Israeli forces prepare to enlarge occupation zone: There is no excuse for the week's bombardment, the UN commander tells Robert Fisk in ruined Qlaile

WITH its air and ground bombardment entering its seventh day, Israel has now positioned a total of 27 Merkava battle tanks supported by a battalion of infantry inside southern Lebanon in preparation for a possible advance north that would enlarge its occupation zone to include at least four more villages.

United Nations and Lebanese army officers suspect that the Israelis may try to take over the villages in part of the UN area of operations which is currently under the control of an Irish army battalion.

An Israeli advance could come as early as tomorrow unless Israel can secure a ceasefire though the help of the United States and Syria. But Hizbollah showed no sign of giving up its battle yesterday, firing 25 more Katyusha rockets at its enemy, only two of which landed beyond the Israeli frontier.

For their part, the Israelis maintained their attacks on the almost deserted villages of southern Lebanon throughout the day, dropping cluster bombs near Qlaile and destroying a Finnish UN military position at Gandouriyeh, an action which prompted the third complaint against Israel in two days by the UN force's Norwegian commander, General Trond Furuhovde.

The Israeli tanks are drawn up outside the villages of Hule, Ebl es-Saqi and Khiam in the occupied zone, accompanied by 16 armoured M-113 and Centurion personnel carriers. Eight buses have brought around 500 Israeli troops into the villages, more than enough to secure a triangle of territory in the UN zone containing Majdel Silm, Khirbet Silm, Kabrika and Chakra - all villages from which guerrilla attacks have been staged against Israel's occupying army.

The sheer scale of destruction wrought by the Israeli army and air force is becoming more evident now that UN patrols are managing to reach outlying areas of the terrain. In the village of Qlaile, for example, scarcely a house remains without serious damage from shells and missiles. Of the 7,000 people who lived there, only 70 have stayed on in the ruins of their homes.

When I walked through the village yesterday afternoon, my legs became tangled in strong but immensely thin wires draped from roofs and electricity cables - the wires of the Israeli wire-guided missiles fired by jets a day earlier.

Arriving in the village, General Furuhovde was visibly shaken by the scale of the damage. 'There is no military justification for this destruction. There is no excuse,' he said. Repeating a now familiar UN litany - that restraint must be urged upon 'all sides' - the general put his arm around the shoulder of a middle-aged woman weeping beside the wreckage of her home.

The Israelis, he said, had bombed the UN Nepalese battalion headquarters from the air, fired a shell at an Irish UN position and destroyed the Finnish checkpoint at Ghandouriyeh.

'I complained through their liaison people,' General Furuhovde said. 'The Israelis came up with an excuse. They said the bombing of the Nepalese headquarters was an error.'

Expecting an extension of the Israeli offensive, most of the inhabitants of the city of Tyre have now also left their homes for Sidon and Beirut. The streets of the old Roman port were deserted yesterday as two Israeli jets flew at supersonic speed over the rooftops, breaking the sound barrier and smashing the windows of thousands of homes with their sonic booms.

Hundreds more refugees from the southern Lebanese villages are now sheltering in the bunkers of the UN's peace-keeping army in southern Lebanon, although the word 'peace-keeping' now has a more hollow sound than ever.

Fourteen elderly men, women and children are sleeping in a small stone shelter belonging to the UN's Fijian contingent outside Qlaile.

'We are still near enough to our homes to be able to go back,' one of the women shouted angrily at reporters yesterday. 'We won't leave our land. But why doesn't the United Nations protect our homes?'

When I asked General Furuhovde for the answer to this question, he replied: 'Your question is very complex, extremely complex.' But he did not elucidate.

The truth is that the UN is now starting to perform much the same function as the UN force in former Yugoslavia. Yesterday, they were preparing to drive a convoy of trucks containing food and medicine through the Israeli shellfire for villagers who are trying to stay on in their homes.

Where, one could not help asking oneself, had one seen this phenomenon before?

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