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Israel Launches Expanded Assault Leading Up to U.n.-backed Cease-fire

Consider it the storm before the possible calm. Israel launched a massive military sweep of southern Lebanon over the weekend in what appeared to be an 11th-hour assault against the toughest Hezbollah strongholds before a U.N.-brokered cease-fire was due to take effect.

At least 24 soldiers were killed Saturday as Israeli tanks and troops reached all the way to the strategic Litani River, effectively boxing in Hezbollah’s heartland. Military officials said some 80 members of the Shi’ite militia also died.

Even after the Israeli Cabinet voted in favor Sunday, approving it 24-0 with one abstention, Israel had almost one full day in which to press the fight against Hezbollah. The United Nations said the cease-fire would not come into effect until 8 a.m. local time Monday.

“Preferably, the fighting should stop now to respect the spirit and intent of the Security Council decision, the object of which was to save civilian lives, to spare the pain and suffering that the civilians on both sides are living through,” U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said.

Whether or not the cease-fire would reduces violence remains to be seen.

Annan’s call was largely lost on many Israelis who see the war as a just response to a July 12 raid by Hezbollah in which eight soldiers were killed and two kidnapped, and want the miltia — as well as its Iranian and Syrian patrons — to be taught a lesson in deterrence.

Jerusalem described the weekend operations as an effort to deliver a final blow to Hezbollah and its cross-border rocket capabilities before foreign peacekeepers deploy throughout southern Lebanon in accordance with the U.N. resolution.

“We are preparing the ground for a smoother entry of the international force into south Lebanon, by cleaning up the launchers and the Hezbollah capabilities in that area in fierce battles until tomorrow,” said Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog.

As of midday Sunday, those capabilities did not appear to have been significantly impaired. More than 200 Hezbollah rockets struck northern Israel, killing one person, wounding at least 16 others, and sending tens of thousands of people back to shelters.

Some members of Israel’s political opposition suggested the Olmert government was engaged in last-minute adventurism, a bid to sweeten an impending military withdrawal from Lebanon by pumping up the Hezbollah death toll.

“What do we tell the families of those soldiers who were killed over the weekend, just before the cease-fire?” said Avshalom Vilan, a lawmaker with the left-wing Meretz Party. “What did they die for?”

At least one bereaved mother, Revital Einhorn, also lambasted the Olmert government, but for different reasons. She told Channel 10 television that, rather than accept the truce, Israel should have pushed ahead until Hezbollah was completely vanquished.

“I feel like we have just capitulated,” said Einhorn, whose son Yonatan, a staff sergeant, was killed in southern Lebanon.

Under Resolution 1701, Israel and Hezbollah are to stop fighting, the militia is to be removed from southern Lebanon and the border is to be patrolled by an enlarged U.N. peacekeeper force of 15,000 personnel. The Lebanese army is also expected to send thousands of troops to the South in belated implementation of a previous U.N. resolution.

One Israeli pundit described the text, which had been hammered out over several days by American and French mediators who fielded objections by both the Olmert government and Lebanon, as a triumph for the Jewish state’s international advocacy efforts.

“Its essence can be summed up in a single sentence: Israel and the world against the Hezbollah criminals,” wrote Sever Plotzker in Yediot Achronot.

“The actual wording of the resolution is less important than the fact that it adopts the Israeli approach to the war: The resolution does not contain even a hint of condemnation for our military activities in Lebanon (the aggressor cited in the resolution is Hezbollah) and it contains full recognition of our right to unleash a crushing military response.”

Yet there is still no absolute guarantee of calm after the Monday deadline passes. While Hezbollah announced it was committed to the cease-fire, it also said it reserved the right to continue attacking Israeli forces on Lebanese soil, a presence that will not end before the peacekeepers are fully deployed.

“We must be aware of the fact that the war will continue for another few days,” Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, said in a televised address over the weekend. “We will fight as long as Israeli soldiers are in Lebanon.”

The Ynet news Web site quoted unnamed Jerusalem officials as saying that Israel expected to be able to hand over southern Lebanon to the U.N. peacekeeper force by the end of August. This was not confirmed independently, and Israel’s military top brass made clear it was prepared to stay on far longer if need be.

“We are prepared to halt our action on Monday,” Maj. Gen. Udi Adam, chief of the Northern Command, told Israel Radio. “If the cease-fire is not implemented, we are also prepared to continue fighting.”

Adam’s chief of staff, Brig. Gen. Alon Friedman, said Israeli forces were capable of going beyond the Litani, and fighting for several more weeks if necessary. Another top officer overseeing the Lebanon campaign, Brig. Gen. Guy Tzur, told Channel 2 television that he would be surprised if the military withdraws back to Israel by winter.

But not a few Israelis were disturbed by the scant mention in the resolution for the two Israeli reservists whose abduction by Hezbollah had triggered the war in the first place.

In an apparent bid to head off criticism on this front, Olmert and his defense minister, Amir Peretz, met with the families of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev to assure them that the kidnapped soldiers were not forgotten.

“As I have said in the past, Israel has done, is doing and will do all it can to bring the boys home,” Olmert told his Cabinet.

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