- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 18, 2006

3:46 p.m.

JERUSALEM — Israeli officials said today that their offensive in Lebanon could last several more weeks and involve large numbers of ground forces, casting doubt on diplomatic efforts to broker a cease-fire.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told a visiting U.N. delegation that “Israel will continue to combat Hezbollah and will continue to strike targets of the group” until captured Israeli soldiers are released and Israeli citizens are safe from attacks.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said diplomatic efforts were under way, but a cease-fire would be impossible unless the captured soldiers are returned unharmed and Lebanese troops are deployed along the countries’ border, with a guarantee that the Hezbollah militia would be disarmed.

Mrs. Livni’s remarks after meeting the U.N. delegation were the first indication that both sides were making significant efforts to end the weeklong conflict.

However, military officials said the offensive was likely to continue and perhaps expand.

Public Security Minister Avi Dichter said Israel may consider a prisoner swap with Lebanon to win the release of two soldiers captured by Hezbollah, but only after its military operation is complete.

Hezbollah fired more missiles at northern Israel, killing one Israeli in the northern town of Nahariya and wounding several others, Israeli officials said. Rockets also hit the northern city of Haifa.

Hezbollah has fired hundreds of rockets at northern Israeli towns from the Lebanese border since fighting began July 12, forcing hundreds of thousands of Israelis to take cover in underground shelters or flee to the south.

Israeli strikes in Lebanon raised the death toll in that country to at least 226.

Israel’s two-front offensive against Islamic militants began on June 25, when Hamas-linked Palestinian guerrillas in the Gaza Strip carried out a cross-border attack on a military outpost in Israel, killing two soldiers and capturing one. Lebanon’s Hezbollah guerrillas joined the fray this month, attacking a military patrol on the border in northern Israel, killing three soldiers and capturing two.

Israel has been reluctant to use ground forces because of memories of its ill-fated 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon, which ended in 2000.

In Belgium, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said any international stabilization force must be “considerably” larger and better armed than the U.N.’s current force in Lebanon, which numbers about 2,000 troops and long has been viewed by all sides in the Middle East as ineffectual and lacking a strong mandate.

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