Hizbollah offers a ceasefire: Hopes of border peace flickered but died as Israel rejected a deal

HOPES of a ceasefire in south Lebanon were raised briefly again yesterday, when Hizbollah, the pro-Iranian militants, offered to stop attacking Israeli targets if Israel halted its bombardment.

But a special session of the Israeli cabinet swiftly rejected the terms of the offer, insisting, once again, that there could be no let- up in the Israeli action until Hizbollah first ceased its rocket fire. Throughout the past six days, Israeli shelling of towns and villages in Lebanon has continued unabated, Lebanese civilians have continued to flee north to the security of Beirut, and Hizbollah has continued to fire Katyusha rockets at Israel.

As Arab states began a meeting in Damascus yesterday to press Israel for an immediate ceasefire, Israeli officials accepted that the offer from Hizbollah, the first suggestion that the group might consider a ceasefire deal, could be a 'first step' - an indication that it is beginning to 'get the message'.

The Hizbollah offer, put by Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, its secretary-general in Beirut, followed moves by Israel to persuade the US to broker a ceasefire, which have so far come to nothing. However, the Israeli cabinet unanimously decided that negotiations could only be carried out with the Lebanese government. 'The address for such talks is not Hizbollah,' said a government spokesman, Uri Dromi. Israel also demands that any ceasefire should be underpinned with a Syrian and Lebanese guarantee to end support for Hizbollah in future.

Sheikh Nasrallah's statement said that halting rocket attacks on settlements in 'occupied northern Palestine' (northern Israel) could not be achieved without an end to Israel's assault on Lebanese territory. The Islamic Resistance, Hizbollah's military wing, had been unable to stand by and watch Israeli aircraft, rockets and artillery pounding Lebanese civilians in the south, he said. 'That is why after villagers and civilians were targeted by the enemy, it has launched rockets at settlements in the occupied northern Palestine.'

Security sources said that at least four people were killed and 30 wounded in south Lebanon yesterday, bringing the toll to more than 126 people dead - mainly civilians - and 518 wounded in the past six days.

Despite international condemnation, Yitzhak Rabin, the Prime Minister, is finding continued support at home. According to a poll for the daily, Yediot Ahronot, 93 per cent of Israelis support what the government calls 'Operation Accountability' and only 7 per cent are opposed. The policy of deliberately targeting civilians has met with little concern: 62 per cent of Israelis believe the operation has been carried out with the right degree of intensity.

LONDON - Concern has been expressed by her family for the safety of an English nurse, Karen Martin, her Palestinian doctor husband, Ahmed, and their son, Tarek, aged one, who have been caught up in the bombardment of Tyre where they went on holiday a fortnight ago.

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