| A soldier prays near the northern Israeli border. (Reuters)
Beirut, July 31 (Reuters): Israel rejected mounting international pressure today to end its 20-day-old war against Hizbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, but Washington said a ceasefire could be achieved this week.
Civilians fled battered villages in southern Lebanon after Israel agreed to partially halt air strikes for 48 hours, and aid convoys headed into the area to deliver supplies.
Rescue workers found 25 bodies buried for days in destroyed buildings in three south Lebanon villages, the Red Cross said.
US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice said a ceasefire could be forged this week. But Israel said the war was not over despite an international outcry following the deaths of at least 54 civilians, most of them children, in an Israeli air strike on the Lebanese village of Qana yesterday.
“If an immediate ceasefire is declared, the extremists will rear their heads anew,” defence minister Amir Peretz told a heated parliamentary debate in which four Israeli Arab lawmakers were escorted out for heckling. One called Peretz a murderer.
Despite its 48-hour truce, which started early today, Israel said it may still use aerial strikes to target Hizbollah leaders and rocket launchers and to back up ground operations.
Israeli jets fired two bombs to support ground troops battling Hizbollah inside Lebanon and artillery shells hit two southern frontier villages.
A Lebanese soldier died and three were wounded when another Israeli air strike destroyed their vehicle.
Hizbollah fired two shells into the northern Israeli border town of Kiryat Shmona today, but nobody was wounded. It was the first Hizbollah bombardment of Israel since yesterday evening ' a distinct lull compared to the scores of rockets the guerrillas had previously fired daily.
President George W. Bush reiterated that he wants a sustainable end to the violence rather than a quick ceasefire.
“I assured the people here that we will work toward a plan in the UN Security Council that addresses the root causes of the problem,” he said. Israel launched its onslaught on Lebanon after Hizbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12.
At least 574 people have been killed in Lebanon, although the health minister puts the toll at 750 including bodies still buried under rubble. Fifty-one Israelis have been killed. After the Qana raid Lebanon called off planned talks with Rice, telling her to secure an unconditional ceasefire first.
“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 lasting settlement. I am convinced we can achieve both this week,” Rice said in Jerusalem.
Senior Israeli officials said the government wants to pursue its military offensive until an international force arrives because Hizbollah could exploit any pause to regroup.