- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 27, 2006

TEL AVIV — The Israeli forces yesterday suffered their highest number of casualties in the two-week-old war against Hezbollah while Israeli officials signaled that the hostilities would continue several weeks.

At least nine Israeli soldiers died in a campaign to wrest control of the southern Lebanese village of Bint Jbeil from the Iranian-backed militia and 23 soldiers were wounded.

While the fighting raged, 16 foreign ministers and other officials from the United States, Europe and the Middle East agreed in Rome on the need for a new international force on the Israel-Lebanon border. Unlike the U.N. observer force now in southern Lebanon, the new group would be a peacekeeping force.

Details were vague, but France, Spain and Italy reportedly offered to send troops for the new mission, which would operate under a U.N. mandate but would not be part of the U.N. force that has been in the region since the late 1970s.

The foreign ministers stopped short of calling for an “immediate” cease-fire at the insistence of the United States, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice saying there could be “no return to the status quo.”

The Israeli army signaled a key objective of the war — to set up a 1.2-mile-wide buffer zone north of the international border to prevent Hezbollah from reaching a fence separating the two nations.

Such a buffer would make it more difficult for Hezbollah to carry out raids such as the one two weeks ago in which three Israeli soldiers died and two were kidnapped.

The heavy losses for Israel are yet more evidence that its ground war against Hezbollah has been more difficult than expected.

“I never said this would be a luxurious operation. There will be more difficult days,” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said.

Hezbollah spiritual leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said his goal is to inflict maximum casualties on Israel.

Just hours before the attack on Bint Jbeil, Israeli generals had declared that guerrilla resistance had been eliminated and that Israel controlled the village — which is considered a Hezbollah stronghold that is used to fire artillery and rockets into Israel.

An Israeli army detachment was ambushed in one neighborhood and quickly became surrounded by enemy gunfire, making the rescue of the wounded soldiers difficult. The fighting, often face to face, lasted most of the day.

“This was a difficult day, but if we measure it up against the last four days, there are dozens of terrorists killed in the field and dozens of infrastructure targets destroyed,” said Israeli army northern commander Gen. Udi Adam. “I assume that this will take another several weeks.”

The general said Israeli forces had captured strategic locations around the village rather than capturing the entire village.

In Israel, more than 140 rockets rained down on Haifa and other cities in the north, leaving one person in critical condition.

In the past two weeks, the guerrillas have fired 1,436 rockets into Israel, according to the Associated Press.

The heavily outnumbered Hezbollah forces have proved themselves adept at using classic guerrilla tactics, striking in terrain they know well and protecting themselves and weapons caches in bunkers and networks of tunnels.

Fighting was fierce yesterday on a second front, the Gaza Strip, where Hamas militants are holding an Israeli soldier seized last month.

A force of 50 tanks and bulldozers entered northern Gaza, where 23 Palestinians died in heavy fighting, including a 9-month-old and a 5-year-old.

Israeli officers said they encountered stiff resistance in Gaza and speculated that the war in Lebanon was emboldening Palestinian militants.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told reporters yesterday on a visit to Algiers, “What is happening in Palestine is a complete destruction, and it is happening in both Palestine and Lebanon.”

“And at the same time, there is a refusal to reach a cease-fire that has been supported by European countries as well as Arab countries. But until now there is nothing.”

Israel also faced international anger over the killing of four U.N. observers in southern Lebanon on Tuesday.

Mr. Olmert apologized in a telephone call to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan yesterday and announced an investigation of the incident. Mr. Annan had called it an “apparently deliberate strike.”

The AP, quoting a preliminary report by the United Nations, said the U.N. contingent contacted Israeli army officers 10 times and was assured that its compound would not be targeted. It was hit with a precision-guided missile.

• Betsy Pisik in Beirut and Nicholas Kralev in Rome contributed to this report, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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