israel’s national security adviser, said an international force is not in Israel’s interest if it acts just as a buffer. It can only be effective, he said, “if the other side does not want any provocation and wants to maintain quiet” and “if there’s a credible address on the other side” with control over Lebanon.

Israel should, he said, insist that any international force “make it possible for Lebanon to do what it has to do and not be a buffer between us and them, which would reduce the Lebanese government’s responsibility.”

Gholam Ali Hadad-Adel, the president of the Iranian Parliament, told a rally in Tehran on Tuesday that Israelis should “flee occupied Palestine.” He called Israel “this filthy tumor” that “lies in the body of the Islamic world,” and he warned the United States that as long as Israel exists, “Muslims will not stop hating America.”

In other attacks in Lebanon on Tuesday, a convoy of medical goods donated by the United Arab Emirates was hit in the Bekaa region near Zahle, a mostly Christian town on one of the few open roads linking Syria and Beirut. Two trucks were destroyed and their drivers killed.

The evacuation of foreigners continued for a second day as a ferry chartered by the French government carrying over 1,200 people reached Cyprus. The American Embassy began airlifting its citizens by helicopter, with some 320 Americans scheduled to leave by the end of the day, and another 1,000 on Wednesday. About 8,000 Americans are registered with the embassy but there are an estimated 25,000 Americans or dual nationals living in Lebanon. Britain sent six ships to the region.

In the interview, Mr. Siniora, the Lebanese prime minister, said that he favored a release of the two Israeli soldiers. But he coupled that call with other requirements.

Any solution to the crisis, he said, should include Israel’s withdrawal from the disputed Shebaa Farms area of the border, the release of Lebanese detainees in Israeli jails and a return to the terms of the 1949 armistice between the two countries.

He suggested the Lebanese Army would move to southern Lebanon once these conditions were met. He backed the idea of a more robust international force, but only after “all the issues” were put on the table, and he stopped short of condemning Hezbollah for inviting the Israeli attacks on the rest of the country.

Meanwhile, Beirut settled into its first week of violence and conflict. Many shops, banks and stores opened for a few hours in the morning, but closed much earlier than usual. The city streets were calm, with little traffic.

In the newly rebuilt city center, where thousands of tourists and Lebanese usually gather at the end of the day to smoke a water pipe, meet for a drink before dinner, or take the children for a walk, there were only private security guards and soldiers. Beirut’s luxury stores, famous throughout the region, were shut.

Helene Cooper reported from Washington for this article, and Steven Erlanger from Jerusalem. Greg Myre contributed reporting from Haifa, Israel, and Jad Mouawad from Beirut, Lebanon.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company