Leading article: A weak and wavering response

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At last, we thought, when Kim Howells arrived in Beirut and condemned the disproportionate use of force by the Israelis. The junior Foreign Office minister noted that Israeli air strikes had not been "surgical", as claimed. It was very difficult, he said, to understand the military tactics that have been used. The target was not just the Islamist guerrillas of Hizbollah, but the entire Lebanese nation.

His comment was not as forceful as the verdict of the United Nations' humanitarian chief, Jan Egeland, who yesterday toured shattered districts of Beirut and expressed shock that block after block of buildings had been levelled - and that a third of the Lebanese casualties appeared to be children. "It makes it a violation of humanitarian law," he said. Even so, Mr Howells became the first British minister openly to criticise Israel's tactics. He even took a side-swipe at Washington's analysis of the situation for failing to understand that the US-backed air strikes resulted in the destruction of Lebanon's infrastructure and the death of so many children.

But then yesterday Mr Howells arrived in Israel, and his language trimmed. He reverted to the position he had adopted before he left London, when he lambasted the former cabinet minister Clare Short for declaring that the British Government should be calling for a ceasefire - an action he derided as a meaningless gesture.

The shifting sands of Mr Howells' opinions are characteristic of the British Government's pusillanimity over this pointless and unwinnable conflict. It also reflects the fact that the US Secretary of State has finally got round to packing her bag for a trip to the Middle East, where she is expected to arrive this morning.

No one should hold their breath on the outcome of her visit. The signals from Washington are that she will not acquiesce to the international community's almost universal demand for an immediate ceasefire. That, it believes, would merely hatch future conflicts unless it was accompanied by the disarmament of Hizbollah - which yesterday continued to rain its crude missiles on northern Israel - and an end to the backing of the guerrillas by Iran and Syria. If she is arriving with the framework for the negotiation of a ceasefire, as some predict, it will not be one which will deliver swift results.

That much is clear from Washington's decision to speed up a delivery of satellite and laser-guided two-tonne "bunker-buster" bombs to Israel. Jerusalem believes it has a green light from Washington to continue the onslaught on Hizbollah for at least another week. For the ordinary people of Lebanon, it is a grim prospect.

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