Israeli air force jets bombed southern Lebanon this morning, despite a 48-hour suspension of air strikes negotiated by US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice yesterday after an attack that left more than 60 dead.
The strikes, near the village of Taibe, were carried out in support of ground forces operating in the area and did not target anything specific, the Israeli army said.
But they called into question the 48-hour suspension that was the most significant outcome of Ms Rice’s aborted visit to the Middle East at the weekend.
The cessation was negotiated after Lebanese leaders cancelled their meetings with Ms Rice following yesterday’s attack on the southern Lebanese town of Qana, which rights group Human Rights Watch today labelled a “war crime”.
The 48-hour window was intended to allow civilians trapped in southern Lebanon to escape to the north of the country, away from the threat of bombardment.
However, Israeli military officials today said it would not apply to strikes launched in retaliation for Hizbullah rocket attacks, or to stop the importation of weapons from Syria.
“If we identify a rocket launch there will be an air strike, or if we identify a truck loaded with weapons there will be one too,” an army spokesman told Israel Radio.
The Taibe strike happened as Israeli troops pushed towards the village. Hizbullah rockets were fired from the border area close to Taibe this morning, landing near the Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona.
Earlier today, defence minister Amir Peretz told the Israeli parliament the army would “expand and strengthen” its attack on Hizbullah guerrillas and promised the cabinet would discuss an expansion of the ground operation.
His speech was interrupted by Israeli Arab MPs’ calls for an immediate ceasefire in the conflict, which has killed at least 545 Lebanese and 51 Israelis since it began three weeks ago.
Mr Peretz said that there were no plans for an immediate ceasefire and described the 48-hour suspension of air attacks as a “humanitarian gesture”.
“If an immediate ceasefire is declared, the extremists will rear their heads anew. In a few months we will be back in the same place,” he said.
The renewed violence calls into question Ms Rice’s further objective of a UN security council resolution on a ceasefire, which she hopes to achieve by the end of the week.
“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 lasting settlement. I am convinced we can achieve both this week,” she told reporters in Jerusalem.
US domestic opinion is the major stumbling block to a UN ceasefire resolution – which in any case would not necessarily force Israel or Hizbullah to down their weapons.
Tony Blair said last night that all parties would need to show “maximum restraint” in advance of the resolution vote, and that the process would need to be speeded up after three weeks of diplomatic stalemate.
“Everyone is going to have to exercise maximum restraint, and maximum pressure and will, to get the UN security council resolution agreed where there is security for Israel but also the backing of Lebanon,” he said.
An actual ceasefire agreement may well be more remote. A senior Israeli political source told Israel Radio today that an international peacekeeping force would need to be deployed before a ceasefire could take place.
“A ceasefire between Israel and Hizbullah will only take effect once the international forces are deployed on the border between Israel with Lebanon,” the source was quoted as saying.
That proposal would put any ceasefire weeks into the future, since plans for an international force are still barely on the drawing board and its deployment would require further diplomacy at the UN.
The cessation was announced so that the Israeli military could carry out an investigation into the Qana attacks, and may end before the 48-hour period is up if the report is concluded beforehand.
The halt on air strikes was announced at midnight last night, but they were still taking place at around 1.30am. Israeli officials later said it had begun at 2am.
Hizbullah had also temporarily halted the shelling of Israeli territory until today’s attack on Kiryat Shmona.
Hassan Fadlallah, a Hizbullah MP and spokesman for the group, said that it would halt rocket attacks altogether if Israel stopped shelling and air strikes. Guardian Newspapers Limited