No Agreement on Lebanon Cease-Fire Terms
Almost all parties trying to douse the fire engulfing parts of the Middle East agree on this: A multinational force should be deployed to the Israel-Lebanon border as soon as possible.
That's where the agreement ends.
France, Italy, Russia and representatives from Arab states meeting in Rome on Wednesday were seeking a declaration calling for an immediate cease-fire. In other words, the fighting must first end and the outstanding grievances of both parties can then be negotiated.
The United States strongly opposes that plan. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told European and Mideast officials in Rome that any cease-fire must bring about a "lasting, sustainable" level of stability to the area.
Israel says it will carry on with its military campaign to crush Hezbollah and put an end to cross-border attacks. But, in a departure from its usual position, Israel has strongly embraced the deployment of a multinational peacekeeping force.
Though most countries demanding a cease-fire have called for international observers, few nations have volunteered their own soldiers for that possible mission.
The United States and Israel would want to see a robust force, prepared to engage in combat with Hezbollah guerrillas, if necessary. Israel has suggested, perhaps, a NATO-led force to patrol the border.
The United Nations and several European states are seeking to bolster the existing U.N. peacekeeping mission along the Israel-Lebanon border. UNIFIL, as it's known, has operated in the area for more than two decades, proving to be weak and ineffectual.
UNIFIL posts line the border between the two countries but, in many cases, Hezbollah guerrillas have set up outposts within a few yards of the U.N. posts. It often puts U.N. peacekeepers in danger, a reality underscored by the death of four UNIFIL observers in an apparent Israeli airstrike. Israel has apologized for what it said was an "error" and will launch a full investigation. But U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan didn't mince words: he called the airstrike "deliberate."
UNIFIL peacekeepers have a very limited mandate and cannot eject Hezbollah guerrillas by force. In the past, UNIFIL has appealed to the Lebanese government to deploy its army in the south.
In the meantime, Israel says it will carry on with its ground offensive in southern Lebanon. The objective, say Israeli leaders, is to flush Hezbollah militants out of a narrow strip of land along the Israel-Lebanon border. So far, Israeli forces and Hezbollah guerrillas have engaged in fierce fighting near the Lebanese border towns of Bint Jbail and Maroun al-Ras.
There are conflicting reports on the numbers of casualties, but both Israeli soldiers and Hezbollah militants died in clashes on Wednesday.
Another barrage of rocket fire landed on several northern Israeli towns on Wednesday. At least 30 Israelis were wounded in rocket strikes on Tuesday.
Israeli military officials have insisted its army has badly crippled Hezbollah's capabilities. But the frequency of Hezbollah rocket attacks into Israel has remained steady, averaging between 75 and 150 rockets a day.
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