OCCUPIED JERUSALEM â€” The spectre of Israel sinking into the “quagmire” of Lebanon as when hundreds of troops were killed in 1982 has put an anti-Hizbollah ground offensive on hold, military officials said Wednesday.
The question of such an offensive comes up daily in meetings of the chief of staff, the defence minister and the Security Cabinet, but with 14 Israeli servicemen already killed in a week, such a venture is as yet not on the cards.
Three soldiers died in the initial Hizbollah snatch of two troops on July 12, five more in rescue attempts and four sailors in a missile attack on their boat off Beirut. Another two were killed in fighting Wednesday inside Lebanon.
But Defence Miniser Amir Peretz has vowed that his country does “not want to get bogged down in the Lebanese quagmire”, stressing Israel has no plans to reoccupy any part of Lebanon.
The last time Israeli troops invaded Lebanon was in 1982 when the military got bogged down in a disastrous 18-year occupation before finally withdrawing in 2000 under fire from Hizbollah. “We do not want to reoccupy Lebanon, we have other means of operating,” said Peretz, who is often seen as dovish when it comes to the Middle East conflict.
Army incursions since the new conflict have been limited to swift entries and exits by armoured vehicles, sometimes lasting just a couple of hours.
“The way the army operates since the exit from Lebanon in 2000 and [last year’s] withdrawal from the Gaza Strip has changed,” a military official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“It is now more defensive and less aggressive on the ground and gives priority to air raids,” he said, echoing the priority of recent military campaigns by Israel’s US ally. “At the moment we are not planning any ground operation but this is not an impossibility,” army chief of staff Dan Halutz told ministers on Sunday.
The aim, according to a senior Israeli military official, is to “methodically destroy all Hizbollah positions close to the Israeli frontier” to prevent rocket attacks on northern Israel. Limited ground forces are now operating in southern Lebanon, using tanks and bulldozers to take out Hizbollah bunkers and create a one-kilometre-deep “security zone” free of fighters, officials say. But while former air force commander Halutz pushes his air strategy â€” with over 1,500 sorties flown over Lebanon in the last eight days â€” others say a ground offensive will be needed sooner or later.
“The only solution to the problem of Katyusha rocket fire is to launch a ground offensive,” said a military intelligence officer, with nearly 1,000 Hizbollah projectiles having hit northern Israel since hostilities began.
“Aircraft can’t see everything that’s happening on the ground all the time. Our ground forces are trained and they have the means to reduce the firing or stop it completely,” he said.
“The government and the army are worried about putting in significant forces because they want to avoid losses among our troops… We have very precise plans but the government hasn’t given the green light.” And with good reason.
The destruction of a heavily-armoured Israeli tank, killing four troops in Lebanon, shortly after the two soldiers were captured has considerably cooled the ardour of officers yearning for a ground offensive.
Israel went into Lebanon in 1982 to stop the late Yasser Arafat’s PLO from firing rockets at northern Israel, with 675 Israeli soldiers killed in the ensuing offensive which turned into a full-scale invasion up to Beirut. Intelligence officers say that southern Lebanon is nothing more than a huge trap that could snap shut round Israeli troops, claiming Hizbollah uses homes to store their rockets.
“To destroy these rockets, soldiers must go house to house, knowing that they are surrounded by mines, that the roads leading to villages are littered with bombs that can destroy tanks,” said one officer. “A ground offensive would lead to heavy losses among our ranks.” Hizbollah fighters in Lebanon, meanwhile, have accused Israel of “cowardice” and of waging a war on Lebanese civilians from the air, challenging the Israeli army to take on their fighters on the ground and face-to-face.