Israel begins carving buffer zone

Hizbullah rockets landed deeper in Israel Wednesday as fighting intensified in Lebanon.

Against a backdrop of more than 200 rockets raining down on northern communities like this one, the Israeli military pushed deeper into Lebanon Wednesday making its objectives in the three-week-old war clearer.

Israel wants to force Hizbullah beyond the Litani River, seen by Israelis as a crucial geographical and historical boundary, and will continue working to degrade Hizbullah's fighting capabilities. That effort also includes audacious raids as far north as Baalbek, which Israeli commandos entered by helicopter in the early hours Wednesday morning, taking five Hizbullah fighters prisoner and killing 10.

Israel hopes that by gaining control of a major swath of the south, even wider than the strip Israel occupied until 2000 as part of its "security zone," it can "clean out" the Hizbullah guerrillas and make way for a still-to-be-formed international peacekeeping force.

In interviews Wednesday, Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert, said that Israel will continue to wage war in Lebanon until a strong international force is deployed across the south of the country. And Israel's chief of staff, asked at a briefing Wednesday how long he expected the task to take, responded: "What does it matter if it's weeks, months, or hours?"

But amid this expanded ground offensive and the official resumption of air attacks, which had been partially on hold for 48 hours following the visit by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, many analysts here say that Israel is moving its own goal posts too often.

While the Israeli public overwhelmingly supports the war effort, defense specialists have begun to question whether the Israeli military took the wrong approach by avoiding sending in more ground forces until now and relying instead on airstrikes. The exit strategy, some of these observers say, remains unclear.

"In the last few weeks, we've seen that the government had rolling objectives which would change every day," says Michael B. Oren, a military historian and a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. "They went from saying we have to defeat Hizbullah to we can't defeat Hizbullah. They wanted help from the Lebanese Army until they realized that half the Lebanese Army is Shiite and is helping Hizbullah."

Mr. Oren, the author of "Six Days of War," says Israel has indicated to Syria that Israel has no intentions of involving Damascus in the war, even though, he argues, Syria is allowing the two enemies Israel is currently doing battle with – Lebanese Hizbullah and Palestinian Hamas – to operate on their soil.

"The government is speaking in multiple voices, and some of the effect is to broadcast weakness," Oren says.

Israel's perception abroad hardly seems one of weakness, but rather, of taking advantage of the asymmetrical nature of the conflict between Israel – which has the most advanced military in the Middle East – and Hizbullah, which is a guerrilla group. But domestically, critique of the war effort has grown in the other direction, with some analysts charging that Israel's military capabilities have not been put to their best use, with the operation goals perpetually shifting.

On Wednesday, Israeli forces struck deeper into Lebanon, hitting the Hizbullah stronghold of Baalbek and killing at least 19. In Israel, Hizbullah rockets landed farther than they have since fighting began July 12. Hizbullah fired Khaibar-1 rockets that landed near Beit Shean and in the West Bank city of Jenin. Israel says the Khaibar-1s are supplied by Iran.

So far, Hizbullah rockets have killed 19 Israelis, including one man who was killed Wednesday on a kibbutz close to Nahariya. The toll in Lebanon has been at least 540, mostly civilians.

"I'm quite disappointed with how we have run this war, in particular with the reliance on air strategy," says Professor Efraim Inbar, the head of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv. "We tried to imitate the Americans in Iraq and Kosovo. But they're a superpower, and we are not."

Military strategists say that Israel has had an impact on destroying some of Hizbullah's long- and medium-range missile launchers, in part because these are easier to detect. But the greater danger, for the time being, is the short-range missiles, which are difficult to locate both before and after they are launched. Longer-range missiles can be shot out of the air, while shorter-range ones cannot.

"Most of the damage to Israel was done by the short-range missiles," Dr. Inbar adds, and that is what remains most difficult for Israel to get, particularly through airstrikes.

Israel is trying to push Hizbullah back to the Litani River because it creates a natural geographical boundary. Also, historically it was considered the marker of south Lebanon, going back to the start of the Lebanese civil war in the 1970s.

Israel, says Inbar, wants to be able to drive Hizbullah out of the area south of the river before it is ready to leave. Mr. Olmert indicated Wednesday that the Israeli army would leave Lebanon only when foreign peacekeepers step in.

"Politically, it's important that we can have an area we can transfer to an international force," adds Inbar. "and then if Hizbullah shoots at us from us there, blame them."

