Amid Diplomacy, Israel Deepens Attack

An Israeli soldier covers his ears as a mobile artillery unit fires a 155mm shell towards Hezbollah targets in southern Lebanon, 24 July 2006, at a military staging area outside northen town of Kiryat Shmona. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will announce late Monday "a major US commitment" of humanitarian aid that will start arriving in Lebanon within the next day or so. GETTY

Backed by tanks, Israeli troops battled their way to a key Hezbollah stronghold in south Lebanon on Monday, seizing a hilltop in heavy fighting and capturing two guerrillas. The U.S. completed its evacuation of 12,000 Americans and said it would switch to bringing in humanitarian aid.

On the 13th day of Israel's offensive, its forces moved one step deeper into Lebanon as U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made her first diplomatic foray since the conflict began — and immediately met resistance.

Rice paid a surprise visit to Beirut on the way to Israel, trying to push a blanket plan that would call for a cease-fire simultaneous with the deployment of international and Lebanese troops into southern Lebanon to prevent Hezbollah attacks on Israel.

Lebanese officials describe those meetings as tense, with Rice repeating the same conditions for a ceasefire that Israel has laid out, CBS News chief foreign correspondent Lara Logan reports.

Parliament speaker Nabih Berri, a prominent Shiite Muslim who has been negotiating on behalf of Hezbollah, rejected the idea and said a cease-fire should be immediate, leaving the other issues for much later. Western-backed Prime Minister Fuad Saniora took a similar stance and complained bitterly to Rice about the destruction wreaked by U.S. ally Israel.

Israel "is taking Lebanon backward 50 years and the result will be Lebanon's destruction," he told Rice, the prime minister's office said.

But a day after criticizing Israel for "disproportionate" strikes against civilians, U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland accused Hezbollah of "cowardly blending" among Lebanese civilians.

"Consistently, from the Hezbollah heartland, my message was that Hezbollah must stop this cowardly blending ... among women and children," Egeland said. "I heard they were proud because they lost very few fighters and that it was the civilians bearing the brunt of this. I don't think anyone should be proud of having many more children and women dead than armed men."

Israel appeared to be easing bombardment in populated areas and roads in Lebanon that has killed hundreds, displaced as many as 750,000 and dismembered the transportation network. Instead, it appeared to be focusing its firepower on Hezbollah at the front. Beirut saw no strikes all day in apparent deference to Rice's visit.

As the battle raged on along the border, Logan said both sides seemingly prepared to pay a heavy price — Israeli casualties ran into double figures but they claimed Hezbollah suffered dozens more.

And, as CBS News correspondent Richard Roth reports, Hezbollah's headquarters — its offices and apartments and even its streets — are all mostly just rubble now. But the infrastructure Hezbollah relies on isn't made of concrete and steel.

In other recent developments:

  • President Bush on Monday ordered helicopters and ships to Lebanon to provide humanitarian aid, but he still opposes an immediate cease-fire that could give relief from a 13-day-old Israeli bombing campaign. In announcing the assistance program, White House press secretary Tony Snow said there was no reason to believe an immediate cease-fire would stop violence in the Mideast and said instead that the world should confront the destabilizing force of Hezbollah and its practice of using the Lebanese people as "human shields."

  • Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he wants a meeting Wednesday in Rome on the Mideast violence to agree on a package including a cease-fire, deployment of an international force and the release of two Israeli soldiers abducted by Hezbollah. Annan's goal is "to keep the U.N. involved in the mediation efforts, even if the international military force is likely to be a NATO or other non-U.N. Force," said CBS News foreign affairs analyst Pamela Falk from the U.N., "and because relief aid and humanitarian assistance will most likely have to be distributed by U.N. agencies."

  • Hezbollah's representative in Iran warned Monday that his militant group plans to widen its attacks on Israel. "We are going to make Israel not safe for Israelis. There will be no place they are safe," Hossein Safiadeen told a conference that included the Tehran-based representative of the Palestinian group Hamas and the ambassadors from Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian Authority. "You will see a new Middle East in the way of Hezbollah and Islam, not in the way of Rice and Israel."

  • British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Monday called for an international military force in southern Lebanon as part of a plan to stop the latest surge in Middle East violence. Blair said "some form of international force in southern Lebanon" should be part of a plan to forge a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah guerillas.

  • A group of 300 Americans and 100 other Europeans were believed trapped in villages south of Tyre, said Erik Rattat, a German official involved in the operation. It did not appear that they made it to the ship. An Associated Press reporter at the scene an hour before it left said they had not arrived, and the U.S. Embassy could not immediately say if they had reached the ship in time. Some 11,700 Americans have fled Lebanon, the State Department said. U.S. Consul William Gill said most Americans who wanted to leave had done so by Sunday.

  • Israeli artillery shelled a town in Beit Lahiya, in the northern Gaza Strip on Monday, killing five Palestinians and wounding at least nine people, hospital officials said. The army said militants had fired from Beit Lahiya at least seven rockets at southern Israel on Monday, causing no casualties. The Israeli military said its attacks were aimed at two groups of Hamas militants firing rockets at southern Israel and that it regretted if civilian casualties resulted.

  • An Israeli helicopter crashed in northern Israel near the Lebanese border after hitting an electrical wire while making an emergency landing, causing two casualties and starting a large brush fire atop a hill, the army said.

    • Lloyd Vries

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