Britain dramatically broke ranks with George Bush last night over the Lebanon crisis, publicly criticising Israel's military tactics and urging America to 'understand' the price being paid by ordinary Lebanese civilians.
The remarks, made in Beirut by the Foreign Office minister, Kim Howells, were the first public criticism by this country of Israel's military campaign, and placed it at odds with Washington's strong support. The Observer can also reveal that Tony Blair voiced deep concern about the escalating violence during a private telephone conversation with the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, last week. But sources close to Blair said Olmert had replied that Israel faced a dire security threat from the Hizbollah militia and was determined to do everything necessary to defeat it.
Remarks made in Beirut by the Foreign Office minister, Kim Howells:
'The destruction of the infrastructure, the death of so many children and so many people: these have not been surgical strikes. If they are chasing Hizbollah, then go for Hizbollah. You don't go for the entire Lebanese nation. I very much hope that the Americans understand what's happening to Lebanon.'
Britain's shift came as Israeli tanks and warplanes pounded targets across the border in southern Lebanon yesterday ahead of an imminently expected ground offensive to clear out nearby Hizbollah positions, which have been firing dozens of rockets onto towns and cities inside Israel.
Downing Street sources said last night that Blair still believed Israel had every right to respond to the missile threat, and held the Shia militia responsible for provoking the crisis by abducting two Israeli soldiers and firing rockets into Israel. But they said they had no quarrel with Howells's scathing denunciation of Israel's military tactics.
Speaking to a BBC reporter before travelling on for talks in Israel, where he will also visit the missile-hit areas of Haifa and meet his Israeli opposite number, Howells said: 'The destruction of the infrastructure, the death of so many children and so many people: these have not been surgical strikes. If they are chasing Hizbollah, then go for Hizbollah. You don't go for the entire Lebanese nation.' The minister added: 'I very much hope that the Americans understand what's happening to Lebanon.'
Only hours earlier, President Bush used his weekly radio address to place the blame for the crisis squarely on Hizbollah and its Syrian and Iranian backers. He said that his Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, who is due to leave for the Middle East today, would 'make it clear that resolving the crisis demands confronting the terrorist group that launched the attacks and the nations that support it'.
Blair is scheduled to meet Bush in Washington at the start of a US visit on Friday. Senior diplomats said that it was highly unlikely there would be a major diplomatic move to restrain Israel's planned southern Lebanon incursion at least until then.
An advance force of tanks and about 2,000 troops moved across the border yesterday, although some of the soldiers later pulled back into Israel. The advance was backed by a fierce barrage of air strikes, including a half-tonne bomb dropped on a Hizbollah outpost. Israel focused much of its fire on the village of Maroun al-Ras, on the crest of a hill less than a kilometre across the border. It was swathed in a thick swirl of smoke.
Specially armour-plated D-9 bulldozers have also been brought in to level networks of foxholes and underground bunkers dug by Hizbollah.
Israel's army chief of staff, Dan Halutz, told reporters in Tel Aviv on Friday that any military incursion would be limited in scope. 'We will fight terror wherever it is, because if we do not fight it, it will fight us. If we don't reach it, it will reach us,' he said. 'We will also conduct limited ground operations as much as needed in order to harm the terror that harms us.'
Israeli Radio broadcast renewed warnings yesterday to civilians to flee the area by 7pm local time last night, but reports emerged of Lebanese casualties, including a seriously injured woman who was taken to a hospital in the northern Israeli town of Safed.
An adviser to Israeli Defence Minister Amir Peretz told The Observer: 'We are finally going to fight Hizbollah on the ground. The Israeli people are ready for this, and the Sunni Muslim world also expects us to fight Shia fundamentalism. We are going to deliver.'
But he added: 'We have no intention of conquering and holding territory. We plan to clean a strip a mile from our border of Hizbollah bunkers and rocket-launching sites ... We will go in and then we will go out.'
The Israeli air force dropped leaflets on southern Lebanon this week telling residents to leave to avoid getting harmed in the fighting. Among the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing, there were few able-bodied men of military age.
Ali Suleiman, 50, from a village near the coastal city of Tyre, said his eldest son had joined Hizbollah. 'When he dies I will send another son and another and another. Tell Mr Blair, Muslims are not afraid - not of bombs or ships or hunger. We get our power from God.'
Hizbollah has operated freely in the border region since Israel withdrew six years ago, and is believed to have amassed an arsenal of around 12,000 rockets. More than a week of air strikes have done little to prevent Hizbollah from firing rockets at areas in northern Israel, including Haifa. Yesterday more than 65 rockets fell - a dramatic increase from the previous 24 hours. Twelve Israelis were injured.
Britain's decision to break ranks publicly with the Americans will cause deep concern in Jerusalem, and a senior Israeli diplomat was at pains last night to play down any suggestion of a rift.
He said it would be wrong to interpret Olmert's response to Blair's telephone call as a rebuff. 'The tone was very positive. We agree on all major aspects of this crisis and are greatly appreciative of Britain's position.'
The Israeli leader's comments, the source said, merely reflected his 'absolute determination to deal with Hizbollah and to see that the UN resolutions requiring it to be disarmed are finally carried through'. He said Olmert had insisted Israel was hitting only targets related to Hizbollah.
Senior British sources stressed that they continued to hold Hizbollah, and its Syrian and Iranian supporters, responsible for igniting the crisis. They added that both the Syrian and Iranian ambassadors to London had been called into the Foreign Office last week to drive that message home.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006