Israel has called up 3,000 reservists as it prepares for a possible full-scale ground invasion of southern Lebanon after accepting that its objective of “crippling” Hizbollah has not been achieved by air power and “pinpoint” ground operations alone.
Israel is seeking to establish a 1.5km (one mile) “sterile” zone on the Lebanese side of its northern border in the face of what the military acknowledges has been effective resistance by Hizbollah, costing the lives of six Israeli troops in the past 48 hours.
After a relative lull in rocket attacks, two people were badly injured by a Katyusha rocket that hit a post office in Haifa. It was one of 10 rockets that were launched into the city during the day and underlined Hizbollah’s continuing capacity to strike far into northern Israel, despite nine days of bombardment and blockade of Lebanon.
The reserve troops – likely to be used in the West Bank to free up more combat units to move up to the Lebanon border – were called up as Israeli aircraft dropped leaflets over southern Lebanon yesterday warning civilians to leave border villages for areas north of the Litani river, about 13 miles from the frontier. The area south of the river is normally inhabited by around 300,000 people, a majority of who are Shiite Muslims.
In what could yet prove the only diplomatic opportunity to prevent further military escalation, the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, is expected in the region for talks on Tuesday. One senior Israel Defence Forces (IDF) officer, Brigadier General Alon Friedman, told the news agency AFP that forces on the border were of “division strength” and would allow a “large-scale” ground operation if necessary. Israeli officials insist that the severe weakening of Hizbollah is a necessary precondition of striking a ceasefire agreement that will enable the international commitment to disarming it – embodied in UN Security Council resolutions – to be implemented by the Lebanese Army or a multinational force.
The IDF’s policy and planning chief, Brigadier General Ido Nehushtan, said Israel’s aim was to “cripple significantly” Hizbollah’s military capabilities but said the task “will take time” and that Hizbollah had used six years of preparations to establish well hidden bunkers and tunnels. “It will not be a matter of days,” he added.
A senior Israeli official explained that the objective of disabling Hizbollah’s capacity included a one-mile-wide border zone, in which Hizbollah bases would be bulldozed. He did not say whether houses would be destroyed or whether residents would be allowed back once the zone was established but said only Lebanese Army personnel or a possible multinational force would be allowed to carry arms.
Funerals were held yesterday for three of four IDF soldiers who were killed – and another five wounded – in running land battles on Thursday at the Lebanese border north of Moshav Avimim, where two soldiers were also killed on Wednesday, as the Army hunted for Hezbollah bases and weapons caches. The Army said that Hezbollah also suffered losses and an Israeli Airforce pilot was killed in a mid-air collision between two Apache helicopters outside the far northern Israeli town of Kyriat Shimona.
An Israeli official said that the soldiers who were killed had been part of a limited ground operation in which combat units would normally disable booby traps before bulldozing emeny bases. But Hizbollah had moved into the area in force to prevent the Army from reaching their positions. Indicating that Hizbollah appeared to be protecting a prime target, the official added: “These positions were much more fortified than we expected. Give them credit; they are good fighters. This is serious stuff.”
Haifa’s city centre was tense yesterday as sirens sounded through the day and police and rescue workers began the task of clearing broken glass and rubble from the blast which damaged a corner of the post office building, closed like many other shops in the city because of the rocket attacks. The leg of an injured woman was severed by the explosion. The Mayor of Haifa, Yona Yahav, told reporters he believed that Hezbollah had deliberately used a lull to try and lure residents outside. “But they took our advice to stay in shelters,” he added.
While the right wing have been increasingly calling for a ground invasion of Lebanon senior Labour politicians with top intelligence backgrounds, Ami Ayalon former head of Shin Bet, and Danny Atom, former head of Mossad have come out strongly in public against it.
But Israeli officials acknowledge that a ground invasion, if one happens, might require an initial advance as far, if not beyond, the Litani river, inevitably evoking comparisons with the 1982 Lebanon war, which eventually became the most unpopular in Israel’s history. But they insist that Israel will not again reccupy Lebanon. One official said: “When the operation is over, there will be not one Israeli soldier in Lebanon,” I can assure you.
The leading Israeli commentator Ari Shavit wrote in the liberal daily Haaretz on Thursday that since airpower had not succeeded in disabling Hizbollah Israel would soon have to choose whether to resort to a full scale ground invasion or resort to a diplomatic solition.