Israel military push ahead of cease-fire

The break in hostilities is seen by many in Israel as a closing of the window to wage war on Hizbullah.

With a cease-fire apparently hours away from implementation, Israelis seemed of two contradictory minds: We cannot defeat Hizbullah, but we cannot afford to stop fighting them.

The break in hostilities is being approached here not so much with an anticipation of peace, but as a closing of the window of opportunity to wage war against an ascendant enemy Israelis seem sure they will soon have to face off with again.

A glum pall cast itself widely here over the weekend, with people struggling to come to terms with the deaths of 24 soldiers Saturday in what was for Israel the single bloodiest day of fighting since the month-old war with the Lebanon-based militant group began.

Many here say the recent conflict will end in a kind of draw, which some in Israel have begun to perceive as the equivalent of a failure. The unexpectedly bruising war with limited achievements, has led many in the military to criticize Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's hesitation to put more ground forces in Lebanon earlier. This undermines his support at home and Israel's reputation as a dominant, effective military force, say analysts.

"Israel's image [in the region] is not so good for our point of view: The biggest army in the Middle East couldn't deal with a small organization," says Professor Reuven Pedhatzur, a political scientist at Tel Aviv University. "There was a misconception on our side regarding the abilities of Hizbullah. Nobody believed [that] after so many days, it would still have a central command and be effective. And no one thought there would be rockets after a whole month.

While Israel's political leaders highlighted the benefits Israel stood to gain in a cease-fire deal, military officials here sent some 30,000 troops into south Lebanon intending to control a large swath of Hizbullah's turf ahead of the deployment of an international peacekeeping force.

Mr. Olmert convinced his security cabinet Sunday to vote in favor of the UN resolution – reached by diplomats in New York early Saturday – to cease hostilities at 8 a.m. local time on Monday.

It is now apparent that, as the cease-fire came closer to fruition, the Israeli army asked the political leadership for more time to strike out at Hizbullah strongholds and enfeeble the Iranian-backed group's weapons-launching capabilities. "We are preparing the ground for a smoother entry of the international force into south Lebanon by cleaning up the launchers and the Hizbullah capability in that area in fierce battles – until tomorrow," Cabinet Minister Isaac Herzog said.

Some Israelis view the cease-fire deal as having addressed most of Israel's main concerns. The UN deal requires Hizbullah to move north of the Litani River, calls for the group's disarmament, and demands that there be a halt on weapons transferred to Hizbullah from Iran and Syria. But others here argue the deal does not provide for a clear path of implementation, and might only be a repeat of a UN Resolution 1559, which called for Hizbullah to be disarmed but was never put into practice.

"The achievements on paper look nice, but in fact they're not. The main goals were not achieved," says Moshe Maoz, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and an expert on Israeli policy towards Lebanon and Syria.

"All of the government ministers are very happy because they can say that Hizbullah will be disarmed but who is going to do it?" says Maoz. "The Lebanese Army isn't going to do it, because it doesn't want a civil war. Will the French do it? I doubt it. I don't think they will spill their blood for someone here." The agreement, "will be given a try, but for how long?" he asks, reiterating concerns in Israel that Hizbullah will not be sufficiently enfeebled by the cease-fire deal. "They always come back, and they manage to smuggle arms back in in the interim."

Even if there are quieter days in the near future, the issue of whether Hizbullah will manage to rearm remains a key question here. Israelis solidly view this not so much as a conflict with Hizbullah alone, but as one with other regional powers, namely Iran – the provider of weapons – and Syria – the conduit between the two countries.

"They need a transition route for the weapons, so the key issue is Syria," says an Israeli defense analyst. And since Israel and Syria look unlikely to resolve their differences soon, the analyst adds, "the war is ending with both sides left with a taste in their mouths for the war to come."

Key points of UN Resolution

• Hizbullah militia stop fighting immediately; Israel halts "offensive ... operations."

• Up to 15,000 new troops for the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) deploy in south, with a mandate to take necessary action.

• Israel withdraws from southern Lebanon when fighting stops in parallel with the deployment of Lebanese and UN troops.

• Countries bar the delivery of weapons or military equipment, except for the Lebanese Army and UN troops.

– Reuters

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