"We came back from Lebanon sharing the impression that this destruction was planned. And if the action by Hezbollah was the trigger, this was a planned operation all ready to go," Jean-Arnold de Clermont, president of the Conference of European Churches, said in Geneva on the delegation's return from a visit to Beirut and Jerusalem.

The Israeli Mission to the United Nations in Geneva declined to comment on Wednesday afternoon because they had yet to see a written statement from the council.

"The representatives of Lebanon's various communities with whom we met had all agreed that the destruction was both deliberate and planned," the council's statement said.

De Clermont, a retired pastor of the Reformed Church of France, was part of a three-member delegation made up of Protestant and Roman Catholic clergy and an official of the World Council of Churches who met religious leaders and senior Lebanese and Palestinian officials.

They regretted that the Israeli government did not receive them, but they did meet with one of Israel's two chief rabbis, Yonah Metzger. T

"It is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and not the role and actions of Hezbollah that is at the heart of the present crisis"

World Council of Churches

The trio, which intended to show solidarity with the people in Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories, visited Beirut, Jerusalem and Ramallah in the West Bank during the five-day trip.

De Clermont, who spoke for the two other delegation members who joined him at a news conference in the world council's headquarters, said Israel would not want the existence of a democratic Lebanon where Jews, Christians and Muslims were peacefully living side by side, because it does not want to see its neighbour succeeding in what Israel is unsuccessful in achieving.

De Clermont said Hezbollah was a scapegoat.

"It is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and not the role and actions of Hezbollah that is at the heart of the present crisis," the council's statement said.

"All the religious leaders in Israel and Palestine, as well as Mahmoud Abbas [the Palestinian president] told us that the time has come to accept sitting down and negotiating with everybody," he said, adding that it was necessary to "demilitarise the thinking" of political leaders.