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'Enduring' peace far off

| Friday, May 4, 2012, 7:15 a.m.

HAIFA, Israel - Despite Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's call for "an enduring cessation of violence," warfare between Israel and Hezbollah raged Tuesday.

Israeli artillery, tanks and warplanes targeted Hezbollah militants in southern Lebanon and bombed their strongholds in Beirut's southern suburbs -- the first airstrikes there in two days -- while Hezbollah fired more than 100 rockets into northern Israel, as it has done almost daily for two weeks.

Many here do not expect Rice's vision of an enduring peace to develop anytime soon.

"Israel has turned the strategic equation -- with the support of the United States -- to eliminating Hezbollah," said David Bukay, a professor of political science at Haifa University.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met with Rice yesterday in Jerusalem, after her surprise stop in Beirut on Sunday. Afterward, a diplomatic solution to the conflict seemed as distant as ever.

Rice also met yesterday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at his Ramallah headquarters in the West Bank.

"The suffering of the people in Lebanon, in the Gaza Strip and in the West Bank is beyond the endurance of any human being, and an end must be brought to this suffering," Abbas said, with Rice by his side.

Rice then headed to Rome for a summit on the crisis in the Middle East.

A U.S. American peace plan "is not put together yet," said Assistant Secretary of State David Welch, offering reporters traveling with Rice the first window into closed-door diplomatic efforts in Beirut and Jerusalem. "Our purpose here is to work methodically to get it," Welch said.

It was the clearest signal from Rice's team so far that it could take weeks, if not longer, to broker a deal.

"Israel is determined to carry on its fight against Hezbollah," Olmert told her.

"As you know, we are not fighting the Lebanese government, and we are not fighting the Lebanese people. But Hezbollah is a brutal terrorist organization, manipulated, operated, sponsored, financed, equipped and inspired by countries which are not interested in any major development in our part of the world," he said.

Rice said that, in spite of "extremely difficult circumstances" that include urgent humanitarian needs in Lebanon, the region must find an "enduring" solution.

"That means we cannot return to a status quo ante, in which extremists at any time can decide to take innocent life hostage again, by using their missiles or using their capabilities," she said.

"It is time for a new Middle East, it is time to say to those who do not want a different kind of Middle East, that we will prevail, they will not."

There was no "new Middle East" yesterday, however.

In Haifa, air-raid sirens wailed all day and into the night -- six times before noon. Sixteen medium-range missiles hit downtown Haifa and residential areas, shattering windows in buildings, cars and a bus. Ball bearings packed into the rockets peppered buildings and bridges.

A 15-year-old girl was killed and two dozen people were wounded in the day's strikes on northern Israel.

"The goal was very clear ... to kill civilians. They are targeting only civilians in Haifa," said Olivier Rafowicz, a senior Israeli Defense Forces spokesman, at one of the rocket-blasted sites. "The Israeli army and the Israeli state have to continue to fight and eradicate this cancer whose name is Hezbollah."

Israeli troops sealed off a Hezbollah stronghold yesterday and widened their foothold in southern Lebanon, but officials said Israeli bombs killed six people in a south Lebanon town and two U.N. observers in a border outpost, with two other peacekeepers feared dead.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the strike on a clearly marked U.N. border outpost was "apparently deliberate" and demanded Israel investigate. A bomb dropped by an Israel warplane scored a direct hit on the post in the town of Khiyam, near the eastern sector of the border, U.N. officials said.

The victims were from Austria, Canada, China and Finland, U.N. and Lebanese military officials said. It was not immediately known which two were confirmed dead.

Israel's U.N. Ambassador Dan Gillerman expressed his "deep regret" for the deaths and denied Israel hit the post intentionally.

"I am shocked and deeply distressed by the hasty statement of the secretary-general, insinuating that Israel has deliberately targeted the U.N. post," he said, calling the assertions "premature and erroneous."

Israeli commanders said they would not push deep into Lebanon but were determined to stop Hezbollah missiles that have continued despite Israel's punishing raids on Hezbollah targets. Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, issued a taped television message saying guerrillas would now start firing rockets deeper into Israel.

Yesterday marked a month since the start of what is now a two-front war between Israel and Islamic militants. On June 25, an Israeli soldier was captured by Hamas militants in Gaza, prompting an Israeli offensive there. Two weeks into that flare-up, Hezbollah snatched the two other soldiers.

In that month, the crisis has spiraled far beyond anyone's imagining.

Mahmoud Komati, the deputy chief of the Hezbollah politburo, told The Associated Press here that the guerrilla group's leadership had not expected a massive offensive when it snatched the two Israeli soldiers.

"The truth is -- let me say this clearly -- we didn't even expect (this) response ... that (Israel) would exploit this operation for this big war against us," he said.

Instead, he said Hezbollah had thought Israel would respond to the soldiers' capture by snatching Hezbollah leaders in commando raids and that negotiations for a swap would start, giving Hezbollah the chance to try to win the release of Lebanese prisoners held by Israel.

He called the Israeli assault "unjustified" and said Hezbollah would not lay down its weapons.

Experts here agreed with Rice's assessment that a quick end to the violence will only lead to worse problems in the region.

"If there is a cease-fire now, Hezbollah is the ruler of Lebanon," said Yigal Carmon, president of Middle East Media Research Institute, which tracks and analyzes media reports and political statements throughout the Arab world.

Carmon believes any true solution must go beyond simply pushing Hezbollah beyond a buffer zone in southern Lebanon. "The root of the problem is the flow of weapons from Iran through Syria," he said, adding that Hezbollah's "missiles will keep coming from the north."

He questioned the value of a buffer zone between Israel and Lebanon to be controlled by an international peace-keeping force. "When they see the strength of Hezbollah, what army will want to be there to fight Hezbollah?" he asked. "Israel has to be there now to protect the country."

Carmon believes the conflict could easily spread into a wider war involving Syria and Iran if the issue of Iranian weapons is not addressed. "This is about the rise of Iran to regional hegemony," he explained, adding that concerns about such a prospect are why Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan are not supporting Hezbollah.

Bukay said the Bush administration understands the regional consequences of Israel's fight against Hezbollah, which he deems one of the world's most lethal terrorist groups. He called the battle "the first step of the free world's fight against Iran as part of the axis of evil."

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