Israelis, Hezbollah Battle as U.N. Seeks Truce

Heavy fighting continues in Lebanon despite the U.N. Security Council's unanimous call for a cease-fire. Beefed-up Israeli forces are trying to do what they can to neutralize Hezbollah militants before fighting stops. Hezbollah's leader is welcoming the U.N. plan.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.

In the Middle East today, heavy fighting continued between Israel and Hezbollah forces despite a UN cease-fire resolution all sides say they'll accept.

In a last ditch effort to neutralize Hezbollah, beefed up Israeli army units advanced further into southern Lebanon. Hezbollah shot down an Israeli helicopter, the first downed in Lebanon since the fighting began a month ago.

The UN resolution agreed on yesterday calls for a full cessation of hostilities, the deployment of 30,000 Lebanese and United Nations forces and a parallel withdrawal of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon.

Israeli leaders say they expect to approve the measure late tomorrow or Monday.

Today, Lebanon's cabinet accepted the plan and Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, announced he would abide by the agreement.

NPR's Ivan Watson is in Beirut. He joins us on the line.

Ivan, Hezbollah's leader welcomed the United Nations cease-fire resolution?

IVAN WATSON reporting:

Debbie, he didn't welcome it. He grudgingly agreed to it. Nasrallah said that parts of the resolution were unfair and unjust. He said it favored Israel and left a window for Israel to continue fighting for days, but he said it could have been much, much worse.

The main point, as you mentioned, was that he agreed to the resolution if it is going to be signed by the UN Security Council, by the Lebanese government, and the Israeli government. He said his men would cooperate with the proposed deployment of 15,000 Lebanese soldiers, along with United Nations peacekeepers across southern Lebanon.

He added a very important caveat, though, Debbie. He said that as long as Israeli soldiers are occupying Lebanese territory, quote, It is our natural right to confront them, to fight them, and to defend our land, our homes, and ourselves.

ELLIOTT: What does that mean?

WATSON: Basically that means that Hezbollah says it can continue shooting at Israeli soldiers, ambushing them, perhaps even firing katyusha rockets at Israeli territory. As long as those Israeli soldiers that have pushed all the way up to the northern point of the Litani river, as long as they are on the ground, it does leave a lot of room for Hezbollah to continue fighting.

And the cease-fire resolution says that while Hezbollah must stop all of its attacks, Israel must only stop offensive operations. Israel has described this as a defensive war. And Lebanese government official says that also Israel a lot of room to continue conducting military operations, even inside Lebanese territory.

ELLIOTT: So what was the fighting like today?

WATSON: It was quite intense. Israel has pushed the deepest it has gone yet into Lebanese territory, thrusting toward the Litani river, reportedly air-lifting soldiers into this area, as well. The Israeli military claims to have killed scores of Hezbollah fighters. Hezbollah also claims to have destroyed a number of Israeli tanks.

Israel also bombed Lebanon from the northernmost border with Syria all the way down to southern frontier villages next to Israeli territory, and they also continued destroying bridges and highways around the country.

ELLIOTT: What are the Lebanese people saying about the U.N. agreement?

WATSON: They're pretty skeptical about this, Debbie. They say it gives them some moral support, but little more.

One man we talked to, he pointed out the fact that the Israeli cabinet is waiting until Sunday to discuss the resolution while expanding its ground offensive at the same time, and he called that simply another delaying tactic.

ELLIOTT: NPR's Ivan Watson in Lebanon. Thank you.

WATSON: You're welcome, Debbie.

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