Israel plans to halt war in Lebanon on Monday

Israel will halt its war in Lebanon at 7 a.m. Monday (midnight EDT Sunday night), a senior Israeli government official said Saturday.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly on the sensitive matter. Israel’s Cabinet was to endorse the U.N. cease-fire resolution later Sunday.

Israel, meanwhile, flew hundreds of commandos into southern Lebanon on Saturday, tripling its troop strength to 30,000 and sending some army units as far as the Litani River even as both sides indicated they would accept a U.N. cease-fire plan to stop the heavy fighting.

Airstrikes killed at least 19 people in Lebanon, including 15 in one village, and Hezbollah rockets wounded at least five people in Israel.

The Islamic militant group fought back hard, claiming to have destroyed 21 Israeli tanks and killing seven soldiers. Israel confirmed seven deaths and said dozens of other soldiers were wounded in the expanded offensive.

The fighting came a day after the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution seeking a “full cessation” of violence between Israel and Hezbollah, authorizing 15,000 U.N. peacekeepers to help Lebanese troops take control of south Lebanon as Israeli forces withdraw from the area.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the broadened Israeli offensive had been anticipated and she hoped the hostilities would end in “a day or so.”

“My understanding is that this is part of the normal operations that were contemplated. When the cease fire — the cessation of hostilities — comes into being, Israel will stop,” she said in an interview with Israel Television.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan “is working with the parties to establish a timetable for the cease-fire, but I would hope that within no more than a day or so that there would be a cessation of the hostilities on the ground,” she said.

Long columns of Israeli armored vehicles streamed over the border trying to drive Hezollah behind the Litani, about 18 miles from the border, before the truce. More than 50 helicopters ferried in commandos in what was called the biggest such operation in Israel’s history.

Israel wanted to seize control of the area before positions are frozen to ensure that Hezbollah fighters don’t flood the zone before it is handed over to the Lebanese army and U.N. troops, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss sensitive issues publicly.

Israel, which said its troops had killed some 50 guerrillas over the previous 24 hours, said late in the day that some army units had pushed to the Litani, but gave no details.

The Litani is seen by Israel as a crucial boundary in its attempt to push back Hezbollah. Israel repeatedly has insisted that the proposed peacekeeping force cannot allow Hezbollah weapons south of the river.

But it will be nearly impossible to rid south Lebanon of the Islamic guerrillas, who are now in the Lebanese Cabinet and run clinics and other charities that are considered essential in rebuilding the region. Their ability to withstand the Israeli military assault has also made Hezbollah heroes across the Arab and Islamic worlds.

Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Israeli troops will remain until the international relief force arrives and will be defend themselves if attacked.

“If anyone dares to use force against Israeli Defense Forces, we will see this as a violation of the cease-fire agreement,” he said on Israel television.

Israeli army chief, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, said earlier that Israel expected to fight for another week despite the cease-fire deal. He said Israeli forces — apparently about 30,000 soldiers now — would stay in Lebanon until an international force arrived.

Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, meanwhile, said his militia would abide by the cease-fire blueprint but warned the guerrillas would keep battling Israeli troops while they remained in Lebanon, calling that “our natural right.”

His address was televised as Lebanon’s Cabinet met to vote on the U.N. plan. Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora signaled the Cabinet would accept, saying it serves the interests of his country and “shows that the whole world stood by Lebanon.”

The Israeli Cabinet was expected to approve the cease-fire Sunday, but Israel appeared ready to keep up its full-scale military campaign until the U.N. plan worked its way through the region’s political leadership over the weekend.

The resolution approved Friday night by the U.N. Security Council would create a peacekeeping force by combining a beefed-up version of ineffective U.N. units already in the war zone and 15,000 soldiers from the Lebanese army. The force, which could number around 30,000, would stand between Israel and Hezbollah’s militia.

France, New Zealand, Italy and Ireland said Saturday they were ready to provide troops and Turkey said it was inclined to do so.

President Bush issued a statement urging the world’s leaders to implement the U.N. plan and help bring real peace to the Middle East.

“The loss of innocent life in both Lebanon and Israel has been a great tragedy,” Bush said. “Hezbollah and its Iranian and Syrian sponsors have brought an unwanted war to the people of Lebanon and Israel, and millions have suffered as a result. I now urge the international community to turn words into action and make every effort to bring lasting peace to the region.”

Israel has demanded an airtight buffer zone and wonders if U.N. and Lebanese forces are up for the task. A small U.N. military presence — now about 2,000 observers — has been in Hezbollah-controlled southern Lebanon since 1978 and has been overwhelmed by the Islamic militant group’s rising power, aided by Iran and Syria.

Rice specifically cited Hezbollah’s two sponsors in a statement Friday for all parties to “respect the sovereignty of the Lebanese government and the will of the international community.”

But the resolution, approved 15-0 in the U.N. Security Council, did nothing to immediately halt the fighting that erupted exactly a month ago and has claimed nearly 900 lives — including at least 760 in Lebanon and 130 Israelis.

Israeli missiles slammed into the southern Lebanon village of Rachaf, about 10 miles from the Israeli border, killing at least 15 civilians, security officials said. Israeli ground forces also fanned out across southern Lebanon hunting for Hezbollah rocket batteries that have fired unending salvos across the border.

Three people also were killed in strikes on Kharayeb, and a Lebanese soldier was killed in an air raid near an army base in the Bekaa Valley, officials said.

The guerrilla group announced four deaths Friday and three Saturday.

After a morning free of Hezbollah rocket strikes in northern Israel, a barrage of 20 missiles at midafternoon injured two people in Amirim and three in Kiryat Shemona. Hezbollah had been averaging nearly 200 hits each day in the monthlong conflict.

In Sidon, a coastal city between Beirut and the Israeli border, Israeli bombs destroyed a power plant. Farther south, another power facility was hit near Tyre, knocking out electricity to the port, police said.

On Lebanon’s northern frontier, Israeli airstrikes hit the highway leading to the Arida border crossing about a mile from the Mediterranean coast. It was the last official border post open for humanitarian convoys and civilians fleeing the country. The highway was impassable, but drivers tried to maneuver through ruts and ditches.

The only other exits from Lebanon are rugged pathways and back roads through deserts or mountains.

Israel seeks to block supply routes for Hezbollah and disrupt their mobility and has warned it would target any vehicles on the roads in southern Lebanon and along other main highways.