Israel to expand ground offensive

Lull in air war is not cease-fire, Olmert says


JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared yesterday that Israel had no intention of ending its battle against Hezbollah anytime soon, despite a fragile lull in fighting that allowed some humanitarian supplies to reach civilians in war-battered Lebanon.

Israeli officials said they would expand the ground offensive and described a 48-hour hiatus in major airstrikes as a "humanitarian gesture" rather than any prelude to a speedy cease-fire, which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had said could be reached this week.

Airstrikes diminished considerably yesterday. Israel, which had been flying scores of bombing sorties daily, launched four air attacks and fired artillery barrages at border towns, in support of ground operations. Hezbollah, which fired more than 150 rockets at Israel on Sunday, had sent none across the border by nightfall. Hezbollah claimed it hit an Israeli warship offshore, but the Israeli military denied the report.

"The fighting continues," Olmert said in a nationally televised speech to municipal officials from cities in northern Israel, which has borne the brunt of Hezbollah rocket fire. "There is no cease-fire, and there will not be any cease-fire in the coming days."

The mayors, whose cities and towns have been hit by a total of nearly 1,800 rockets and missiles since the start of fighting July 12, responded with rousing applause.

Earlier, Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Israel intended to intensify its military campaign.

"If an immediate cease-fire is declared, the extremists will rear their heads anew," Peretz told lawmakers during a stormy special session of Israel's Knesset. Several Arab lawmakers were ejected for heckling the defense minister over civilian casualties in Lebanon, including nearly 60 deaths in an Israeli airstrike a day earlier in the village of Qana.

Under intense U.S. pressure, Israel agreed late Sunday to temporarily halt its air war in order to allow civilians to reach safety and humanitarian supplies to move more freely.

But Peretz and other senior officials repeated what U.S. officials had said Sunday - that Israel would continue its ground offensive and strike from the air if there was a threat to its soldiers, an imminent rocket launch toward northern Israel, or an opportunity to target senior Hezbollah officials.

"A humanitarian gesture is not meant to harm the goals of the offensive," Peretz said. "The army will expand and deepen its operation against Hezbollah."

Throughout Lebanon, humanitarian agencies rushed to take advantage of the announced halt to airstrikes. But confusion over the terms of the moratorium, badly damaged roads and dwindling fuel supplies slowed the process.

"As the day unfolded, we discovered that conditions weren't much different than they were before," said Cassandra Nelson, of the international relief organization MercyCorps. "Suddenly what we thought was a cease-fire was not a cease-fire."

Nonetheless, Nelson said, MercyCorps still planned to take a convoy of food today to the town of Marjayoun in southeast Lebanon, where it had identified 2,000 people without basic resources.

Amer Daudi, a spokesman for the World Food Program, said the organization is continuing to take the precaution of asking Israeli forces for safe passage on a convoy-by-convoy basis. But Daudi said the WFP planned to increase from a single daily convoy to four, of 15 trucks each.

"We welcome the change, but it is still just a drop in the bucket over what we need," said Daudi.

The 20-day-old war has displaced 800,000 to 900,000 Lebanese, and an additional 100,000 are unable to get out of combat zones, according to the United Nations relief coordinator for Lebanon, Mona Hammam.

Taxis are reportedly charging $1,000 to drive to safer areas in the north - a sum many of those left behind said they could not pay.

Long lines of cars have begun to form at gas stations, the result of the Israeli naval blockade that has kept tankers from reaching Lebanese ports. Officials estimate the fuel supply to power plants will run out within two days.

Even with the danger from the air diminished, U.N. humanitarian aid team leader Jamie McGoldrick said the few remaining navigable roads were too narrow to handle the heavy trucks required to carry the supplies needed in the south.

The only route open goes through the rugged Chouf mountains. "These are mountain villages and tourist towns not built for turbocharged highway trucks," said McGoldrick. "The trucks overheat and break down."

Improvised bridges traversing the Litani River, replacing those destroyed by the Israelis, were jammed with traffic in both directions - refugees from the south and aid workers from the north.

Israeli artillery strikes targeted several villages yesterday, including Kila, Adessa and Taibe, and columns of smoke could be seen rising from Kila for much of the day. The Israeli army said some of the artillery fire was in response to a Hezbollah rocket attack on a tank near the village of Taibe.

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