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Ahead of truce, Israel and Hezbollah show their strength

MALKIYA, Israel—Israeli forces bombed Beirut and fought ground battles in a race to take turf in south Lebanon on Sunday while Hezbollah fired its biggest one-day fusillade of rockets into northern Israel in an offensive frenzy ahead of a U.N.-brokered cease-fire meant to silence the month-old war soon after dawn Monday.

The weekend warfare was Israel's bloodiest of the month-old campaign. At least 29 soldiers were killed, among them the 20-year-old son of acclaimed Israeli author David Grossman who had publicly opposed the offensive, and the first Israeli woman soldier to die in this Lebanon conflict, a mechanic aboard a helicopter shot down by Hezbollah.

On the political front, the Israeli cabinet endorsed the cease-fire but said it would not withdraw thousands of troops ranged across Lebanon's south. Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora's government was mired in crisis after Hezbollah balked at disarming fighters in the conflict zone.

And still uncertain on the eve of the truce was whether it would take hold and stick long enough—a week or more—for the United Nations to assemble and dispatch a 15,000-member multinational force to move south with the Lebanese army and take control of the war zone.

"We are all sick of this war," said Israeli Pvt. Tomer Ashkenazi, 21, who was deployed to the fight a month ago, as he helped prepare shells for his tank unit Sunday at this Lebanese border community. "But, as a soldier, I can't see the end. They keep firing at us and we keep firing at them."

Hours later, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's cabinet unanimously agreed with one abstention to stop its offensive at 8 a.m. Monday, or 1 a.m. EDT, and test the U.N. truce. Under the scheme, Israel would halt its air strikes and shelling of south Lebanon from artillery batteries arrayed along the northern border that have been shaking the earth night and day in support of advancing forces.

"It means we don't keep moving north. We do nothing to escalate the situation," said Israeli spokesman Mark Regev, adding that under the U.N. Security Council resolution adopted Friday, Israel reserved the right to fight defensively against Hezbollah until there is "a coordinated withdrawal together with the Lebanese army and the international forces."

But, he said, Israel would not bring home most of the troops it poured into the south over the weekend until the U.N. force arrives and separates the two sides, with Hezbollah going north and Israel back inside its territory.

So, questions remained about how both sides would behave during the week or more it takes to assemble the force: How much air and firepower would Israel bring to bear if it spots Hezbollah fighters in the zone south of the Litani River? What about suspected re-supply missions? Would it use artillery or air support in close-range clashes with Hezbollah fighters? What if Hezbollah continues to fire rockets into northern Israel?

Still unclear Sunday night was where Israeli forces were dug in around southern Lebanon after a weekend dash 18-miles north of the border to the Litani River. Israel's combat helicopters dropped commandos north of Hezbollah positions Saturday, its largest offensive into Lebanon, leaving an estimated 30,000 troops spread across a perilous patchwork of Israeli infantry and tank forces here, Hezbollah fighters there.

Hezbollah's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, said Saturday that his Party of God would accept the cease-fire, suggesting a halt in cross-border rockets. But he said, in defense of Lebanon, it would still fight Israeli troops on Lebanese soil even during the cease-fire.

In a show of strength Sunday, Hezbollah unleashed more than 250 rockets across the border into northern Israel in hour after hour of strikes that set off sirens and sent Israelis again and again to shelters from Nahariya to Kiryat Shemona. An 83-year-old man was killed in a Katyusha rocket attack, and more than 80 Israelis were wounded in the fusillade.

In Beirut, Israeli warplanes pummeled the southern suburbs, a Hezbollah stronghold, day and night. Prime Minister Siniora postponed a Cabinet session on implementing the cease-fire because of dispute over whether Hezbollah would disarm itself ahead of arrival of the Lebanese army and foreign forces. Most of Siniora's government, which includes two Hezbollah representatives, wants the Shiite fighters to lay down their arms before the Lebanese and U.N. forces arrive.

"We are still very hopeful there will be a cease-fire tomorrow, but ... the arms issue of Hezbollah is at the crux of that," said a Lebanese Cabinet member, on condition he not be identified.

Israel argues that Lebanon's government must leash Hezbollah.

"If a stone or a Katyusha is fired at Israel, we must deal the hardest blows at the Lebanese infrastructure, because Lebanon allows the Hezbollah to operate," Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai of the religious Shas Party said after Sunday's cabinet meeting. "Only in this way will Siniora watch over his area."

The infrastructure is already badly battered. Lebanese Red Cross said medics were digging through rubble in southern Beirut's Dahiyeh section Sunday for victims of Israel's bombing raids, which killed at least three people, two of them children, and wounded 18 others. In Tyre, Israeli strikes hit fuel stations north and south of the coastal city, said Qassim Shaalan of the Lebanese Red Cross there.

"We're expecting a very heavy night," said the Lebanese Red Cross' Ralph el-Hage in Beirut, predicting the death toll would climb. "Many more corpses lie under the rubble."

Israelis interviewed along the northern border offered a blend of bewilderment and anger over what the county had gained out of a month of warfare triggered July 12 by Hezbollah's capture of two soldiers inside Israel.

"We're a little bit confused because we didn't get anything at all out of the cease-fire," said Israeli army Lt. Roy Shaposhnik, 27, who was called into the reserves last week along with his old tank unit. "I think this is the first time that Israel lost a war."

Israel said it launched the war to both recover the two men and weaken or dismantle what it saw as a proxy of Iran and Syria, the armed wing of the parliamentary Party of God movement, which has dominated the south since Israel's May 2000 withdrawal inside its own borders.

But Hezbollah has hung on for a month, rocketing northern Israel, battling Israeli forces in the south—and was no closer to freeing the two reservists it presumed were still alive Sunday. Instead, the Israeli government said it would name a special envoy to negotiate with the Siniora government for their return.

Shaposhnik said Israel shouldn't have accepted any deal that didn't include return of the two soldiers, who were snatched in a bold Hezbollah incursion on their last day of reserve duty.

"No one wants to go inside Lebanon, but if you think about it we've had more than 30 days of fighting and I can't really understand what we achieved," he said.

Amid the frenzy of fighting Sunday, Israeli unity was fracturing. Former Defense Minister Moshe Arens called Prime Minister Olmert and his cabinet unfit to govern, accusing them of mismanaging the war, then accepting a weak U.N. truce that kept Hezbollah strong.

"To lead the nation in a war to victory was just too much for them,'' wrote Arens, 80, in a commentary in the respected daily Haaretz newspaper. "Israel's enemies, and they are many, will conclude that Israel does not have the stamina for an extended encounter with terrorism. You do not need tanks and aircraft to defeat Israel—a few thousand rockets are enough."

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McClatchy News correspondents Shashank Bengali contributed to this report from Beirut and Dion Nissenbaum from Malkiya, Israel, and elsewhere along the northern border. Leila Fadel reported from Beirut and Carol Rosenberg from Jerusalem.

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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