The bitter emotions of the Middle East spilled into the normally restrained chamber of the United Nations Security Council last night, as representatives from Lebanon and the Arab League expressed dismay at Israel's ongoing military operations, and voiced their deep distrust of details of a draft ceasefire resolution.
"I'm not quite sure what purpose this meeting served," Dan Gillerman, the Israeli ambassador to the UN, said immediately after a special session of the Security Council, where he found himself verbally battered in a highly unusual back-and-forth with representatives from Qatar and Lebanon. The poisoned atmosphere in the chamber highlighted the difficulties facing diplomats in New York as they battled to save the Security Council's efforts to adopt a ceasefire resolution, drafted jointly by France and the United States, that aims to halt the fighting between Israel and Hizbollah.
Intense, behind-closed-doors negotiations dragged into the night as the US and France struggled to answer Arab concerns about the draft, prepared earlier in the week, which asked for a ceasefire without simultaneously requiring that Israel withdraw its troops from southern Lebanon.
In the open session, the Foreign Minister of Qatar, Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani, warned of "civil war" in Lebanon unless changes to the resolution were made, and repeatedly berated Israel for its actions.
"What is happening will sow the seeds of hatred and extremism in the area and provide a pretext for those who feel the international community is taking sides and lacks fairness," he said.
The tensest exchanges were between Mr Gillerman and Lebanon's envoy, Tarek Mitri. When Israel's ambassador evoked Tyre in Biblical times to emphasise the ties between their two countries, Mr Mitri noted that Israel had " bombarded and pounded" the city without interruption. Mr Gillerman started to say that Mr Mitri's comments "bordered on..." and then added: "I won't use the word I wanted to use."
In the UN's corridors, some diplomats dared to voice optimism, however, that the US and France would find new formulas of words to insert in the ceasefire resolution, to allay at least some of the Arab world's frustration with it. In particular, they welcomed Monday's offer from the Lebanese government to deploy 15,000 soldiers in the south of the country to replace Israeli soldiers in the event of a withdrawal.
The Lebanese offer of troops was seen by some as an opportunity at least to articulate some kind of timeline in the resolution for an Israeli withdrawal.
It remained unclear whether Israel, however, would be ready to accept a scenario where its troops would be largely replaced by Lebanese soldiers, although Israel's Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, characterised the proposal as "interesting". It was likely that clearer language would also be inserted on resolving a separate quarrel over a small slice of lands called the Chebaa Farms, seized by Israel in 1967.
"There will be changes in the text on the table," a French diplomat confirmed, adding that contact was also being maintained throughout with the Israelis. There remained the hope that an amended resolution could be drafted last night, possibly in time to be presented to the Council for a vote tomorrow.
Earlier, as the Israeli army confirmed that at least three soldiers had been killed during fighting overnight in southern Lebanon, the army's chief of staff Dan Halutz took the unusual step of appointing his own deputy, General Moshe Kaplinsky, to serve as his "representative" in the Northern Command.
While the military insisted that the move would not affect the existing chain of command, some analysts interpreted the move as signs of tension within the Israel Defence Forces' (IDF) higher ranks in the absence of a clear victory so far over Hizbollah.
The IDF said two reservist soldiers were killed early yesterday during fighting in the south-western Lebanese village of Labouna, and that another soldier had been killed in fighting near the town of Bint Jbeil. The army said that nine Hizbollah fighters were also killed.
In the northern Israeli town of Kyriat Shimona, 3,000 residents are to be offered accommodation in the Tel Aviv convention centre. The town has been one of the worst hit by Katyushas.
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* Heated exchanges at the UN Security Council between Israeli and Arab representatives. US and France struggle to resolve differences over ceasefire.
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