Israel, he says, is concerned that any force that is sent to Lebanon have teeth, unlike UNIFIL, the peacekeeping force deployed in south Lebanon since 1978. But he is doubtful that can be achieved.

"No international force will want to fight Hizbullah," Inbar says, "we've seen the Americans and French there [in the 1980s], after being attacked by Hizbullah, going home.

"Unless you really disarm Hizbullah and don't allow them to be resupplied ... it's a question of time before we'll be back," says Inbar. Compared to UNIFIL, he says, Israel is hoping for an international force "that will contain contingents with militaries friendlier to Israel that will be ready to fight. This is to some extent an exit strategy."

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, the army's chief of staff, Dan Halutz,refused to give a timeline on the Israeli Defence Forces operations in Lebanon. That, as well as the extent of renewed airstrikes, would be decided by political and not military echelons, he said. "It's a government decision, not a military decision, but we will provide our government with the opportunity for pursuing each decision, to stay or to go," he said.

Mr. Halutz also said that the raid in Baalbek was launched in part to show Hizbullah that they should not feel "immune" in areas outside of their main zone of operation, in south Lebanon. He said that the Dar el-Hikma hospital Israeli commandos raided, already evacuated of patients and medical staff, had been built and managed by Iranians.

Halutz accused Hizbullah of under-reporting their casualty count, and insisted that as many as 300 fighters had been killed since the conflict began. "So far, we must say that they have their abilities and are unified," Halutz said. "But we have the ability to continue for as long as we need, and nothing is stopping us from continuing to reach our goals."

But amid this expanded ground offensive and the official resumption of air attacks, which had been partially on hold for 48 hours following the visit by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, many analysts here say that Israel is moving its own goal posts too often.

While the Israeli public overwhelmingly supports the war effort, defense specialists have begun to question whether the Israeli military took the wrong approach by avoiding sending in more ground forces until now and relying instead on airstrikes. The exit strategy, some of these observers say, remains unclear.

"In the last few weeks, we've seen that the government had rolling objectives which would change every day," says Michael Oren, a military historian and a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. "They went from saying we have to defeat Hizbullah to we can't defeat Hizbullah. They wanted help from the Lebanese Army until they realized that half the Lebanese Army is Shiite and is helping Hizbullah."

Mr. Oren, the author of "Six Days of War," says Israel has indicated to Syria that Israel has no intentions of involving Damascus in the war, even though, he argues, Syria is allowing the two enemies Israel is currently doing battle with – Lebanese Hizbullah and Palestinian Hamas – to operate on their soil.

"The government is speaking in multiple voices, and some of the effect is to broadcast weakness," Oren says.

Israel's perception abroad hardly seems one of weakness, but rather, of taking advantage of the asymmetrical nature of the conflict between Israel – which has the most advanced military in the Middle East – and Hizbullah, which is a guerrilla group. But domestically, critique of the war effort has grown in the other direction, with some analysts charging that Israel's military capabilities have not been put to their best use, with the operation goals perpetually shifting.

Wednesday, Israeli forces struck deeper into Lebanon, hitting the Hizbullah stronghold of Baalbek and killing at least 19. In Israel, Hizbullah rockets landed farther than they have since fighting began July 12. Hizbullah fired Khaibar-1 rockets that landed near Beit Shean and in the West Bank. Israel says the Khaibar-1s are supplied by Iran. So far, Hizbullah rockets have killed 19 Israelis. The toll in Lebanon has been at least 540, mostly civilians.

"I'm quite disappointed with how we have run this war, in particular with the reliance on air strategy," says Professor Efraim Inbar, the head of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv. "We tried to imitate the Americans in Iraq and Kosovo. But they're a superpower, and we are not."

Military strategists say that Israel has had an impact on destroying some of Hizbullah's long- and medium-range missile launchers, in part because these are easier to detect. But the greater danger is the short-range missiles, which are difficult to locate both before and after they are launched.

"Most of the damage to Israel was done by the short-range missiles," Dr. Inbar adds, and that is what remains most difficult for Israel to get, particularly through airstrikes.

Israel is trying to push Hizbullah back to the Litani River because it creates a natural geographical boundary. Also, historically it was considered the marker of south Lebanon, going back to the start of the Lebanese civil war.

Israel, says Inbar, wants to be able to drive Hizbullah out of the area south of the river before it is ready to leave. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert indicated Wednesday that the Israeli army would leave Lebanon only when foreign peacekeepers step in.

"Politically, it's important that we can have an area we can transfer to an international force," adds Inbar, "and then if Hizbullah shoots at us from us there, blame them."

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