CONFLICT IN THE MIDDLE EAST: Israel's Security Cabinet gives army another month to force Hezbollah fighters north of the Litani River and halt missile attacks
SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Thursday, August 10, 2006
Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service
Zarit, Israel -- Israeli leaders decided on Wednesday to triple the country's ground invasion force in Lebanon and extend the fight against Hezbollah to the Litani River, about 18 miles across the border.
Justice Minister Haim Ramon said the huge ground operation is necessary to achieve "the cessation of the Katyusha rockets and an alteration of the status quo in southern Lebanon." The army was given another month to complete the mission.
The deployment about-face was widely expected after a month of aerial attacks and commando raids failed to halt Hezbollah rocket fire bombarding northern Israel. It came a day after Maj. Gen. Moshe Kaplinski, deputy chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, was named to replace Maj. Gen. Udi Adam, head of Israel's northern command, in overseeing the Lebanon campaign.
"This operation must be won. We have no choice. It is a war of no option that was forced upon us. The consequences of this war are far-reaching for the state of Israel and for the entire region," Ramon said.
Israel's Security Cabinet debated the new battle plan for six hours in the shadow of news -- not released to the public until midnight on Wednesday -- that the nation's forces had suffered the worst losses since the fighting began: 15 dead and 25 wounded.
Until Wednesday, Israel had hoped to overcome the 3,000-strong Hezbollah fighting units with just 6,500 Israeli ground troops, backed by heavy artillery fire, aerial bombardment and armored divisions. But four weeks into the campaign, Israeli forces are still taking heavy losses in Hezbollah strongholds such as Aita al-Shaab, a Shiite village a mile across the border that they have been trying to capture since the first days of the fighting.
The Cabinet decided to hold the final order for a day or two to see whether diplomatic moves at the United Nations could bring about a cease-fire that would force Hezbollah to disarm -- a move so far rejected by the Lebanese government.
Michael Oren, fellow at the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem think tank, and author of "Six Days of War," about the 1967 conflict, said the decision should have been made three weeks ago and seemed designed to improve Israel's position in the post-battle diplomacy.
"They are going to try and reach the Litani River and expand Israel's leverage in negotiations, in the hope that Israel can hold out not just for the deployment of the Lebanese army, but for the deployment of an international force," said Oren. "Israel can't trust the Lebanese army to keep Hezbollah out because the army is half-Shiite."
Yaakov Amidror, former head of Israel's National Defense College, agreed the move should have been made weeks ago.
"This is the only decision that can help us reach our goals," said Amidror. "One is the cessation of the firing of Katyusha rockets into Israel, or at least 90 to 95 percent of them. The other is to severely cripple the Hezbollah forces, which, up until now, have felt almost no harm. It will also make the other side think twice before starting a war with Israel."
Oren said the hesitant handling of the war so far might reflect the absence of ex-soldiers in Israeli government.
"This is the first Israeli war where all the decisions have been made by a civilian government with no military experience," he said. "In the past, there have been complaints that Israeli governments have been dominated by generals and submissive to the military. This one time, when the civilians control the military, a sizable proportion of the population is dissatisfied with their handling of the war and would have preferred a more robust approach."
On Wednesday night, about 20,000 Israeli troops, together with long columns of tanks, armored cars and military bulldozers, were snaking their way up through the winding roads near the Israel-Lebanon border, poised to pour into the battlefield.
Dozens of tanks, armored cars and military support vehicles lined the road near the border village of Zarit, near the spot where a Hezbollah attack on an Israeli patrol on July 12 sparked the current conflict. Israeli reservists sat inside the armored vehicles, sheltering from the midday sun, playing backgammon or trying to catch some sleep.
The troops were forbidden from giving their full names under army regulations. Shai, a 24-year-old student from Ashdod, said he was called up more than a week ago and was still waiting to be sent into Lebanon.
Two hours later, the same road was empty, except for discarded plastic bottles and food wrappers marking the spot where the tank brigade had been waiting.
Farther along the road, the same scene was repeated several times. Either long lines of military vehicles and waiting soldiers, or discarded trash where they once stood. In some places, the roadway bore the scars of heavy half-track vehicles.
Around a corner near Manara, a convoy of 10 tanks were rumbling up the road, interspersed with fragile-looking family vehicles trying to overtake them on the hairpin bends.
A few hundreds yards across the border, Israeli artillery shells could be seen crashing into targets in the Lebanese villages where heavy fighting continued Wednesday between Israeli and Hezbollah forces. The Israeli hits sent huge clouds of white, black or brown smoke billowing into the sky, depending on the target.
Close up, the villages that served as Hezbollah strongholds clearly showed the damage of nearly a month of Israeli fire. Many of the buildings have been reduced to burned-out skeletons. Others have gaping holes, like blackened, toothless mouths. Many landmarks are simply missing, blown up by Israeli forces.
From the upper floors of some of the few remaining buildings, there were flashes of gunfire from Hezbollah forces putting up fierce resistance against the Israeli invaders. Israeli helicopters hovered behind the lines, unleashing missiles that whistled overhead before exploding with deadly force across the border.
As the fighting continued, two particularly large clouds of white smoke apparently signaled direct hits on large stores of weapons. Maj. Avi Ortal, chief of operations for the Alexandroni infantry brigade, said his soldiers had discovered more than 150 Katyusha rockets in a single house in the nearby village of Rahamin two days ago.
Ortal, a lawyer in civilian life, said his soldiers had no doubts about their duty despite losing three men last week in a battle with Hezbollah.
"I feel that the war is very moral. The fact that Hezbollah is sitting on our borders, kidnapping our soldiers, invading our sovereignty, threatening the civilian population on the borders -- is something that we had to stop," he said as plumes of black and brown smoke billowed into the air behind him from Hezbollah villages where his men were fighting, supported by Israeli artillery.
Ortal said Wednesday's Cabinet decision had no immediate effect on his men. "In terms of the mission that our brigade gets, it is very clear and we will do it. This decision has not changed anything for us," he said.