Israel vows to expand its ground offensive

Troops may reach the Litani River where many short-range missiles are being launched.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Israel's Security Cabinet authorized an expansion of ground operations in Lebanon Wednesday, signaling that the war could continue for several more weeks despite intense international efforts to reach a cease-fire.

The decision came amid other indications that Israel was preparing for what could be a more extended war, nearly a month after Hizbullah guerrillas kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and killed eight in a July 12 cross-border attack.

Israeli officials began evacuating the small northern city of Kiryat Shemona, which has consistently borne the brunt of Katyusha rocket attacks, with at least 550 rockets falling within city limits since the war began.

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And with a high degree of internal wrangling over perceived shortcomings in the war, the Israeli army's chief of staff, Dan Halutz, demoted the commander of the northern front and replaced him with Halutz's own deputy, Moshe Kaplinsky.

Israeli officials said that the decision to continue to pursue its aims in the war did not contradict ongoing diplomatic attempts to reach a cease-fire that would be acceptable to both sides of the conflict.

One military spokesman described the political track and the military operations as independent of each other, and said Israel's war objectives hadn't been altered since an international solution had still not been reached.

"Israel is acting today to defend its citizens from the daily barrage of missiles coming into Israel, and this decision is taken in the absence so far, of international actions to bring about diplomatic solutions," says Mark Regev, spokesman of the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

More than 160 Katyusha rockets were launched Wednesday onto different towns and cities around northern Israel.

"Israel understands that the real solution is the implementation of UN Resolution 1559, and we are looking closely at the developments in New York," says Mr. Regev, referring to the resolution that calls for the disarming of Hizbullah. "But in the absence of concrete action there, Israel cannot sit idly and watch its population be on the receiving end of these rockets."

Israel has indicated that it would not pull out of south Lebanon, which it occupied for 18 years until it withdrew in the spring of 2000, until an international peacekeeping force is deployed in the area. And Israel says it wants one with a much more powerful mandate than UNIFIL, which is the current observer mission operating in the south.

Lebanon's prime minister, Fouad Siniora, has since offered to send some 15,000 Lebanese Army troops to the south; Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says he is studying the proposal.

Domestically, many Israelis are skeptical that a foreign force could succeed in the difficult job called for in UN Resolution 1559, or that international peacekeepers will put their lives on the line in order to keep Hizbullah from striking Israel.

Instead, the popular theory that continues to prevail is that Israel should do as much damage to Hizbullah as possible – and push the Iranian-supported militia's positions as far north from the international border as Israel can.

"The weaker that Hizbullah is, the better chance there is of a diplomatic resolution," says an Israeli military source who ask not to be named. "And there is an interest getting to a cease-fire as soon as possible, for obvious reasons, but as time goes on, we feel the odds of getting one improve."

The military source said that Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) had yet to decide how to implement the Israeli cabinet's decision to expand the ground war, and that it might not necessarily be widened immediately.

As part of a larger ground offensive, Israeli forces are expected to push northward to the Litani River. Some of the areas closest to the river and further from the border, military officials say, are the areas from which many short-range missiles are being launched.

"Basically the area of the Litani is the area of the Katyushas, and in particular, the Katyushas we've had difficulty in stopping," the source said.

Israel can usually stop long-range missiles in flight, but not short-range missiles. "The shorter-range ones, because they're less sophisticated, are more difficult to detect, and ironically, they're harder to stop."

In a separate interview, a military official says that Israel's goal is to keep pounding Hizbullah targets and to degrade its launching capabilities.

"What we're saying is that we have to make the utmost effort we can to eliminate the infrastructure of Hizbullah," says Col. Irit Atzmon. "We're actually seeing that potential now, which will lay out the possibility for other forces to come. The problem is not whether we reach the Litani or not. The problem is trying to clean out the area where the Hizbullah is trying daily to damage Israel."

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