With relatively heavy losses in Lebanon and unexpectedly fierce resistance from Hizbullah, the Israeli army shifted Thursday in the direction of using far more firepower in the two-week-old conflict.
While many nations are increasingly critical of Israel's offensive in Lebanon, the mainstream Israeli reading of the situation seems the opposite: Much more military force – not less – is the key to beating back Hizbullah.
One barometer of the Israeli outlook ticked higher as Israel's security cabinet Thursday authorized a broader call-up of reservists, indicating it might send a much larger contingent of forces into Lebanon. The decision came as Israelis watched the procession of funerals of soldiers throughout the day, coupled with a widespread attitude that the Israeli military should "take the gloves off" in dealing with Hizbullah militants.
"Greater Determination, Less Sensitivity," read the front-page headline in Maariv, a mainstream Israeli daily. "Woe is to us if we act in proportion, and what would that actually consist of? One bomb from a plane in return for a rocket? One artillery shell in return for a Katyusha?" railed Amnon Dankner, the paper's editor in chief, and analyst Dan Margalit, in a jointly written commentary.
Opinion pages and air waves are filled with arguments about whether Israel should focus on using its technological edge over Hizbullah through more aerial attacks and artillery shelling instead of sending in new ground troops who are vulnerable to attack.
On Wednesday, Israel suffered the greatest number of military casualties in the conflict that began July 12 after Hizbullah captured two Israeli soldiers. Nine soldiers were killed in house-to-house fighting in the Hizbullah stronghold Bint Jbail. So far, at least 433 Lebanese and 51 Israelis have been killed. Thursday, the Israeli army continued to pound Lebanon from the air, while Hizbullah launched about 75 Katyusha rockets into Israel.
"The army realizes they are either going to have to invest a lot more forces, or they will have to use a lot more firepower," says Ofer Shelach, a columnist for the Yediot Ahronoth newspaper who specializes in military affairs. "These are the two basic approaches. It's a little late for Israel now to say it won't use ground forces: That could've been the policy four or five days ago, but they're in now. We'll see whether they will take over south Lebanon up until the Litani River."
In many ways, Mr. Shelach estimates, the loss of another nine soldiers shakes Israel even more deeply than the loss of eight civilians last week in the Hizbullah rocket attack on a train station in Haifa. Israel's qualitative superiority over Hizbullah had raised expectations that the Israeli military could "clean out" Hizbullah strongholds.
"Unlike the resilience that people are showing on the civilian side, when it comes to military casualties, we're a lot more fragile," says Shelach. "It changes the perception of our invincibility. The fact is that we're still more powerful, but we're talking about perception, not about reality. It may affect the public, and that affects military decisions."
Brig. Gen. Shuki Shahar, of the Israeli Defense Forces Northern Command, told reporters Thursday that Israel has held back in the conflict when it was sure it would cause civilian casualties. "Many times, we have terrorists we were able to hit and kill, but because we consider ourselves a moral country and a moral army," certain missions have been called off, he said.
One of the biggest difficulties of all, some defense analysts here point out, is the one Israel has faced in Lebanon all along – and which the US has faced from Vietnam to Iraq. Says Shelach: "It's impossible to beat guerrilla forces on their own terrain."
Despite the loss of their comrades, morale for fighting against Hizbullah appeared high among many combat battalions. First Sgt. Omri Azulay, a young combat engineer who was waiting close to the frontlines Thursday in Avivim, just below the Lebanon border, says he feels keener to fight.
"What happened yesterday made me want to go in more. It hurt me personally to see soldiers killed so I want to join in the fight," he says. "I'm scared and I'm anxious but I'm excited to go."
Throughout Israel, many seemed to be questioning whether it was wise to pull their troops out of south Lebanon unilaterally in April 2000, some 18 years after Israel entered the war enveloping Lebanon and later declared a so-called security zone along its border. Israeli officials are now discussing another buffer zone, and are seeking US support for that plan.
Georges Rizk, a veteran of the South Lebanese Army, a militia financed and backed by Israel, complains that Israel is at a disadvantage compared with its position until the spring of 2000, when it withdrew.
"In my understanding as a soldier, six years ago it would have been easier to do what [Israel is] doing now. We could have finished it in 24 hours. We gave [Hizbullah] a huge chance, we gave them all of Lebanon," says Mr. Rizk, who lives in northern Israel and fought with Israel against Hizbullah during the occupation.
"Hizbullah fighters are professional, they have already fought several battles, and they have lookouts and they study intelligence carefully. They are well prepared."
• Joshua Mitnick in Haifa and Rafael D. Frankel in Safed and Avivim contributed.