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Battle Plans
Israel Weighs Ground Offensive In South Lebanon

JAY SOLOMON and MARIAM FAM in Beirut, Lebanon, KARBY LEGGETT in Jerusalem and NEIL KING JR. in Washington
Wall Street Journal/July 20, 2006; Page A1

A week into its bombardment of Lebanon, Israel faces a key decision: whether to ramp up a ground war in southern Lebanon.

Such a move would mark a major escalation in a conflict that began when militants in the Islamist group Hezbollah ambushed an Israeli military patrol and took two soldiers captive. That attack followed a similar one in Gaza two weeks earlier by the Palestinian group Hamas. Israel wants not only to secure the release of its soldiers but also to crush the military capabilities of the two Islamic groups.

The risks of a ground assault in Lebanon were underscored Wednesday as elite Israeli troops made an initial foray across the border. They were hunting for Hezbollah weapons and tunnels but encountered resistance. Two Israeli soldiers were killed, along with a Hezbollah fighter. The Israeli team soon retreated to its own side.

Late Wednesday night, Israeli warplanes dropped about 23 tons of explosives on a compound in Beirut where senior Hezbollah officials live and work, including Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. It wasn't clear whether Mr. Nasrallah was in the building. Hezbollah said none of its officials were killed in the blast, news agencies reported.

Israeli military experts say it's now clear that air strikes alone won't dislodge Hezbollah from southern Lebanon or destroy its thousands of rockets and missiles. With a successful ground operation, Israel could cripple Hezbollah and perhaps induce other factions in battered Lebanon to permanently shut down the Shiite Muslim group's militia.

But escalating the conflict is risky for Israel. The casualties would likely be far greater than the Israeli military has experienced so far. The operation could fail, dealing a devastating blow to Israel's reputation in the region.

And time is short. Israel's attacks have plunged all of Lebanon into a humanitarian and economic crisis. They have stirred up hostility in a country previously seen as sympathetic to the U.S.'s calls for greater democracy in the Middle East and raised the likelihood of international intervention.

Some Lebanese hospitals are running out of medicine as patients hoard their pills and employees fail to show up for work. Israel's blockade of Lebanon's ports and its destruction of roads have cut off delivery of food to some areas. Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora appealed again for an immediate cease-fire and urged the international community to become more involved. (See related article.2) He said nearly half a million Lebanese have been displaced by the fighting.

Lebanon was among the most vibrant economies in the Middle East just a week ago, but now the financial system faces a breakdown as foreign-currency supplies run low. "I don't think we can carry on like this for more than a month or two, maximum," said George Khoury, director of the humanitarian group Caritas.

The human-rights chief at the United Nations, Louise Arbour, said the scale of the killing in Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories could involve war crimes. Some European leaders are calling for more-urgent steps to end the fighting, in contrast to the U.S., which has said Israel has a right to defend itself.

Israel occupied southern Lebanon in 1982 and stayed until May 2000. Hezbollah's forces had a major role in spurring the withdrawal and the Islamic group calls it a watershed victory against Israel. After the withdrawal, Israel built a "technical" fence along the border with an alarm system that alerted the Israeli military when it was breached. For their part, Hezbollah militants set up more than two dozen outposts along the border -- mostly 10-foot walls of sand and rock. Behind them was a swath of land filled with mines, booby traps and tunnels.

Until last week's crisis erupted, Israeli soldiers and Hezbollah fighters had developed a familiar routine: When Israeli soldiers went out on border patrols, Hezbollah militants would pop up from their forts, machine guns in hand, taunting and staring at the Israeli soldiers. Though tense, these moments only occasionally led to actual clashes, with Hezbollah attacking almost two dozen times in the past five years. Each attack was more brazen, capped by the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers last week that touched off the current crisis.

An Israeli ground invasion would seek to create a buffer zone between the border and the most populous villages of southern Lebanon. A ground campaign is likely to lean heavily on special forces such as those that carried out Wednesday's incursion. The idea is to root out militants from their strongholds, hunt for weapons and exit quickly. The Israeli military has ruled out a lengthy reoccupation of Lebanon.

Last week, Mr. Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, vowed to defeat any Israeli invasion. "Any ground invasion will be good news for the resistance because it will bring us closer to victory and humiliating the Israeli enemy," he said.

Another Israeli aim is to push Hezbollah north so the group's rockets and missiles -- most of which have a range of about 20 miles or so -- can't reach Israel. Wednesday Hezbollah fired at least 80 rockets across northern Israel. In Nazareth, an Arab-Israeli city, a missile killed two children who were playing on the street. Hezbollah also struck Haifa, Israel's third-largest city, for the fourth day in a row.

