Israel agrees to put new offensive on hold until weekend

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Israel has put plans for a new ground offensive in Lebanon on hold until the weekend to give a chance to ceasefire efforts, senior government officials said today, a day after Israel's Security Cabinet approved a major expansion of the month-long war.

However, prospects for a quick ceasefire resolution by the UN Security Council are uncertain, with the United States and France still divided over a timetable for an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. France wants Israel to pull out once hostilities end, while the United States backs Israel's insistence on staying in southern Lebanon until a strong international force is deployed, which could take weeks or months.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is ready to wait with the offensive until the weekend, said a senior government official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss the issue with reporters. The offensive could begin earlier if Hezbollah launches a major attack on Israel, the official said.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah threatened new rocket barrages, urging Arab residents of Israel's port city of Haifa in a televised speech yesterday evening to leave their homes for safer areas.

Cabinet minister Rafi Eitan confirmed the govenment's decision to wait. "There are diplomatic considerations," he told Israel Radio, when asked about a planned delay. "There is still a chance that an international force will arrive in the area. We have no interest in being in south Lebanon. We have an interest in peace on our borders."

On Wednesday, Israel's Security Cabinet approved the deeper push into Lebanon, with nine ministers in favor and three abstaining. During the tense six-hour meeting, ministers received updates on rising Israeli military casualties in Lebanon. In all, 15 Israeli reserve soldiers were killed Wednesday, the highest daily number so far in the monthlong war. Nine of the soldiers died when an anti-tank missile hit a house in a south Lebanon village.

The decision to expand the war was accompanied by growing criticism of the military and concern about rising casualties. The Israeli death toll stood at 118, including 36 civilians and 82 soldiers. On the Lebanese side, 711 people have been killed.

Critics said the army has failed to make a dent in Hezbollah's ability to fire rockets at Israel — the guerrillas fired 170 on Wednesday, for a war total of more than 3,500 — and that pushing deeper into Lebanon would not stop such attacks since longer-range rockets can still reach Israel.

The Israeli daily Haaretz reported an angry exchange between Defense Minister Amir Peretz and his predecessor, Shaul Mofaz, in the Security Cabinet meeting. When Mofaz criticized the planned new offensive, Peretz reportedly shot back: "Where were you when Hezbollah built up this array (of weapons)?"

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called during the meeting, officials said, and Olmert told ministers after his half-hour conversation with Rice that the offensive would be accompanied by a new diplomatic push.

Under the army plan, Israeli forces would move to the Litani River, some 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the Israel-Lebanon border. At the moment, more than 10,000 troops are engaged in house-to-house battles against Hezbollah fighters in a strip less than half that size.

Even in the current war zone, Israeli troops have had trouble taking control of towns and villages. Security officials say the guerrillas' bunkers, well equipped with food, weapons and electricity, are a reason for Hezbollah's stamina. At times of lull, the Hezbollah gunmen emerge from the bunkers and set up new ambushes for troops.

On Thursday, troops backed by tanks and armored vehicles took up positions on the outskirts of the Christian town of Marjayoun in south Lebanon, about nine kilometers (six miles) from the border. Troops met no resistance. Soldiers also moved to a nearby strategic hill overlooking the Litani River Valley, witnesses said. Heavy battles were reported in south Lebanese villages across from Israel's Galilee panhandle, hard hit by rockets.

Israel hopes an expanded offensive will force Hezbollah guerrillas out of their strongholds across southern Lebanon. The offensive is expected to last a month and eliminate 70 to 80 percent of Hezbollah's short-range rocket launchers, but not its long-range launchers, senior military officials said.

However, Trade Minister Eli Yishai, who abstained in Wednesday's vote, said the assessment is too optimistic. "I think it will take a lot longer," he said.

The offensive would leave Israel once again in control of a security zone that it evacuated six years ago after a bloody 18-year occupation.

Danny Yatom, a senior member of Peretz' Labor Party and a general in the reserves, said moving deeper into Lebanon was pointless. "We are banging our head against the wall," he told Israel TV's Channel One. "And even if we reach the Litani, the Katyushas (rockets) won't stop.

The economic cost was also rising. Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson said the war has cost Israel some US$1.6 billion so far. The finance minister said he will ask the government to cut US$650 million from the 2006 state budget to help pay for the war. Israel's total budget for 2006 is US$56 billion.

The prospect of a wider war would put tremendous pressure on the United Nations to rapidly agree on a ceasefire. The fighting has caused widespread destruction across southern Lebanon and forced hundreds of thousands of Israelis into bomb shelters.

However, France and the U.S. remained divided over a proposed truce resolution, particularly at whether Israeli troops would be able to stay in south Lebanon until they can hand over to a multinational force.

French President Jacques Chirac appealed for rapid agreement. "The most immoral of solutions would be to accept the current situation and give up on an immediate ceasefire," he said.

In a televised speech Wednesday night, Nasrallah, the Hezbollah chief, rejected as "unfair and unjust" a draft UN resolution that would temporarily let Israeli troops remain in south Lebanon and take defensive action.

"It has given Israel more than it wanted and more than it was looking for," he said.

Before the new offensive even got off the ground, fighting intensified Wednesday in the border strip Israeli soldiers are already occupying.

The army said it killed more than 50 Hezbollah fighters, but declined comment on an Israeli TV report that Iranian Revolutionary Guard soldiers were among the Hezbollah dead. Israel charges that Iran is aiding Hezbollah on the ground as well as supplying the guerrillas with weapons. Iran has denied the charges.

Hezbollah claimed three of its fighters were killed. Israeli attacks Wednesday killed eight Lebanese civilians, according to Lebanese officials.

Israeli warplanes dropped leaflets over the southern port city of Tyre and over Beirut proper for the first time. The fliers criticized Nasrallah, saying he was "playing with fire" and that the Lebanese people were "paying the price."

The Israeli government's decision came two days after Lebanon offered to send 15,000 soldiers to patrol the border region, a key Israeli demand intended to prevent future attacks on Israel. The current fighting began when Hezbollah fighters raided Israel July 12, killed three soldiers and captured two others.

In a major shift, Nasrallah said Hezbollah supported an army deployment, after a ceasefire is declared and Israel leaves.

Israeli officials remained skeptical of the Lebanese offer and were not convinced Lebanon's army would take concrete action to stop future Hezbollah attacks.

"It is important that the Lebanese army will be accompanied by an international force that will enable it to reach the south in an organized manner, and to leave the place clean of Hezbollah," Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said.