Cease-fire goes into effect in Mideast

THE BALTIMORE SUN

KFAR GILADI, Israel -- A United Nations-imposed cease-fire went into effect today that was designed to end a month of violence that has killed more than 900 people, devastated much of southern Lebanon and forced hundreds of thousands of Israelis into bomb shelters.

In the first moments after the cease-fire took effect at 8 a.m. local time, Israeli artillery sat idle near Kfar Giladi, along the border with Lebanon. Soldiers drank coffee, talked on cell phones and one waved an Israeli flag. For the first time in 34 days, silence returned to this hilly border region.

But in the final hours before the truce was to take effect, clashes between Israeli forces and Hezbollah fighters intensified and the artillery and rocket barrages yesterday on both sides of the Israel-Lebanon border raised doubts about whether the fighting would stop today.

This is a war that has dragged on longer than either side expected, destroying lives and economies in both countries. Israeli airstrikes and Hezbollah rockets have forced hundreds of thousands of families from their homes and undermined Lebanon's efforts to recover from its 15-year civil war.

The violence has claimed at least 763 lives in Lebanon - mostly civilians - and 147 Israelis, among them 109 soldiers.

Israel pounded southern Lebanon with artillery fire and airstrikes yesterday as thousands of troops pushed deeper into the country.

Hezbollah responded by unleashing its largest volley of rockets to date, firing more than 250 missiles into northern Israel.

The battles continued even as Israel's Cabinet voted 24-0, with one abstention, to approve the United Nations Security Council resolution calling for an end to hostilities and creation of an international force to serve as a buffer between Israeli forces and Hezbollah. On Saturday, the Lebanese government endorsed the agreement, which also won reluctant support from Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. The cease-fire was to take effect at 8 a.m. today.

Many issues remained unresolved about the expanded U.N. peacekeeping force that is to work alongside the Lebanese army in southern Lebanon. It is unclear how quickly the force will be deployed and who will lead it.

In Beirut, the Lebanese Cabinet indefinitely postponed a crucial meeting on the deployment of the army to southern Lebanon, a key part of the cease-fire deal. Cabinet members also remained divided over the resolution's demand for Hezbollah to disarm.

In Jerusalem, Israel's Cabinet debated whether the government's decision to go ahead with a major offensive nearly 20 miles into Lebanon was an unnecessary risk of soldiers' lives.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, facing intense pressure to promote the cease-fire as a victory, said the agreement would ensure that "Hezbollah won't continue to exist as a state within a state."

What was once overwhelming Israeli public support for the war slipped in recent days as Israeli casualties have increased. Five Israeli soldiers were killed in fighting yesterday, a day after the combat deaths of 24 others.

There is a growing feeling among some Israelis that their once-triumphant army has been humiliated by Hezbollah's disciplined and well-equipped guerrilla force, which managed to launch regular barrages of rockets into northern Israel and kill scores of Israeli soldiers and civilians.

Many Israelis are disappointed that the agreement did not require the immediate release of two Israeli soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser, 31, and Eldad Regev, 26, who were seized by Hezbollah fighters on July 12 during a cross-border raid, touching off the fighting.

"We lost," said Liran Masad, 22, a college student in Nahariya who took shelter in her family's bomb shelter as air raid sirens blared yesterday. "We are not so strong like we used to be."

Masad blamed Olmert for the country's problems. She voted for him, believing that his party, Kadima, would bring calm to Israel by dismantling settlements in the West Bank.

Among soldiers there was a mix of relief and dread over the cease-fire. A member of an Israeli tank crew, Isaac, who was only allowed to use his first name, awaited orders to push into Lebanon last night near Malkiya, a kibbutz on the Lebanese border. He said he did not agree with the cease-fire plan.

"My first reaction is, 'Great,'" Isaac said as his unit gathered for a hillside meeting with a commander on the eve of the cease-fire. "But I'm not sure we have fulfilled all of our goals."

Isaac worried that the international force that will serve as a buffer between Hezbollah and Israel would not be strong enough to stop Hezbollah from rearming. Many soldiers and civilians fear that in a few months or years, Hezbollah will build up its weapons supplies and begin a new war.

"I think the war has not ended. We will need to face the situation again in a couple of months. Then it will be worse," Masad said.

Speaking at a news conference after the Cabinet decision, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni defended the cease-fire agreement, saying the new international force is an improvement over the current peacekeeping force.

Since it began patrolling south Lebanon in 1978, the 2,000-member U.N. force, known as UNIFIL, has failed to control Hezbollah, which has thousands of fighters and uses sophisticated weapons supplied by Iran and Syria.The new expanded force of up to 15,000 peacekeepers, who will work alongside 15,000 Lebanese soldiers, would be a match for Hezbollah, Israeli officials say.

"We're not talking of the UNIFIL we're used to seeing," Livni said. "It means a weak force if observers, but we're getting an expanded UNIFIL in manpower, a completely different mandate that includes the right, the ability and the authority to use force when needed."

Under the agreement, the estimated 30,000 Israeli forces in Lebanon would gradually be replaced as international peacekeepers and Lebanese troops are deployed in the south, which may take weeks.

Livni said the final-hour offensive up to the Litani River in southern Lebanon would protect the lives of Israeli soldiers.

"As far as I understand, the army is looking to make itself a place to better protect its soldiers and to leave the army in a better situation during the deployment of forces expected to arrive in Lebanon," Livni said, according to wire services.

But Eli Yishai, another Cabinet minister, suggested that the cease-fire may not last.

"If a stone or a Katyusha [rocket] is fired at Israel, we must deal the hardest blows at [the] Lebanese infrastructure, because Lebanon allows the Hezbollah to operate," he said. "The moment a single Katyusha is fired, we should hit their infrastructure very hard, water, electricity, gas and more."

jmurphy@baltsunnews.com

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