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Peace deal at UN is clouded by Israeli ambiguity
Olmert appears to accept text hours after shocking security council by insisting on going ahead with Lebanon offensive
Julian Borger in Jerusalem, Oliver Burkeman in New York and Ewen MacAskill
Saturday August 12, 2006
Israel's cabinet will meet tomorrow to decide whether to accept the UN security council's ceasefire resolution, but until then the government made clear its troops would continue to advance into Lebanon.
In an apparent gambit to win time for the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) to make gains on the battlefield, the prime minister, Ehud Olmert, signalled last night that he would recommend acceptance of the peace plan, but would not act on it until tommorrow's meeting.
The delay seemed likely to cause anger on the world stage, and trigger a Hizbullah response that would make imposing a ceasefire even harder. But Israeli officials insisted that the move was justified as Hizbullah rockets continued to fall on northern Israeli towns yesterday.
Mr Olmert had ordered the launch of an all-out ground offensive only a few hours before the UN vote was taken, and massed Israeli tanks along the northern border were seen making final preparations to move into southern Lebanon, where they were intended, according to the IDF plan, to advance as much as 30km up to the Litani river.
Despite the UN agreement, Mr Olmert did not call his forces back and IDF officials were quoted in the Haaretz newspaper as saying the offensive would "continue forward with full power" and that all the units assigned to take part in the invasion force had been deployed to forward positions.
The IDF general staff, which has been criticised for failing to suppress Hizbullah rocket fire in the first month of fighting, is determined to inflict more damage on the Shia militia before a halt is called. A failure to neutralise Hizbullah would widely be seen as a military defeat inside Israel.
According to the New York Times, Israel has asked the US to supply the IDF with short range anti-personnel rockets which scatter fragmentation grenades over a wide area. The report said Israel intended to use them against Hizbullah rocket launcher sites, which have so far proved elusive to Israeli artillery.
The report said the delivery of the weapons was likely despite state department concerns that they could cause high civilian casualties.
Just before last night's security council vote, an Israeli government source was quoted as saying: "The various key ministers have voiced satisfaction at the amendments made over the last few hours. For implementation by Israel, this now requires a cabinet vote. The idea is that the military offensive will continue until then."
Israeli government officials said that between Thursday and Friday the version of the peace plan Mr Olmert had initially accepted had been changed significantly in Lebanon's favour, prompting the prime minister's decision to unleash the new ground offensive.
According to the Israelis, the powers of the UN force had been watered down, as had measures for monitoring arms smuggling to Hizbullah across the border from Syria. It was not immediately clear how many concessions Israel succeeded in extracting from the security council, after Mr Olmert's green light for the new offensive.
The resolution artfully avoids any mention of whether the expanded UN force in Lebanon would operate under chapter seven of the UN charter - allowing it to use force to secure peace - or under chapter six, which would make it a monitoring body able to fire only in self-defence.
Margaret Beckett, the British foreign secretary, said the resolution, which does not call explicitly for the disarmament of Hizbullah but calls on Israel and Lebanon to "support a permanent ceasefire and a long-term solution", was "formally chapter six", but the tough language in the document clearly seems to leave the way open for a more forthright use of arms.
Lebanon had previously balked at the idea of a force that might be authorised to use force to subdue Hizbullah, but the resolution authorises the UN peacekeepers "to take all necessary action ... to ensure that its area of operations is not utilised for hostile activities of any kind [and] to resist attempts by forceful means to prevent it from discharging its duties."
A symbolically important preamble paragraph also calls the situation in Lebanon "a threat to international peace and security," in what appears to be a nod to Israel's argument that a settlement is needed that goes beyond an immediate ceasefire.
In a similar vein, it emphasises that all parties "are responsible for ensuring that no action is taken ... that might adversely affect the search for a long-term solution."
The humanitarian crisis is also singled out for attention. The resolution calls on the international community "to take immediate steps to extend its financial and humanitarian assistance to the Lebanese people ... and calls on it to consider further assistance in the future to contribute to the reconstruction and development of Lebanon."
After the resolution was passed, Britain's prime minister released a supporting statement saying the "passage of the UNSCR is immensely welcome".
Mr Blair continued: "The hostilities on both sides should cease immediately now that the resolution has finally been agreed by the whole of the international community. However, there will continue to be difficulties until it is clear that the combination of Lebanese forces and the UN multi-national force can be effectively deployed in returning control of the south of Lebanon to the Lebanese government. This should start straight away.
"It is essential that all parties exercise the utmost restraint and all those with influence over them urge them to do so.
"... In part, this will be about the ability of the democratically elected Lebanese government to be in sole charge of the Lebanon. However, we must never lose sight of the fact that the conflict in Lebanon arose out of the desire to exploit the continuing impasse in Palestine.