- The Washington Times - Monday, August 14, 2006

HAIFA, Israel — Israeli and Hezbollah forces engaged in fierce combat across southern Lebanon yesterday in a final bid to secure territory ahead of a cease-fire that formally took effect this morning. More than 250 rockets crashed into Israel, the highest one-day total of the war.

Hopes that the cease-fire might halt the fighting rose after Israel’s Cabinet yesterday ratified the United Nations’ resolution setting its terms. Lebanon’s government approved it Saturday.

But Hezbollah vowed to continue resistance as long as Israeli troops remained in Lebanon, and Israel suggested that it would broadly interpret language permitting it to continue defensive operations.

About 30,000 Israeli troops used the final hours before the cease-fire at 8 a.m. (1 a.m. in Washington) to push toward the Litani River to drive Hezbollah from areas from where it can reach northern Israel with its Katyusha missiles.

Yesterday’s barrage killed one Israeli and wounded more than 50, while setting cars afire in Haifa. Five Israeli soldiers were killed in southern Lebanon, bringing the total to 30 killed in two days.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701 setting the terms of the cease-fire was “the best possible that we could have gotten.”

But, she said, Israel still considered it necessary to widen the buffer zone held by its ground forces in southern Lebanon. Israel has said that it won’t withdraw from Lebanon until a robust multinational force is created to ensure that Hezbollah doesn’t return to the south.

“It was impossible to achieve all of the goals that we set for ourselves through a military process — and I mean the return of the kidnapped soldiers and the deployment of the Lebanese army,” Mrs. Livni said.

The war began with the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah on July 12. The international force is to bolster the Lebanese army, which has promised to deploy 15,000 troops to areas that until recently were controlled by Hezbollah.

Yesterday’s hostilities seemed to reflect an attempt by both sides to gain a psychological advantage going into the truce. Israel wants to push Hezbollah north of the Litani River, rendering its Katyusha rockets unable to reach Israeli towns.

Hezbollah, meanwhile, used its rocket barrage to demonstrate that Israel has not been able to stop it from striking at Israeli population centers. Israel’s army said it downed two Hezbollah drones, which were apparently destined to carry out an attack in Israel.

Among the Israeli soldiers killed over the weekend was Staff Sgt. Uri Grossman, the 20-year-old son of noted novelist David Grossman, a peace activist.

Israeli army officers said they would honor the cease-fire when it went into effect today. But they also said they see themselves as free to respond to any attack on northern Israel under the cease-fire, which only requires them to halt offensive operations.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was criticized on both sides of Israel’s political spectrum for the cease-fire agreement.

Dovish members of parliament questioned why he approved a wider push into Lebanon just hours before the cease-fire.

“It’s doubtful that what we didn’t accomplish over the last 34 days, we’ll be able to accomplish in the next 34 hours,” said Danny Yatom, a member of the Labor Party.

He argued that the goals of the operation had been realized and that the price of widening the ground war would be a sharp increase in civilian and military casualties.

Conservative members of the parliament argued that the Security Council resolution left Hezbollah free to rearm itself to confront Israel again.

Support for Mr. Olmert has been sagging as the public realizes that Israel will not achieve its stated goal of disarming Hezbollah.

Cpl. Michael Mizrahi, a tank gunner recovering at Haifa’s Rambam Hospital from a wound to his leg, said he was unsatisfied with the Security Council resolution because it will stop the Israeli army’s advance into Lebanon.

“It’s like soldiers went in there and got injured for nothing, without reaching our goals,” he said.

Avshalom Vilan, a parliament member from the left-wing Meretz Party, said he planned to request the appointment of a state committee of inquiry to investigate all of the political-civilian failures of the current round of fighting.

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