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Israeli Forces Poised To Enter Lebanon

Israeli soldiers and armoured vehicles close to the border with Lebanon (epa) PRAGUE, July 22, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Eleven days after the Israeli air force and artillery started to attack targets throughout Lebanon, the crisis in the Middle East appears set to enter a new, even more dangerous phase, with Israeli forces massing on the border ahead of a possible ground assault within Lebanon.

The Israeli army admits to having made "limited incursions" into southern Lebanon in recent days, seizing a number of villages. (It has since left one.)

But that seems likely just to be a prelude to a broader offensive, with the Israeli military warning civilians near the border to leave their homes by early evening on July 22. Israeli armor and thousands of soldiers have been gathering on the border since the evening of July 21, and an undisclosed number of reservists (up to 3,000, reports suggest) were also called up for duty overnight.

"It is either too unsafe or physically impossible, due to destruction, to move relief supplies in or around large parts of the country."

Israeli officials have said Israel does not intend to launch a full-scale invasion. Instead, the aim of a ground operation, according to Brigadier General Ido Nehushtan of the Israeli General Staff, would be to "cripple" the military infrastructure of Hizballah, the Shi'ite movement whose cross-border raid and capture of two Israeli solders precipitated the Israeli military campaign. Hizballah bunkers, tunnels under the border, and other targets that could not be destroyed from the air are likely to be taken out.

The Challenges On The Ground

Lebanese soldiers and civilians run for cover during an Israeli air strike in Beirut (epa)

Israeli incursions have so far met with fierce resistance, and a full-scale assault would probably be bloody and destructive.

That prospect -- together with Israeli airdropped leaflets warning civilians to leave the area -- has prompted thousands more Lebanese to risk taking to the road to head north.

The dangers of traveling in the country are also compounding the difficulties for humanitarian agencies. The United Nations' undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, Jan Egeland, said on July 21 that "it is either too unsafe or physically impossible, due to destruction, to move relief supplies in or around large parts of the country."

He warned that these "access problems are severely hampering humanitarian action," and that than a half million civilians affected by the conflict are now in desperate need of food and medical supplies.

Dan Gillerman, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, said on July 21 that Israel has agreed to a UN request for the creation of a humanitarian corridor "allowing evacuation from Lebanon, a two-way in-and-out humanitarian corridor to meet the needs of those affected on the Lebanese side."

Western correspondents in the town of Tyre and other parts of southern Lebanon say they are unable to confirm that humanitarian shipments have been delivered there.

Northern Lebanon has received a huge influx of refugees in the past few days, but many points in the north have also been hit by the Israeli air force.

Among those struck on July 22, were a number of television and phone transmission towers in the north and center of the country, causing the Lebanon's leading private TV network to go off the air. The phone system was also affected.

Those were just a few of the 70 targets struck overnight. The Israeli air force says it has hit 1,800 targets since the fighting began. Roads to Syria, as well as Hizballah rocket launchers and command posts, were among the targets last night.

The number of casualties is unclear, but Israel claims to have killed almost 100 Hizballah fighters. The Lebanese government says over 330 Lebanese have been killed. Hizballah has fired hundreds of rockets into towns in northern Israel, killing 16 civilians.

The death toll is likely to rise substantially in a ground offensive. Hizballah has demonstrated that it has substantial firepower, and it showed its strength on the ground by killing six Israeli soldiers during its defense of the village of Maroun al-Ras, just inside Lebanon.

The Lebanese army has so far kept out of the fighting, but it too has been attacked and could also become involved in clashes. The Lebanese defense minister, Elias al-Murr, said on July 21 that the army would defend Lebanon against invasion. It is not clear whether it would try and repel the better-armed Israeli forces if an assault were limited in scope.

The International Front

A land attack would effectively acknowledge that the air campaign had failed to deal Hizballah a crippling blow and could set the stage for a protracted struggle on the ground.

"I have no interest in diplomacy for the sake of returning Lebanon and Israel to the status quo ante. I think it would be a mistake."

That prospect prompted UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to warn on July 21 that an Israeli ground invasion would mark a "very serious escalation" of the conflict. It could also increase pressure on the United States to become more involved in trying to bring an immediate end to the fighting.

That could be difficult to negotiate, and international powers may differ in the line they take. A wide range of countries have called for an immediate cease-fire, but U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice indicated on July 21 that a mere cessation of fighting would not be enough. "I have no interest in diplomacy for the sake of returning Lebanon and Israel to the status quo ante. I think it would be a mistake," she said.

Rice is due on July 23 to start a tour that will take her to Beirut, Jerusalem, and Cairo before talks in Rome, scheduled for July 26, at which foreign ministers from some of the leading global and regional powers will discuss the conflict in Lebanon.

A top UN official said on July 21 that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had called for a conference to be held to try to formulate plans for a cease-fire. In a statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry said it hoped the meeting would be an "important step toward forming a full-fledged strategy for resolving the crisis in the Middle East."

German Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier is also heading for the region. Steinmeier was a key figure in talks that secured an exchange of prisoners between Israel and Hizballah in 2004. A similar exchange is widely thought to be one of the key elements in any potential deal between the warring sides.

UN Peacekeepers

UN Peacekeepers
UN peacekeepers in Haiti in February 2006 (AFP)

MISSION In cases in which international intervention in regional conflicts is deemed necessary, peacekeeping missions authorized by the UN Security Council provide legitimacy by demonstrating the commitment of the international community to address such crises.

MANDATE UN peacekeeping missions are prepared, managed, and directed by the UN's Department of Peacekeeping Operations. The unique mandates of peacekeeping missions falls under the authority of the UN's Security Council and General Assembly, and under the command of the UN secretary-general.

MONEY Funding for UN peacekeeping missions is provided by UN member states. All are legally obliged to pay a share under an established formula. The leading financial providers as of 2006 were: the United States, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Canada, Spain, China, and the Netherlands.

MORE All UN peacekeeping missions share the goals of alleviating human suffering and creating conditions for self-sustaining peace. Missions can consist of armed or unarmed military components, depending on their mandate, and various civilian tasks.

Military operations can include:
· Deploying to prevent the outbreak of conflict or the spillover of conflict across borders;
· Stabilizing conflict situations after a cease-fire in order to create an environment for the parties to reach a lasting peace agreement;
· Assisting in implementing comprehensive peace agreements;
· Leading states or territories through a transition to stable government, based on democratic principles, good governance, and economic development.

HISTORY There have been 60 peacekeeping operations since 1948. Fifteen peacekeeping missions were in operation in mid-2006, employing more than 60,000 troops, 7,000 police, and over 2,500 military observers. Peacekeeping operations in 2006 were supported by uniformed personnel provided by 109 countries.

(source: UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations)


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