UK calls Israeli attacks 'disproportionate'

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The Independent Online

The British Foreign Office ministe Kim Howells yesterday stood by his criticisms of the 12-day bombardment of Lebanon with a warning that Israel had to win the "political battle" as well as confronting Hizbollah militarily.

Mr Howells, whose weekend remarks in Beirut and here yesterday appeared to reflect an emerging difference - at the very least in tone - between the UK and US governments over Israel's conduct of the war, repeated that Israel had to "think very hard" about the loss of civilian life and the impact on Lebanon's infrastructure. The minister was speaking after touring the main Rambam hospital in Haifa where two men - including an Arab carpentry worker - were killed yesterday in repeated volleys of around 80 Katyusha rockets which Hizbollah fired throughout the day on northern Israel.

Asked if he was saying that that Israel's bombardment, which has taken over 370 lives, was not "proportionate and restrained", Mr Howells said: "Yes, I believe that is the view of the British government. We defend all the all the way down the line Israel's right to defend its citizens, cities and communities against Hizbollah, a ruthless enemy, but there is also a politicial battle to be won, and they have got to show proprtionality."

Mr Howells said that Israel knew that "it's not enough to see a military victory. It has to win a wider politicial battles as well." That meant it had to consider the consqeunces of its conduct in Lebanon "including the children that are dying". In an earlier interview with Sky News he repeated that he hoped the US was aware of the impact of the bombardment of Lebanon and repeated that it did not consist of " surgical strikes."

But on the eve of a preliminary visit to Jerusalem today by the US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, Mr Howells stopped short of calling for an immediate ceasefire. Israeli officials confirmed the government believes that it has informal approval from the Bush admininstration to continue its assault on Lebanon - both from the air and in a series of ground incursions across the border - for at least another week.

After visiting Israel Ms Rice will fly to Rome for meetings with delegates from the UN and from Arab states and to an international conference in Malaysia before returning to Israel next week. Reportedly high on the agenda on her round of diplomacy this week will be the difficult task of assembling some form of putative multinational force to secure the border areas in southern Lebanon after any ceasefire, if one is negotiated.

Mr Howells said yesterday that he doubted that the UK - heavily stretched as it is in Afghanistan as well as Iraq - would contrbute to any such force, and emphasised that such a force would need the assent of the Lebanese government and not be a "post-colonialist" military force imposed on the Lebanese people.

Habib Awad, 48, the Arab Israeli who was killed in yesterday's Katyusha attack was the third Arab - out of a total of 17 Israeli citizens - to die in rocket attacks. He was just outside the secure room of the carpentry shop where he had worked for 20 years when the rocket struck. Another Haifa man was killed by shrapnel as he drove his car along a main road.

Mr Howells' criticisms drew a sharp rebuke from Israel yesterday. Mark Regev, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said: "Under very difficult circumstances, Israel is being as surgical as is possible. We are trying to neutralise a very formidable military machine. We put time and effort into urging civilians to vacate the areas of the fighting because we don't want to see civilian casualties. But on the other hand, the Hizbollah military infrastructure continues to bombard Israeli cities with missile after missile. We have to act to neutralise that threat."

The spokesman rejected United Nations claims that its offensive threatened a humanitarian disaster. "We are working closely with the international community to try to facilitate the delivery of medicines and foods and to allow foreign nationals to leave. The Lebanese people are not our enemies. We are working together with the international community to facilitate humanitarian support in this crisis."

Israel seemed to be softening its opposition to an international force in Southern Lebanon, so long as it had a mandate and the necessary teeth to implement Security Council resolution 1559, which calls for disarming Hizbollah and the stationing of Lebanese army troops in the border zone.

Amir Peretz, the Defence Minister, said: " Israel's goal is to see the Lebanese army deployed along the border with Israel, but we understand that we are talking about a weak army and that in the mid-term period Israel will have to accept a multinational force." He added that such a force should also act to prevent the smuggling of weapons from Syria into Lebanon.

Israeli forces captured two Hizbollah fighters yesterday during a battle in southern Lebanon, Israeli military officials said. The two men were the first prisoners Israeli forces had taken since the current offensive began.

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