JERUSALEM After pounding Lebanon from the skies for nine days, the Israeli army has begun, without any official announcement, the ground phase of its military operation, with thousands of elite troops having crossed the border into south Lebanon to hunt down Hezbollah fighters and their stockpiles of rockets.
The army announced Friday that it was calling up thousands more reservists, who would be sent to the northern border as well as to the Gaza Strip, where Israel has been conducting another offensive, ever since a soldier was snatched by Palestinian militants in late June.
The thousands of residents who were fleeing northward Friday from their villages in south Lebanon also appeared to be a harbinger of a possible ground push by Israel.
Defense Minister Amir Peretz provided the first hint that Israel’s operations on the ground were expanding when he declared Thursday that while the government had “no intention of occupying Lebanon” it also had “no intention of retreating from any military measures…If we have to carry out operations that require we operate everywhere, we will do that without hesitation.”
But some military observers in Israel caution that this is the moment for which Hezbollah has been waiting. Having continued to fire rockets into northern Israel despite the fierce aerial blitz, they say, the Shi’ite organization is now trying to lure Israel into south Lebanon, where its fighters are firmly dug in and where the rocky, mountainous terrain gives them an advantage in fighting a conventional military force.
What is more, Israel’s political leaders are aware that if the army becomes entangled in south Lebanon and begins to sustain large numbers of casualties on the ground, the broad public backing for the offensive in Lebanon could erode.
The deaths of six soldiers in close-quarter fighting in south Lebanon in the space of just 24 hours between Wednesday afternoon and Thursday afternoon have heightened the fears in Israel of a bloody ground confrontation with Hezbollah.
For now, the military activity is being confined to raids across the border up to some two kilometers inside Lebanese territory in which elite troops have been trying to uncover underground tunnels and bunkers built by Hezbollah, where their fighters are hiding with stockpiles of rockets. The fighters occasionally emerge from their subterranean hideouts to fire rockets into Israel before again taking refuge, the Israeli army says.
With the call-up of reservists, the army says it is planning to expand its ground operations in the coming days, although senior officers insist there are no plans to seize permanent positions inside Lebanon. Troops, they say, will conduct raids from Israel into Lebanon to sweep villages for Hezbollah fighters and weaponry.
“It’s not a ground operation, it’s a surgical operation,” said cabinet minister Rafi Eitan, when asked Friday whether Israel was on the verge of launching a major ground offensive. But he added, “When you go in on the ground, you pay the price.”
Giora Eiland, former head of Israel’s National Security Council, questions the wisdom of a ground invasion. “The price of such a move will be high, its effectiveness much lower, and we certainly can’t decide on such a move right now,” he said Thursday.
This is the dilemma now facing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert: If he is unable to significantly weaken Hezbollah one of the declared goals of the Israeli operation in Lebanon he will emerge from the crisis weakened and with Israel’s deterrent capacity eroded. If the rockets continue landing in northern Israel despite the air strikes, he may therefore feel compelled to send in more and more ground troops.
Some military observers have begun arguing that if Israel wants to administer a serious body blow to Hezbollah, it cannot be done from the air alone and that ultimately the ground forces will have to be sent in to neutralize the rocket threat on the country’s northern border. But others insist that a ground operation is exactly what Hezbollah wants.
Veteran military commentator Ron Ben-Yishai wrote Thursday on the popular Ynet internet site that the attempt by Israeli ground forces to hunt down those firing the Katyusha rockets into Israel plays into the hands of Hezbollah.
“The organization assumed ahead of time that the army would send its special forces to hunt Katyushas on the ground, after the air force had failed to stop the rocket fire. It is safe to assume that the Hezbollah spotters on the ground detected the night time movements of the Israeli commandos. And they are using the areas from where they launch the rockets as bait: they set up ambushes around these areas, with the almost certain knowledge that sooner or later an Israeli raiding party will pay them a visit.”
Ben-Yishai suggests the military reduce the intensity of its bombing campaign in Beirut and maintain a 24-hour aerial presence over southern Lebanon, with the purpose of striking at Hezbollah’s rocket-launching cells from the air.
For Israelis, the “Lebanon trauma” is still fresh. Until six years ago, Israel occupied a buffer zone in south Lebanon, with the purpose of keeping Hezbollah fighters from penetrating across the border. But after years of incessant attacks by the Shi’ite organization on its troops, and hundreds of casualties, Israel pulled out in May 2000, and Israelis are loathe to venture back.
For now, Olmert’s popularity is at an all-time high. Opinion polls published in recent days indicate that close to 80 percent of the public are satisfied with his job performance and over 80 percent back the military offensive he has launched.
From the outset, Israel’s plan has been to weaken Hezbollah so that the new Lebanese government can assert its authority and deploy its forces in Hezbollah-controlled south Lebanon, as stipulated by United Nations resolution 1559.
That is an ambitious goal. If Olmert emerges from the fighting with a deal that keeps Hezbollah far from Israel’s northern border and unable to reestablish its rocket capability, Israelis will hail the operation as a success. But if the fighting drags on, the rockets keep falling, the army starts to incur heavy casualties on the ground and Olmert is forced to scale back his initial demands, Israelis might be left wondering about the wisdom of launching the military campaign in the first place.