Until now, Israel has sought to weaken Hezbollah by pummeling Beirut and other parts of Lebanon. Israeli strikes killed 58 more civilians Wednesday. So far the fighting has killed at least 293 people in Lebanon and 29 in Israel. Foreign nationals in Lebanon continued their steady exodus, largely on ferries that Israel's navy is allowing to pass through its blockade. By bombing roads between Lebanon and Syria and targeting trucks, Israel is attempting to cut off all supplies to Hezbollah and disrupt the social services Hezbollah provides in the south.

Retired Israeli Gen. Moshe Yaalon, until last year the chief of staff for the Israeli Defense Forces, said Israel has largely eliminated Hezbollah's long-range missiles, degraded its launch sites in the south and "cut it off by sea, by air and by land."

Israel's strategy dovetails with the U.S. goal of seeing Hezbollah weakened to the point that some other armed force, either the Lebanese army or an international peacekeeping force, can take over north of Israel's border. The offensive will continue "for as long as necessary," said Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

But Zvi Stauber, a military expert and head of Israel's Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies, said Mr. Olmert can't simply continue with more of the same. "The big question now is if air power alone is enough. And I don't think so," said Mr. Stauber. "I believe some ground forces are needed."

Gen. Amnon Lipkin Shahak, former chief of staff of the Israeli military, agreed that some form of ground offensive is required if Israel wants to seriously reduce Hezbollah's military capability. But he said Israeli military leaders are reluctant to commit a large number of troops to the offensive, fearing heavy losses.

Wednesday Israel broadcast warnings into southern Lebanon telling civilians to leave the region, a possible prelude to a larger Israeli ground operation.

Israel wants to pressure Lebanese groups that aren't major Hezbollah supporters -- especially the country's substantial Christian and Sunni Muslim populations -- to back moves to disarm the militant group. Although several U.N. resolutions call for disarming Hezbollah, its military strength and popularity in Lebanon have convinced most of its opponents that trying to force the group to lay down its arms would lead quickly to civil war.

Lebanese had hoped that the nation's long years of civil war were squarely in the past. The economy had been growing steadily until last week.

Dressed in a tattered undershirt, sports pants and slippers, Ali Yassin angrily pointed to a pile of thin mattresses in the high-school hall that has become home for his family and four other families. They fled the violence in their neighborhood, not far from the Beirut airport, which Israel has bombed several times in the past week. The power was out as the 50-year-old Mr. Yassin spoke. Women in the shelter said they are lining up for up to an hour to fill plastic jars with water from a faucet in the school, which serves about 40 families overall. Aid groups provide canned food, but families say it's not enough.

"We're scared, hungry, thirsty and worn out," Mr. Yassin said. He said Israel's offensive was not launched to free its two soldiers kidnapped by Hezbollah but to "destroy all the Lebanese people." He added: "Everyone is ganging up against us. They want to sow sedition in this country and plunge it into a civil war."

MILITARY CAPABILITIES
 
Country Troops Tanks Aircraft Artillery Systems Ballistic Missiles
Israel 625,000 3,700 650 2,800 Up to 100 systems
Iran 520,000 1,500 300 2,300 325-550 systems
Syria 215,000 4,700 600 3,700 Over 200 systems
Lebanon 60,000 300 N/A N/A N/A

Just six days ago, Mohammed Naema helped oversee a teeming Italian restaurant in the capital's central business district, where Lebanese bankers mixed with European jet-setters over oven-baked pizzas and Corona beers. Although the area itself hasn't been damaged, Mr. Naema stood guard alone outside the restaurant's shuttered doors. Soldiers took up positions on the district's café-lined streets as Lebanese anticipated more air strikes.

"I'm really in despair. It feels like we've been dragged back 20 years," said Mr. Naema, shaking his head with a wavering voice. "Maybe as we sit here, we'll get hit by a missile."

Business and trade have virtually shut down across Lebanon. Tens of thousands of refugees from the south have been flooding into Beirut in search of diminishing supplies of food, water and medicine. Government officials said they're preparing for a downgrading of the nation's debt. Lebanese bankers said they're rationing foreign currency as customers flee the country. They said they're increasingly dependent on the central bank to provide them with liquidity.

"Since we're blockaded, the inflow of dollar deposits is very limited," said Anwar Jammal, chief executive of Jammal Trust Bank, a midsize Lebanese bank. He said his company's automatic teller machines have stopped dispensing foreign currency in recent days. "People getting out of Lebanon want to take cash with them."

Many Lebanese believe the U.S. has betrayed the "Cedar Revolution" of two years ago, when Lebanese protesters took to the streets to demand the withdrawal of Syrian troops. President Bush cited the Cedar Revolution and as one of the democratic successes in the Middle East. Lebanese politicians are criticizing the White House for endorsing the Israeli siege of Lebanon and Israeli attacks that are killing civilians.

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