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Last Updated: Tuesday, 1 August 2006, 06:47 GMT 07:47 UK
Ceasefire hopes fade again
By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent, BBC News website

Qana grief
The majority of those killed in the Qana bombing were children

Just as hopes were growing that a ceasefire in the Middle East conflict might be possible soon, the Israelis have announced an extension of their ground operations.

The Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert signalled his determination to carry on when he said in a speech on Monday that there would be no ceasefire within the next few days.

The Israelis seem intent on widening the so-called "buffer zone" they have been establishing close to the border. They say they will hold this until an international force arrives. But that could take some time.

The speech by Mr Olmert was in marked contrast to the cautious optimism expressed by the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Speaking in the aftermath of the bombing at Qana, she said that a ceasefire might be possible by the end of the week. The bombing appeared to give added urgency to the diplomacy surrounding the Middle East conflict, increasing the pressure on the United States to press for a ceasefire sooner rather than later.

Even before Mr Olmert spoke, there were indications that a ceasefire this week might not be easy to achieve.

The Israeli Defence Minister Amir Peretz told the Israeli parliament: "Israel will expand its operations against Hezbollah...As much as I am a man of peace, I maintain that we cannot accept an immediate ceasefire...If there is an immediate ceasefire, the extremists will immediately rear their heads."

And Hassan Fadlallah, a Hezbollah member of the Lebanese parliament said: "The cabinet, the resistance and the people are united on their stand. Stopping the Israeli aggression is the priority, there is no other discussion, there is no negotiation concerning any other issues. When the Israeli aggression stops, we can then discuss other political issues."

And President Bush himself, in comments on Monday, indicated that he still wanted more than a ceasefire. "We want there to be a long-lasting peace, one that is sustainable," he said.

'I think it is time'

Dr Rice laid out the three parts of a resolution: "A ceasefire, the political principles that provide for a long-term settlement, and the authorisation of an international force to support the Lebanese army in keeping the peace. We are working simultaneously on all three tracks so that a cease-fire can be supported by the deployment of an international stabilisation force as soon as possible after Security Council action."

The Secretary of State was speaking as she left Jerusalem to return to the United States after failing to get a meeting with the Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. He had refused to see her unless she was prepared to discuss an immediate ceasefire.

Later, on her plane, she told reporters: "I am going to push very hard to have the UN Security Council resolution this week. I think it is time."

Diplomacy goes on

Dr Rice said: "This morning, as I head back to Washington I take with me an emerging consensus on what is necessary for both an urgent ceasefire and a lasting settlement."

She has been encouraged that the Lebanese government itself, including Hezbollah, has agreed at least to the principles of a settlement.

However it is not there yet. There is still a gap between those (France and others) that want an "immediate" ceasefire and the US and Britain that call for an "urgent" or "sustainable" ceasefire or one "as soon as possible".

The one would get the fighting stopped now and agree on a settlement afterwards. The other would get as much agreement on a settlement as possible first and then stop the fighting.

The Qana bombing has brought the two positions closer.

International force

There are still issues around the force - for example, its size, powers and whether it should be deployed along the Lebanon-Syria border.

Dr Rice
Dr Rice met with top Israeli officials to try to iron out a cease-fire

Getting Hezbollah to accept such a force will be crucial.

And just what happens over the two missing Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah remains unclear.

If the resolution is written under Chapter Seven of the Charter, it will be mandatory for Israel to comply.

A statement from an emergency meeting of the Security Council on Sunday did not use the word "immediate" because of US opposition.

War crimes an issue

The UN Secretary General Kofi Annan did inject a severe new tone, with its own moral pressure, at that meeting.

"There is strong prima facie evidence that both [sides] have committed grave breaches of international humanitarian law," he said.

This is a reference, with regard to Israel, to the principle of proportionality and to the bombing of buildings and structures with civilians in or near them - the Geneva Conventions allow attacks only if such places are making an "effective" military contribution to the opposing side.

As for Hezbollah, it has been firing rockets indiscriminately into civilian areas and the UN Humanitarian chief Jan Egeland has accused it of using civilians as cover.

Human Rights Watch in New York called on the UN "to investigate serious violations of international humanitarian law in the context of the current conflict". Its Director Kenneth Roth said: "Today's strike on Qana...suggests that the Israeli military is treating southern Lebanon as a free-fire zone. The Israeli military seems to consider anyone left in the area a combatant who is fair game for attack."

"Such consistent failure to distinguish combatants and civilians is a war crime," he said.

In a statement, the Israel Defense Forces said: "Responsibility for any and all casualties among uninvolved Lebanese civilians lies squarely on the shoulders of Hezbollah, which abuses civilians as human shields, and on the Lebanese government which fails to prevent this."


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