Israel votes to expand ground attack

Israel's security cabinet has approved, in a near-unanimous vote, to expand its military's ground operation in southern Lebanon

Israel's security cabinet has approved, in a near-unanimous vote, to expand its military's ground operation in southern Lebanon.

The vote took place early Tuesday morning in Jerusalem, with none opposed and one abstention to a plan that could see raids carried out in Lebanese towns containing Hezbollah bases.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmerthad pledgedlate Monday that there would be no ceasefire in the coming days with the Hezbollah militia.

"We are determined to succeed in this struggle," he told a group of local officials in Karmiel."We will not give up on our goal to live a life free of terror."

Olmert said the fighting will end only when the threat of rocket attacks from Hezbollah militants is removed and the two soldiers capturedin a July 12 raidare returned.

"The operation has not yet been completed. Many days of fighting still await us. Missiles and rockets will still fall. Hours of fear and uncertainty and, yes, also pain, tears and blood await us," he said.

"We will not give up and not stop. We will keep fighting until we achieve the targets and goals we set ourselves and until we bring quiet, peace and calm to our land. "

Olmert apologized for the civilian casualties Sunday at Qana. The Israeli air strike on the four-storey building killed at least 56 people and has provoked worldwide anger and intensified calls for an immediate end to the fighting.

"I am sorry from bottom of heart for all deaths of civilians, elderly and children in Qana," Olmert said. "We didn't intend to harm them, we didn't wish for their deaths. They were not our enemies and were not the targets of our planes."

Olmert sent a message to the people of Lebanon, saying that they are not Israel's enemy. He said the fight is against Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, whom he accused of carrying out the policies of Syria and Iran.

Calling Israel's military operation "barbaric," Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told the country's military on Monday to raise its readiness.

Israel facing mounting criticism

Olmert brushed off international criticism of the offensive in Lebanon. He said noother country would accept the constant unprovoked attacks that Hezbollah has carried out in recent years, culminating in the July 12 cross-border raid.

"We could not let the terror organization on our border get stronger, let them get more missiles," he said. "If we had held off, the day would have arrived soon when the missiles would have caused …unprecedented damage."

Olmert's comments came as Washington's efforts continued Monday toreach a Mideast ceasefire agreement.

The ceasefire issue was being debated against a backdrop of continued hostilities in the region, despite Israel's earlier announcement that itwould halt air strikes for 48 hours.

The suspension had been intended to allow time to investigate Sunday's air attack at Qana.

Israel had also agreed that for a 24-hour period, it would open corridors in south Lebanon to allow humanitarian aid to get into the region by land, sea and air and to allow civilians to leavefor the north.

Less than 12 hours after suspending air strikes, Israel had launched new attacks on southern Lebanon.

Attack complicates push for peace

The Israeli army said one attack was on a car believed to be carrying a senior Hezbollah official. A Lebanese soldier travelling in the car was killed. Another series of attacks in southern Lebanon was intended to protect ground forces in the area, the Israeli army said.

En route to Washington from talks in Jerusalem, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters the attack on Qana complicated a push for peace.

She said there is "a lot of work to do" to bring about a ceasefire.

"You have to get all the work done, you have to get it done urgently," she said.

Earlier in the day, Rice said she was aiming to get an agreement in place this week.

Rice said she was working toward a ceasefire that would be supported by a lasting settlement. A key goal would be the creation of an international force to support the Lebanese army in keeping the peace, she said.

However, Israeli Defence Minister Amir Peretz said Monday his country would not agree to an immediate ceasefire and, in fact, planned to expand its military operations in Lebanon.

"It's forbidden to agree to an immediate ceasefire," Peretz told parliament.

"Israel will expand and strengthen its activities against the Hezbollah."