OCCUPIED JERUSALEM â€” Not wanting to end its three-week blitz on Lebanon empty-handed, Israel scrambled to clear Hizbollah fighters from a large strip of the south Tuesday before a ceasefire is announced.
With few tangible results after 21 days of intense fighting, and with the UN Security Council preparing to consider a resolution on the crisis this week, Israel’s Security Cabinet gave its ground forces the green light to advance up to 30 kilometres inside Lebanese territory.
Israel is expanding its ground offensive amid increasing international pressure to end its assault in the wake of Sunday’s air strike on the south Lebanese village of Qana that killed more than 60 civilians, most of them children.
Members of the Security Cabinet felt that “the sands of time were running out for the war, and that the remaining days should be used to complete the achievement of objectives”, Israel’s largest daily Yediot Aharonot wrote Tuesday.
The Cabinet authorised the army to expand its ground operations in Lebanon as far as the Litani River, which in places runs 30 kilometres north of the border with Israel, a top government official told AFP.
It gave the approval “with a view of controlling the area until the Litani River after having cleaned it of Hizbollah presence but without a permanent occupation”, the official said on condition of anonymity.
The border runs east from the Mediterranean coast for about 30 kilometres south of the river, but is closer to the Litani as it turns northwards about 30 kilometres inland.
Another Israeli security official told AFP that the approval did not mean the army would necessarily advance all the way to the Litani “but only that it should mop up the maximum amount of ground possible before a ceasefire, up until the Litani”.
Observers said the order was aimed at gaining as much advantage as possible on the ground ahead of this week’s expected Security Council meeting on the Lebanon crisis.
“Israel needs to make sure that those discussions are held… against the backdrop of proven Israeli military achievements on the ground,” wrote Alex Fishman, Yediot Aharonot’s senior military correspondent.
“Otherwise it will be difficult to secure wording that will ensure a substantial, long-lasting change on the northern border.” The Jewish state launched the blitz in Lebanon on July 12, after Hizbollah killed eight Israeli soldiers and seized another two in cross-border raids, with the aim of retrieving the soldiers and stopping Hizbollah from firing rockets into Israel.
But three weeks later the soldiers are still captive and until two days ago Hizbollah was raining dozens of rockets on Israel daily.
The rocket fire nearly ceased after Israel agreed to a 48-hour halt in air strikes after Sunday’s deadly air raid on Qana, with just two rockets reported as falling in northern Israel by midday Tuesday.