U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says a ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah militants is possible this week. Her comments came in Jerusalem, where Israeli officials said they had suspended air strikes in Lebanon for 48 hours, after more than 50 Lebanese civilians were killed in one such strike, Sunday.
Wrapping up more than a week of diplomatic activity that took her to Europe, Asia and the Middle East, Secretary Rice returns to Washington on Monday, saying she believes the time is now right for the U.N. Security Council to end the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah and send international peacekeepers to southern Lebanon.
"This morning, as I head back to Washington, I take with me an emerging consensus on what is necessary for both an urgent ceasefire and a lasting settlement," Rice says. "I am convinced we can achieve both this week. And, I am convinced that only by achieving both will the Lebanese people finally be able to control their country and their future."
Ms. Rice says the United States will call for the U.N. Security Council to implement a ceasefire; establish principles for a long-term settlement; and authorize an interim international peacekeeping force to support the Lebanese Army establish its presence in southern Lebanon. She says the force will have a broad mandate.
"There is broad agreement that armed groups must be prohibited in areas where the international force is deployed," Rice says. "An international embargo must be enforced against the delivery of weapons to anyone other than the government of Lebanon or the stabilization force. No foreign forces will be allowed, unless specifically authorized by the government of Lebanon and that Lebanon, assisted by the international community, should disarm unauthorized groups."
Secretary Rice says the force will also support humanitarian efforts in southern Lebanon and help displaced people return home, as well as police Lebanon's borders with Israel and Syria.
Countries interested in supplying troops to the proposed force have scheduled a meeting later Monday at the United Nations to discuss the proposal.
Israel suspended air strikes in Lebanon for 48 hours, after more than 50 civilians -- many of them children -- were killed in a strike against the town of Qana, in southern Lebanon, Sunday. Israel has also agreed to give civilians 24 hours to evacuate parts of southern Lebanon and to allow the United Nations to deliver humanitarian supplies to the area.
Israeli military authorities say the suspension of air strikes does not include retaliation for any Hezbollah rocket attacks or actions to support Israeli military activity inside Lebanon. Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Monday that Israel would continue its offensive against Hezbollah and that his country will not agree to any immediate cease-fire.
Israeli authorities say they will investigate the Qana strike, but that it appears Hezbollah was using areas around Qana to launch missiles against Israel. Air Force General Ido Nehushtan says Israel does its best to avoid civilian casualties, but distinguishing civilian areas from those being used for military purposes is difficult, if not impossible.
"There is no battlefield," Nehushtan says. "There is no frontline. The enemy does not have any war plans, war ships, divisions or facilities. Its missiles are being launched from within civilian populations against our own civilian population."
A Hezbollah member of the Lebanese parliament said Monday that Hezbollah will only stop missile attacks against Israel when Israel stops attacking Hezbollah and pulls its troops out of Lebanon. Fighting started nearly three weeks ago, after Hezbollah militants seized two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid.
Large numbers of Lebanese civilians began fleeing southern Lebanese towns, Monday, heading north towards Tyre -- taking advantage of the suspension of Israeli air strikes. Meanwhile two U.N. convoys, carrying food and medicine, left Beirut Monday heading for Tyre and the village of Qana. U.N. officials say they hope to send a third convoy to the border village of Bint Jbail, where Israeli troops and Hezbollah militants have been fighting each other for more than a week.