Leading article: A resolution that offers no respite from the bloodshed


A resolution is expected today from the United Nations Security Council calling for a "cessation of violence" between Hizbollah and Israel. Britain's Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, is reported to be standing by to break off from her holiday in France to fly to the UN headquarters in New York to sign the agreement. All this has already been hailed in some quarters as a victory for diplomacy. But, if the draft text of this resolution is anything to go by, this will be no victory for the people of Lebanon. Nor, for that matter, will it serve the true interests of the people of Israel, despite their government's professed satisfaction with the deal yesterday.

This resolution fails to call for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire or the withdrawal of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon. Israel also retains the right, under the agreement, to launch defensive attacks on Lebanon if Hizbollah missile strikes continue. These glaring exemptions are at the heart of the problem. Hizbollah has long insisted that they will only cease military operations when Israeli troops withdraw from Lebanese territory and when the bombardment of their country stops. What we have here is a recipe for further violence. Both sides can now claim to be acting "defensively" while, in fact, further stoking the fires of the conflict. It will take only the smallest of pretexts, from either side, to spark hostilities again.

Only an unconditional ceasefire, imposed immediately on both sides, would create the necessary breathing space to forge a proper settlement. While Katyusha rockets are pounding northern Israel and the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon by land, sea and air continues, no solution can be found. Those caught up in this crisis, which now stretches into its fourth week, can take no comfort from this resolution. And it is small wonder that the Lebanese government is unhappy with the agreement. Fouad Siniora's administration is offered nothing that would shore up its severely weakened grip on the country.

It is telling that neither side was showing signs of restraint on the ground yesterday, despite the apparent imminence of a settlement. Twelve were killed in northern Israel, in a particularly bloody attack, and at least 19 by Israeli raids in Lebanon. Three UN peacekeepers were also injured in the crossfire. Both the Israeli army and Hizbollah commanders believe they now have an extended window of time to pound their opponents.

They are, sadly, correct. In New York, the all-important issue of a multinational force to police the ceasefire has not even been broached. A second resolution dealing with the question has yet to be negotiated. There is a depressing amount of diplomatic wrangling to come. France, the nation expected to lead the force, does not want to disarm Hizbollah itself, but to support the Lebanese army in doing so. It is unlikely the US, or Israel, will accept such an arrangement, since they have little faith in the Lebanese military. And even if an agreement is eventually reached, it is likely to take at least two weeks for UN troops to be deployed on the ground in southern Lebanon.

This is happening far too slowly. The international community is still not treating this situation with the urgency it requires. The US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, yesterday hailed the new resolution as "the first step, not the only step" towards peace. She is wrong. This is not even the first step. The first step will be an unconditional ceasefire. All that the Lebanese and Israeli populations are being offered at this time is more violence and death. And the prospect of a fair and lasting settlement is pushed further away with every day the bloodshed continues.

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