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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 August 2006, 09:24 GMT 10:24 UK
Fighting diminishes ceasefire hopes
By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent, BBC News website

Israeli soldiers on the Lebanese side of the border with northern Israel
It is almost as if things are back to square one - the Israeli army is on the move into southern Lebanon, its air force is attacking again, Hezbollah is not beaten and diplomacy is doubtful.

Yet only on Monday the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was saying as she left Jerusalem that she hoped for a ceasefire resolution to be passed by the Security Council by the end of the week.

Then came a strong speech in the north of Israel (under rocket attack since the war began) by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Using Churchillian phrases - "pain, tears and blood" - he made it quite clear there would be no ceasefire in the coming days.

It seems that Israeli determination had been underestimated.

It also seems that Mr Olmert himself had earlier underestimated the public and military mood. Both the prospect of an end to the fighting before the aims were achieved and the 48-hour cessation of air strikes post Qana were seen as unsettling.

The mass circulation daily Yediot Ahronot said: "If Israel fails in this war, it will be impossible to live in the Middle East."

Ephraim Sneh, Labour MP and a former general said: "This war must not end in a draw."

A late-night meeting of the seven-strong security cabinet decided to expand the military operation further into Lebanon.

(Update on Thursday: Mr Olmert has made another comment to the effect that Israel will not stop until an international force arrives in southern Lebanon. This appears to indicate several more weeks of fighting. He also interestingly stated Israel's current war aims - "to push Hezbollah more and more from where they were and open up for the international force to take over". This is scaling back from the initial Israeli statements about destroying Hezbollah. He also spoke of a need for about 15,000 international troops, mentioning France, Italy, Britain [which has already ruled itself out] and Turkey as examples of possible contributors, who could enforce a peace.

Mr Olmert also stated Israel's intention of driving the civilian population out of southern Lebanon as a way of breaking support ofr Hezbollah.)

The difficulties of assembling an international force and drawing up its powers are become clearer every day. The Israelis want a combat-capable force that could keep the peace but Lebanon says that Hezbollah agreement is necessary first. Hezbollah, it is widely felt, would not accept being policed by such a force.)

'Buffer zone' plan

The plan now seems to be that Israel will try to set up its so-called "buffer zone" (the Lebanese will call it an occupied zone) which it will hold until an international force arrives to take over. That could take some weeks.

The likely depth of this zone is not certain. Some Israelis talk of about 8km (five miles); others say it should go as far as the Litani River, up to 30km north of the border (though it is much closer in the east because of a curve north in the border).

But with fighting still heavy in border villages, going to the Litani along its length would need a considerable force.

Within the "zone", Israel intends to clear out Hezbollah positions and fighters. Human rights groups fear it is also clearing out civilians with dangerous implications.

Human Rights Watch said on Monday Israel was creating a "free-fire" zone in southern Lebanon.

And if Israel occupies any Lebanese land for any period, it runs the risk of getting bogged down in a guerrilla war.

Indeed such is the confusion in the Israeli camp that Israel's leading military commentator Ze'ev Schiff of Haaretz has concluded that "management of the war has been incompetent".

He points out that it has already gone on for nearly as long as the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

How long will it take? One minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said: "It will take approximately 10 days to two weeks."

He also indicated that Israel would not leave Lebanon until its two missing soldiers were returned.

Misreading mood?

Did Ms Rice misread the Israeli mood, which seems to be more committed than perhaps some optimistic outsiders have realised?

I estimate that for the IDF to complete their job will take approximately 10 days to two weeks
Binyamin Ben-Eliezer,
Israeli minister
There is still a view among some that the Security Council will in fact pass the necessary resolution soon and that Israel will have to accept it.

Much depends on what the US does, but Condoleezza Rice herself is in a difficult position. She has in effect promised but delivery is uncertain. Will she be sidelined by a President Bush unwavering in his support for Israel?

The episode raises the question as to whether Israel and not the Bush administration is calling the shots.

Many Israelis feel there is a need to "finish the job". Just how that can be achieved is not so certain.

Israeli officials say the air force has destroyed about two-thirds of the longer-range Zelzal rockets Hezbollah is said to have (although nobody is talking actual numbers, nor do they say how they know).

But another official says Israel cannot possibly destroy all Hezbollah missiles from the air. So expectations might have to be lowered.

There is also now likely to be a gap between Israel taking over its "zone" and the arrival of the international force. That arrival is going to take some time to arrange. Meshing the military with the diplomacy will be complex.

And crucially Hezbollah's agreement or acquiescence will have to be sought.

In 1983, US marines and French paratroopers were attacked by suicide bombers in Beirut. The troops were there as part of an international "peacekeeping force" to police an earlier phase of Lebanon's troubles.

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