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New urgency for Lebanon cease-fire

An Israeli bomb kills at least 54 civilians in Lebanon, adding pressure on US diplomacy.

By Ilene R. Prusher, / July 31, 2006


Israel's bombing of a civilian building Sunday in Qana, which killed at least 54 civilians, 37 of them children, has almost overnight turned up international pressure for the US to urge Israel toward an immediate cease-fire with Lebanon.

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Sunday's strike in south Lebanon bore tragic similarities to a 1996 Israeli attack in the same town – another attempt to crush Hizbullah – that killed more than 100 civilians. International outcry then forced a cease-fire agreement within days.

While Sunday's attack was the single deadliest event in the conflict between Israel and Hizbullah guerrillas in the 19-day-old war, it remains uncertain whether it will compel another cease-fire.

But the mounting civilian death toll has forced Washington and Tel Aviv to reassess what had been the conventional wisdom until a few days ago: that Israel should be given time to degrade Hizbullah's military capabilities.

Israeli officials quickly apologized for the deaths of innocent people Sunday, saying that the area was targeted because it had been used by Hizbullah.

Prime Minister Olmert expressed "great sorrow" for the attack, but blamed Hizbullah – and said villagers had been asked to flee. Mr. Olmert also said he was "not going to rush" into a cease-fire without achieving "the main goals," adding, "this also requires the maturation of the diplomatic process and reaching a detailed agreement regarding the stationing of forces that will secure the areas from which Israel" has been fired on.

Hamas Leader Khaled Meshaal called for more resistance against Israel in response to Sunday's attack on the Lebanese village. "The only response to this ugly massacre is an acceleration of the resistance in Lebanon and Palestine," Mr. Meshaal told Reuters.

Just this weekend, a light at the end of the tunnel had begun to appear, with a whirlwind of diplomatic meetings suggesting that a deal could be in the works. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in Israel Sunday to press for a cease-fire. She is scheduled to return to Washington Monday.

Any deal is expected to include an exchange of Lebanese prisoners held by Israel in return for Israel's two soldiers captured on July 12th, and the creation of a new international peacekeeping force in Lebanon. Israel also views a potential disarming of Hizbullah, as called for in UN Resolution 1559, with paramount importance.

Some Middle East observers say they are not optimistic that the US will be successful in brokering a cease-fire, despite the bloodshed, and say that Ms. Rice will have a difficult time bringing others to the table because the deteriorating regional image of the US.

"The US has lost a lot of its credibility as an honest broker," says Nadim Shehadi, a Lebanon expert at Chatham House of the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London.

"What we've seen is not a reversal of American policy. It's very obvious that [Rice] is still supporting the Israeli operation, and that means she will not be able to declare any cease-fire at this stage. I see it as a complete deadlock, because a cease-fire now means that Israeli military operations continued for 18 days with nothing to show except destruction and causalities, and that would be a failure for them."

In Qana Sunday, members of two extended families were killed when an Israeli jet dropped two bombs on the house in which they were sheltering, destroying most of the building and crushing the victims under rubble and dirt. Only eight people managed to survive the massive double blast.

The half-finished three-story house belonged to Abbas Hashem and lay at the end of a narrow lane. The Hashem family and their close neighbors, the Shalhoubs, had moved onto the ground floor of the unfinished building 10 days earlier, hoping that a large pile of dirt and sand for construction would help protect them from the heavy artillery bombardments and repeated air strikes in and around Qana.

Although most residents of this village of some 12,000 people had already fled to the town of Tyre on the coast six miles to the west or headed further north, the Shalhoub and Hashem families had found themselves cut off.

"We couldn't get out of our neighborhood because there are only two roads leading out and the Israelis bombed them both several days ago," says Mohammed Shalhoub, who was recovering from Sunday's bombing in Tyre's government-run hospital.

He says that conditions in the make-shift bomb shelter were difficult. They had little water and food and there was no bathroom. Both families were asleep when the two bombs dropped on the building in rapid succession at 1 a.m.

"I felt the blast throw me across the room. I was buried under the rubble along with the martyrs," Mohammed says.

Mohammed's wife, Rabab, hauled him clear of the debris and rescued their son, Hassan, 4, but Zeinab, their six-year-old daughter was left dead under the rubble.