The Israel Defense Forces said it was calling up to 6,000 troops for reinforcements along the border as leaflets were dropped urging Lebanese residents to leave their homes and move north of the Litani River 25 miles (40 kilometers) from the Israeli border.
About 1,000 Israeli troops have so far been sent across the border for what commanders call pinpoint operations against Hezbollah strongholds, sources said.
The majority of attacks in the 10-day conflict launched when Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in Israel have come from the air.
Israeli Gen. Shuki Shachar declined to say whether a ground invasion has been authorized but said the army is evaluating the need on a minute-by-minute basis.
“All the power is going in the direction of Lebanon. Some are active, reserve units. … All reinforcements are going to the direction of Lebanon,” said Shachar, deputy commander of the Israeli military’s Northern Command.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced Friday she would travel to Israel and the West Bank next week to address the crisis and would attend a meeting of diplomats concentrating on the situation in Lebanon. Any invasion threatens to pull Lebanon’s army into the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah militants.
Lebanese President Emile Lahoud told CNN the Lebanese army is “ready to defend” his country’s territory.
“Of course, the army is going to defend its land,” Lahoud said.
While the army “cannot be strong enough to be against Israel on the frontier,” he said, “inside Lebanon, they can do a lot.”
“We are not going to let anybody take our land. We are not going to let them come back and take it,” he added.
At least 261 people have been killed in Lebanon and 582 wounded, internal security sources say, though Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said on Wednesday that more than 300 Lebanese had died. He said about 1,000 people had been hurt.
Israel’s army chief of staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz said Friday that nearly 100 Hezbollah fighters have been killed in the Israeli offensive.
Fifteen civilians in Israel and 19 soldiers have died in attacks and fighting, the IDF said. Israel held a buffer zone in Lebanese territory north of its border during much of the 1980s and 1990s, ending its occupation in 2000. This buffer covered about half as much land as the area from the border up to the Litani River.
The United States and Israel consider Hezbollah a terrorist organization. The group, which has claimed responsibility for terrorist acts, also operates an extensive network of social services in Lebanon, and its political wing holds seats in the Lebanese parliament.
Hezbollah strikes northern Israel
Hezbollah rocket attacks struck several Israeli towns Friday, wounding at least 19 people in the port city of Haifa.
Rockets also hit Meron, Safed, Yiron and Avivim, Israeli medical officials said. About 15 rockets fell in the volley of attacks, the Israeli military said.
Also Friday, a U.N. observation post was struck in southern Lebanon. Israeli forces said a Hezbollah rocket hit the post, near the northern Israeli town of Zarit and there were no immediate reports of casualties. But a U.N. officer told The Associated Press that an Israeli artillery shell made the strike.
The Israeli military says its air assault has destroyed about half of Hezbollah’s military strength since its operations began July 12, but that was rejected by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
A Palestinian militant and four others died Friday in an attack on a Gaza City home, Palestinian sources said.
Israel is continuing its military operation in Gaza, with the stated aim of stopping Palestinian militant attacks on Israel and recovering a soldier captured in June.
Some 19 Palestinians have been killed since Tuesday, according to Palestinian sources.