In announcing the assistance program, White House press secretary Tony Snow said Monday 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."
Meanwhile, Israeli ground forces pushed deeper into Lebanon on Monday in fierce fighting and captured two Hezbollah guerrillas, while two aid convoys carrying food, generators and other badly needed supplies left Beirut for two southern cities.
Four Israeli soldiers were killed — two in fighting and two in a helicopter crash — and 20 were wounded, military officials said.
"At the order of the president, humanitarian supplies will start arriving in Lebanon tomorrow by helicopter and by ship," Snow announced at the White House. "We are working with Israel and Lebanon to open up humanitarian corridors."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a surprise visit to Beirut to launch diplomatic efforts aimed at ending 13 days of warfare. Prime Minister Fuad Saniora told her his government is hoping to "put an end to the war being inflicted on Lebanon." He told Rice that Israel's bombardment was taking his country "backward 50 years."
An official close to parliament speaker Nabih Berri, a close Hezbollah ally, said his talks with Rice failed to "reach an agreement because Rice insisted on one full package to end the fighting." The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks were private. David Welch, an assistant secretary of state traveling with Rice, said later it was "unfair" to say Rice's meeting with Berri went poorly.
At the Pentagon, spokesman Bryan Whitman said the assistance will include tons of medical equipment and other supplies that will be delivered from Cyprus to Beirut. He said the U.S. military is nearing completion of the evacuation of American citizens and can switch its focus to the humanitarian mission.
The announcement came a day after officials from U.S. ally Saudi Arabia came to the White House to personally request that Mr. Bush help press for an immediate end to the violence between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon. But Snow said that could be a "fool's errand."
In other recent developments:
"Look, we would like a cease-fire tomorrow," Snow said. "We would like a cease-fire immediately. But it has to be a cease-fire that is going to stand the test of time so the people in that region and people in Lebanon particular, a country that has been hard hit by occupying forces and by frustrations of its democratic aspirations, deserves a shot at having the freedom and democracy its people deserve."
Snow said the humanitarian aid is not designed to mute criticism of the United States in the region but is strictly to aide innocent people who are being hurt.
Asked why the aid has taken two weeks to deliver, Snow said, "The fact is, that we're first to the scene." And he said the United States is calling on other allies to send help as well.
Whitman said it is likely that some of the faster-moving ships, such as the Italian fast ferry Vittoria M. and the Navy's high speed catamaran HSV-2 Swift, will be used to carry the supplies to aid agencies operating in Lebanon. He said it is not likely that the military will be transporting the supplies, including blankets and large medical kits, over land to other locations in the country.
Fierce fighting raged at the border as Israeli troops moved deeper into Lebanon to besiege the biggest town close to the frontier Bint Jbail, nicknamed the "capital of the resistance" due to its intense support of Hezbollah during Israel's 1982-2000 occupation of the south. Two Israeli soldiers were killed and 20 were wounded, the military said.
Bint Jbail holds strong symbolism for Hezbollah. Signs in the city tout its nickname, earned for its vehement backing of the guerrillas even while Israeli troops held the south. A day after Israel ended its occupation in 2000, Nasrallah went straight to Jbail for his first celebration rally.
Much of the town's population of 30,000 is believed to have fled, but many remain. A Red Cross doctor who visited Sunday, Dr. Hassan Nasreddine, said he saw families crowded into schools, mosques and other shelters.
Following an intense artillery barrage, Israeli troops took control of a hilltop in Bint Jbail, but the rest of the town was held by Hezbollah guerrillas, military officials said.
Rice, meanwhile, landed in Israel on Monday night after a quick visit to Beirut. Rice was headed to Jerusalem to meet with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni late Monday. Rice's previously unannounced visit to Lebanon earlier aimed to show support for Lebanon's embattled Western-backed government and to tackle what the United States and Israel believe to be the key to bringing peace, ending Hezbollah's domination along the Israeli border.
"Thank you for your courage and steadfastness," Rice said, meeting Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora. The premier kissed her on both cheeks and said Lebanon is hoping to "put an end to the war being inflicted on Lebanon."
Saniora has pleaded with Washington to press Israel to call a cease-fire in bombardment that has demolished Lebanon's infrastructure and killed hundreds. President Bush has opposed an immediate cease-fire, saying the root cause of the conflict must be resolved.
The White House has said an international force may be needed to help the Lebanese army move into the south, a move the Beirut government has long refused, wary of confronting the guerrillas' power there and of tearing apart the country.
After a meeting of over an hour, Rice and Saniora left without speaking to reporters. Foreign Ministry Fawzi Salloukh emerged and told the press, "Nothing to say."
Rice said President Bush wanted her to make Lebanon the first stop on her trip to the region, which has been embroiled in combat between Israel and Hezbollah since July 12. It was her third visit to Lebanon and was intended to make a show of support and concern for both the Saniora government and the Lebanese people, administration officials said. Rice came into Beirut by helicopter from Cyprus, then pulled up in a long line of armored SUVs pulled into the premier's government building in the center of Beirut.
Rice also paid a short visit to Lebanese parliament speaker Nabih Berri, a close ally of Hezbollah. Going into the session at Berri's lavish office and residence, Rice said, "I am deeply concerned about the Lebanese people and what they are enduring. I am obviously concerned about the humanitarian situation."
"The United States wants to see the fighting brought to an end. It is a very violent and very tragic situation. We want to use our influence to see there can be a cessation of hostilities, but to do so in a way that provides a basis for a longer lasting peace," Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told CBS News' The Early Show.
At least 384 people have been killed in Lebanon, including 20 soldiers and 11 Hezbollah fighters, according to security officials. At least 600,000 Lebanese have fled their homes, according to the WHO with an estimate by Lebanon's finance minister putting the number at 750,000, nearly 20 percent of the population.
Israel's death toll stands at 39, with 17 people killed by Hezbollah rockets and 22 soldiers killed in the fighting.