Israel Rejects Peace Offer

Hezbollah signs on to Lebanon's proposal for a cease-fire and prisoner swap, but disarmament is not included. The pace of diplomacy quickens.

By Rone Tempest and Laura King

Los Angeles Times

July 29, 2006

BEIRUT — After more than two weeks of fierce fighting between Israeli forces and Hezbollah guerrillas, leaders from the Middle East to Washington and the United Nations signaled a sense of urgency Friday to end the conflict.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice returns to the region today for the second round of diplomacy in a week. In the hours before her arrival, Hezbollah political leaders here reversed course and agreed to join a Lebanese government proposal aimed at stopping the fighting in the country's south.

Israel dismissed Hezbollah's offer as disingenuous and said it was an indication of the guerrillas' weakness on the battlefield. But the Shiite Muslim militia's willingness to participate in the initiative shows a flexibility to negotiate not previously evident as the fighting raged in southern Lebanon.

As diplomacy appeared to gain pace Friday, President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, meeting at the White House, announced that they would push for a United Nations resolution next week to send an international force to southern Lebanon. But both leaders again refused to press for a cease-fire until Hezbollah was disarmed.

At the U.N., Secretary-General Kofi Annan and other diplomats said discussions were underway on a possible temporary truce of 72 hours to allow the world body to evacuate children, the elderly and the disabled from southern Lebanon; on the formation of an international force; and on the terms of a cease-fire.

"A cease-fire in these situations will have to be negotiated. I called for cessation of hostilities, which, hopefully, will lead to cease-fire," Annan said, noting that a temporary truce was necessary both for humanitarian work and to bring in any international force.

Annan and the U.N. humanitarian chief, Jan Egeland, expressed impatience over the international community's inability to agree more quickly on a strategy to stop the fighting.

"Many battles are being fought on the soil of Lebanon and some have absolutely nothing to do with Lebanon," Annan said.

The Lebanese government has proposed a seven-point peace plan, now endorsed by Hezbollah, but it is unlikely to satisfy Israeli or U.S. officials.

"We'd take anything that Hezbollah says with a grain of salt," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said. Referring to international talks this week in Rome, he added, "If they say they are on board with what was presented in Rome by the Lebanese government, I think they are being disingenuous."

The plan does not call for the multinational force favored by the Bush administration. Instead, it recommends beefing up the existing but largely ineffective 2,000-member U.N. force already in place in the south.

The Lebanese proposal, which seeks an immediate cease-fire, also does not directly address the issue of Hezbollah's disarmament, which Israel, the United States and Britain consider essential to any agreement. It offers to exchange two Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah in a cross-border raid July 12 for three Lebanese prisoners held by Israel.

Prime Minister Fuad Siniora presented virtually the same plan at the talks in Rome but without the support of the two main Lebanese Shiite political parties, Hezbollah and Amal.

The two groups came on board late Thursday night after a marathon Cabinet meeting chaired by Siniora. Two government ministers representing Hezbollah and three from Amal agreed to add their support despite reservations about the nature and scope of the U.N. peacekeeping force.

"We had some relatively small disagreements over details about the mandate of the international force, but we agreed in principle," said Tarrad Hamadeh, Lebanon's labor minister and a Hezbollah supporter.

Ghaleb Abu Zeinab, a member of the Hezbollah politburo, said in an interview that the group's leaders decided to take the step after showing that its militia could hold its own on the battlefield despite an intense air and ground campaign by Israeli forces.

"The Israeli enemy has not accomplished its aims, so now is the time to find a way out of the impasse," Abu Zeinab said. "The continued bombing doesn't get them [Israel] anywhere; it is essential to move to the political stage."

Israel's Regev took the opposite view.

"Obviously the fighting is very difficult, and we have taken some casualties," he said. "However, this is a sign that Hezbollah doesn't feel it has the upper hand in this conflict, and that our strategy is putting pressure on them. I think it's a sign that our strategy is on track."

