Israel maintains assault but leaves door ajar to ceasefire

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The Independent Online

Israel yesterday appeared determined to maintain its onslaught on Lebanon while leaving the door ajar to an eventual ceasefire and the possible deployment of an international force in the south of the country.

While Tzipi Livni, the Israeli Foreign Minister, hinted that Israel would not rule out such a force after after meeting a UN delegation, Ehud Olmert, the Prime Minister suggested that it was "too early".

The mixed signals, with Ms Livni herself saying that the resumed diplomatic contacts would not "shorten" the aerial attacks, which continued unabated yesterday, suggested that Israel believes the wide international licence granted to its air sea and artillery assault on Lebanon may last little more than the coming week.

Lebanese officials reported that at least 13 civilians, all members of two families, and 14 soldiers had been killed in a series of Israeli air strikes yesterday, bringing the Lebanese death toll to at least 220 since the operation began a week ago. Most of them, the officials said, were civilians.

As US President George Bush said that Syria ­ which he blames, along with Iran, for supporting Hizbollah ­ was now "trying to get back" into Lebanon, Dan Gillerman, Israel's Ambassador to the UN, said that the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would travel to the Middle East on Friday.

Israeli analysts have been suggesting since the weekend that the war is most likely to end with a ceasefire under which, rather than eliminating Hizbollah altogether, it is pushed behind a buffer zone which would prevent it from firing rockets at Israel.

Mr Olmert also insisted that the operation would not end until the two soldiers were released and one senior military commander was reported as saying its completion could take "weeks." But the mass circulation daily Yedhiot Ahronot last night reported that Dan Halutz, the Israel Defence Forces' chief of staff had ordered the Air Force to destroy all Hizbollah positions on the northern border by Saturday.

The developments came after publication of an Israeli poll showing overwhelming public support for the bombardment and blockade despite Israel's own losses. Asked if the war was "the right thing to do" in the Yedhiot Ahronot poll, 86 per cent said "yes" with only 14 per cent saying it was a "mistake". The survey also showed that 24 per cent thought Mr Olmert's conduct of the war to be "very good" with 44 per cent describing it as "good enough"; 58 per cent of respondents said Israel should go on fighting "until Hizbollah is wiped out".

As Israel kept up its bombardment of the Shia suburban suburbs of Beirut, and of southern Lebanon, seven civilians, all from one family and including children, were killed and four wounded during an air strike that destroyed a house in the south Lebanese village of Aitaroun.

At least 80 rockets were fired across northern Israel yesterday including at the rail depot in Haifa where eight people died on Sunday. There were no injuries.

Israeli tanks began moving into the Mughazi refugee camp in central Gaza last night under cover of machine gun fire from troops. The Israeli military confirmed that an operation was in progress.

The camp is near the Gaza-Israel fence across from the Palestinian town of Deir al-Balah. The incursion was preceded by several hours of tank movements on the Israeli side, as well as exchanges of fire between soldiers and Palestinian gunmen. No casualties were reported.