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Israel wants to hit Hezbollah's arsenal: Officials

Israel wants to send a strong message to all its enemies, especially Iran, that the consequences of attacking the Jewish state will be unbearable.

india Updated: Jul 21, 2006 11:16 IST

Israel won't stop its Lebanon offensive until Hezbollah is pushed at least 20 miles to a river north of the border and its ability to fire deadly rockets into Israel is neutralized, officials say.

Israeli leaders have concluded that the country's current aerial bombardment of Lebanon will not be enough.

Top officials met on Thursday not to debate whether to send a new ground force into Lebanon, but rather how big that force should be, according to senior military officials.

Even more importantly, Israel wants to send a strong message to all its enemies, especially Iran, that the consequences of attacking the Jewish state will be unbearable.

Mounting civilian casualties and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Lebanese, however, could limit the amount of time Israel has to achieve its goals, as international tolerance for the bloodshed and destruction runs out.

During Israel's ground operation, its troops have encountered fierce resistance in heavily mined terrain. Fourteen Israeli soldiers have been killed in the fighting.

Almost all of the damage in Lebanon, including the deaths of more than 300 people, has been caused by Israel's aerial bombardment of rocket launching sites, bridges, roads, trucks, storage facilities and other targets.

Even so, "I don't know one single army in the world which has succeeded in conquering a terrorist organisation only from 30,000 feet," said Ephraim Sneh, an Israeli politician and general who commanded an Israeli security zone in south Lebanon in the early 80s.

After Hezbollah crossed into Israel and kidnapped two soldiers July 12, Israel began pounding the guerrillas to win the men's freedom.

The mission was quickly expanded: To punish and deter, to pressure the Lebanese to rein in Hezbollah and to weaken the guerrillas sufficiently so that the pro-Western Lebanese army can take Hezbollah's place in the south, possibly with the aid of a beefed-up international peacekeeping force.

Now Israel wants to create a buffer zone in south Lebanon, pushing back Hezbollah at least 20 miles northward to the Litani River.

Israel also wants to neutralize Hezbollah's ability to attack Israel with rockets, 900 of which slammed into Israel in the past week, killing 15 Israelis.

European-led efforts to achieve a ceasefire appear unlikely to succeed in the near term because Israel's main ally, the United States, has given Israel a tacit green light to proceed and because Israel sees this as a decisive, make-or-break battle in its fight against radical Islamists out to destroy it.

Hezbollah shattered an Israeli taboo in the past week by firing rockets into Haifa, Israel's third-largest city.

Israeli officials believe the country's deterrence posture could suffer irreversible damage if Hezbollah emerges from the current fighting unscathed.

In addition, many Israelis view their offensive as ultimately about Iran and Syria, countries that arm and finance Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas militants fighting Israel in the Gaza Strip. Sneh called the current fighting "the first round between Israel and Iran."

"They (the Iranians) are waiting around the corner with long-range missiles and God forbid with nuclear warheads.

They should know they cannot mess with Israel," he said. Israeli military officials say the army has already destroyed more than 40 per cent of Hezbollah's arsenal in Lebanon.

However, the same officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the issue's military sensitivity, acknowledge that most of those killed have been civilians, not Hezbollah fighters.

That's partly because the guerrillas have taken shelter in underground bunkers, the officials said.

What Israel needs to do now, says Israeli military analyst Shlomo Brom, is conduct limited ground operations to draw Hezbollah out of its hideouts, "destroy the units, hurting them as much as possible, destroying their infrastructure and then getting out."

Israeli officials insist they have no intention of carrying out a large-scale ground invasion or staying in Lebanon for any more than a few weeks.

That's largely because of memories of Israel's ill-fated occupation of Lebanon between 1982 and 2000. Keenly aware that sending ground troops into Lebanon carries enormous risks, Israel's political and military leaders are debating the proposed force's size, with the army brass arguing for a larger force that can better fend off attacks, the military officials said.

Brig Gen Ido Nehustan, a member of the army's General Staff, lamented the difficulty of fighting what he called "asymmetric warfare" in which a guerrilla group living among civilians battles a powerful army.

It's not like Israel's other war front in Gaza against Hamas. In Lebanon, he said, "We are fighting a much more capable terror organization which practically holds a sword to our neck and has 12 percent of the Israeli population living in shelters and paralyzes the entire northern part of the country."