Israeli forces continued Friday to pound Lebanon with heavy bombing. Israel also reported that an attack Thursday on what it called a Hezbollah base in the Bekaa Valley had killed Nur Shalhoub, whom it identified as a senior Hezbollah official. The group did not immediately comment on the claim.

Israeli troops and Hezbollah guerrillas continued to clash in and near the town of Bint Jbeil, a Hezbollah stronghold in the southern Lebanon border area. Both sides took casualties in what the Israeli army described as heavy exchanges of fire over a period of hours. The army said that more than 20 Hezbollah fighters were killed and an unspecified number of Israeli soldiers injured.

On Wednesday, nine Israeli soldiers were killed in and near the town, Israel's highest one-day military loss since the offensive began.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah announced that it had used a new rocket to strike the northern Israeli town of Afula. The rocket, the Khaibar 1, is named after a famed 7th century battle between prophet Muhammad and Jewish tribes in the Arabian peninsula. Hezbollah rockets had hit near the town before, but Friday's attack was the deepest yet.

Israeli police said seven rockets hit outside Afula but caused no injuries.

The strike came three days after Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, vowed that his guerrillas would fire rockets beyond Haifa, Israel's third-largest city, which has been hit repeatedly in the conflict.

Israeli authorities said the rocket probably was a renamed Fajr 5, an Iranian-made weapon with a 45-mile range that could reach the northern outskirts of Tel Aviv. It would be the first time Hezbollah, which has fired hundreds of smaller Katyusha rockets into northern Israel, has launched a Fajr 5.

Hezbollah guerrillas also fired more than 100 smaller rockets at several northern towns, the Israeli army said. One rocket hit the top-floor window of the main hospital in the border town of Nahariya. No casualties were reported.

When Rice arrives in Jerusalem, she is expected to meet with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and possibly Defense Minister Amir Peretz. The group will discuss political and security issues for Lebanon and consider such questions as "What is required to end the violence?" said a U.S. official traveling with the secretary, speaking on condition of anonymity.

He said that potential sticking points included Israel's desire for commitments aimed at preventing new attacks on its territory, and Lebanon's insistence on assurances on its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Lebanon, for example, has always insisted that a disputed area known as Shebaa Farms, at the border of Israel, Syria and Lebanon, be turned over to its control.

Since the fighting began this month, 400 to 600 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in Lebanon. Israel's casualties include 19 civilians and 33 soldiers.

With Lebanese bridges and roads badly damaged by Israeli airstrikes, the war has resulted in thousands of civilians trapped in the battle zone, including an estimated 20,000 children. On Friday, the International Committee of the Red Cross called for $81 million in aid for victims in the fighting.

"In southern Lebanon, the No. 1 issue today is ensuring the safety of civilians and securing safe access for those engaged in medical and other humanitarian activities," said Pierre Kraehenbuehl, director of operations for the Red Cross.

At the United Nations, humanitarian coordinator Egeland was blunt in his criticism of the civilian casualties. "There is something fundamentally wrong when there are more dead children than armed men," he said.

Egeland pressed for at least a short-term truce "so that those who want to escape can escape…. This can be done in the spirit that children have nothing to do with this conflict and firing should stop at least until this is solved."

He said the U.N. also was prepared to evacuate the wounded, the elderly and the disabled, and move in supplies for hospitals and additional food and fuel for public buildings.

The U.N. also would try to put in place some limited communications for villages cut off because the roads and telephone lines have been bombed in the Israeli offensive against Hezbollah.

Secretary-General Annan said he had called a meeting early next week of countries that might contribute troops to an international force to help stabilize the country. Troops are an essential component of any eventual cease-fire arrangement in the region, but many countries already have military personnel in Afghanistan or Iraq as well as Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo and have been slow to commit. The U.S. has said it will not contribute troops.

The European Union will meet Tuesday in Brussels to discuss troop contributions, said Emyr Jones Parry, the British ambassador to the U.N. That will be followed by a meeting of foreign ministers later in the week to discuss the broader cease-fire issues.

*


Tempest reported from Beirut and King from Jerusalem. Times staff writers Alissa J. Rubin at the United Nations, Peter Wallsten in Washington and Paul Richter in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.