Israel yesterday suffered its worst day since the Lebanon conflict began when 14 of its soldiers were believed to have been killed in fighting with Hizbullah, a military calamity that could prove to be a turning point in the war
The setback appeared to unnerve Ehud Olmert, Israel's prime minister. Less than a day after he had vowed to fight Hizbullah to the end, he yesterday spoke for a need for a quick end to the conflict. The Israeli military has been taken by surprise by the ferocity of Hizbullah's resistance and may have to rethink its strategy.
Last night Mr Olmert called an emergency meeting of his generals as General Udi Adam, head of the Israeli army's northern command, said fighting in Lebanon could continue for several more weeks. Israel confirmed that eight soldiers were killed and 22 injured in a fierce battle with Hizbullah fighters at Bint Jbeil in southern Lebanon. The death toll was expected to rise to at least 13.
Later, it emerged that an Israeli officer was killed in Maroun el-Ras, a village the army had moved in to over the weekend. Four other soldiers were injured.
Even before the scale of casualties was disclosed there had been growing disquiet in Israel over the failure to stop rocket attacks on the north of the country - more than 100 landed yesterday - and the absence of a significant victory against the Shia guerrillas in more than two weeks of fighting. Israel Radio said yesterday's casualties marked a potential turning point for public opinion, which has so far been strongly in favour of the war.
Fighting escalated on both sides as the much-vaunted peace conference in Rome broke up after failing to reach agreement to call for an immediate ceasefire. Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, backed by Margaret Beckett, the foreign secretary, resisted calls from 13 other countries, as well as the UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, for such a ceasefire.
Ms Rice said: "We have to have a plan that will actually create conditions in which we can have a ceasefire that will be sustainable." Mrs Beckett said: "Even if you could get a ceasefire half an hour ago, you would probably be back in hostilities in a few days."
The summit ended in failure, issuing only a joint statement in support of sending an international force into Lebanon under a UN mandate but without any specifics of which countries might contribute troops. Diplomats, who have failed to come up with a solution after two weeks of fighting, now head back to the UN security council but no discussion is likely there until next week.
In another setback for Israel, Mr Olmert yesterday had to apologise for the deaths of four UN observers, killed by Israeli shelling at a border post, after protests from the international community.
In a seeming U-turn, Mr Olmert signalled that he would make do with a weakened Hizbullah rather than one that had been completely disarmed. "We want to stop the operation as fast as possible," Mr Olmert told MPs, "but we will not do so until we achieve the results which would justify the price we have paid and which would prevent us paying a price which we cannot pay."
Israel has hundreds of troops in southern Lebanon fighting house to house, and village to village, in an attempt to create a buffer zone that they hope will be filled by a multinational peacekeeping force some time in the future.
Israel tried to balance its losses by claiming that Hizbullah had lost scores of men in the heavy fighting which was continuing as night fell. Hizbullah, which is heavily armed, has reportedly mined all approaches from Israel. The guerrillas are said to have sophisticated roadside bombs of the type used against US and British forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Israeli analysts predicted there will be a change in military strategy following the latest casualties. "There will be pressure from the public for a change of strategy. This will be a shock," the military commentator Ron Ben-Yishai said.
A more far-reaching possibility is to move straight to the search for a deal that would have to include negotiations with Syria, Hizbullah's chief ally after Iran, as well as a prisoner swap.
"We have had two weeks of fighting and we are still at a draw," said one Israeli opposition MP. "We have not been able to destroy all the launchers. There is the danger of sinking back into the Lebanese quagmire ... If our goal is not to destroy Hizbullah we have to think about diplomatic means and bring Syria into negotiations. At the moment we have no exit strategy."
Two Israeli missiles last night struck a seven-storey building in the centre of Tyre injuring 12 people, including six children, hospital officials said. The building was used as a Hizbullah community centre and included a school. In Gaza, Israeli forces killed 21 Palestinians, including three children.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006