BEIRUT - The Lebanese Red Cross and other aid agencies are readying themselves to provide humanitarian assistance in the case of further attacks by Israel in Lebanon.
The Red Cross has so far sent 350 first aid workers and 36 ambulances to the impoverished south. “The situation is very bad because there’s been a lot of bombardment and some bridges have been destroyed,” said Red Cross spokesman Ayad Mounzer. “We’ve been meeting to discuss the situation and a plan of action, including a new appeal”.
The current crisis, the worst since the Israeli retreat from Southern Lebanon in 2000, erupted when the “Party of God” known Hezbollah staged a successful cross-border assault on an Israeli army post, killing three soldiers and capturing two. In an attempt to rescue the hostages, another four Israeli soldiers died when their military vehicle hit an explosive device.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Wednesday called the Hezbollah attack “an act of war” and held the Lebanese government responsible for failing to implement UN Resolution 1559, which demands that all militias on Lebanese territory be disarmed. The Lebanese government, meanwhile, announced it had no previous knowledge of the attack.
The overwhelming Israeli military response has so far killed 47 and injured 100, most of them civilians, the Ministry of Public Health announced on Thursday. Most casualties were reported near the border in the south of the country, with the Israeli army continuing to launch artillery fire and air strikes at Hezbollah positions and at civilian infrastructure.
Roads, bridges and the Beirut International Airport were all targeted within the last 24 hours . While the Israeli army has amassed thousands of soldiers on the border, no Israeli ground troops have been reported within Lebanese territory so far, according to Richard Morzynski, spokesman for the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).
Many Lebanese fear that Israel will reinstall a buffer zone along the border, as it did from 1982 to 2000. “UNIFIL is in the process of establishing facts on the ground,” said Morzynski. “We’ve been trying to establish a ceasefire, but for that you need two parties. The Israeli position is clear: no discussion until the two soldiers are freed.”
The action by Hezbollah was strongly condemned by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who said it breached existing Security Council resolutions. He also called for the immediate and unconditional release of the Israeli captives. “This incident, and subsequent developments, which endanger an already volatile region, demonstrates once again how urgent it is that the Lebanese government extends its control over all Lebanese territory and prevents such attacks across the Blue Line,” Annan said.
The secretary-general’s personal representative in Lebanon, Gier Pedersen, added: “The Hezbollah attack is to be condemned in the strongest possible terms. The action escalates the already tense situation along the Blue Line and is an act of very dangerous proportions.”
According to Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, the aim of the operation was to capture Israeli soldiers who will only be released in exchange for Lebanese and Arab prisoners currently languishing Israeli prisons.
Many experts however, believe there is more at stake than the release of prisoners. Peter Haenni of the International Crisis Group claimed there was a connection with the current crisis in the Gaza strip, which has been “largely ignored by the rest of the world”.
He added: “Since the Israeli retreat in 2000, Hezbollah has found it difficult to change from a resistance to a more civic movement, both on the national and regional levels. With this attack, it hopes to re-establish itself as a national and regional player, not least in the eyes of Sunni Islamic parties.”
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