By Jonathan Finer and Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 9, 2006
KIRYAT SHEMONA, Israel, Aug. 8 -- Israeli forces and Hezbollah fighters waged deadly clashes in several border towns Tuesday and exchanged air and rocket attacks as the Israeli army sent a new commander to oversee its offensive, a move widely believed to reflect dissatisfaction with the way the war is proceeding.
The command change came as Israel's top security officials were set to meet Wednesday to consider an expansion of the ground offensive in Lebanon, a move called for by several commanders.
Maj. Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky, deputy chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, was named "to coordinate the Israeli army's operations in Lebanon," according to a statement. It said top army officials retained "complete confidence" in Maj. Gen. Udi Adam, head of Israel's Northern Command, who has led the assault on Hezbollah since it began July 12.
But some Israeli television reports described the arrival of Kaplinsky, who had previously commanded Israeli forces in the West Bank and Lebanon, as "an impeachment" and said it was the first time since 1973 that the top command had been reshuffled during a war.
Although the Israeli public has strongly backed the four-week air and ground campaign, criticism had recently begun to mount about the way it was being conducted. Commanders have said the assault is aimed at pushing Hezbollah away from the border to prevent it from launching rocket attacks on Israeli towns, but the group has carried out its deadliest barrages of the war in recent days, including attacks that killed 15 civilians and soldiers Sunday. More than 160 rockets were fired at northern Israel Tuesday, though no deaths were reported.
Commanders, including Adam and Brig. Gen Guy Tzur, had said a more substantial invasion of Lebanon could stem the rocket attacks. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was scheduled to confer with cabinet members Wednesday to consider their request to send more troops deeper into Lebanon.
[Early Wednesday, Israeli gunboats shelled Lebanon's largest Palestinian refugee camp, killing at least one person and wounding three others, the Associated Press reported from Beirut, citing Lebanese and Palestinian officials. Israeli gunboats fired two shells, they said. One landed in the Ein el-Hilweh camp, located on the outskirts of the southern port city of Sidon, and the other slammed into the city's amusement park, they added. An Israeli military spokesman said, "It was an aerial attack, not a naval attack, and it was on a house in the camp that belongs to a Hezbollah member."]
The Israeli army on Tuesday reported three soldiers killed and several others wounded, almost all of them by antitank missiles in Lebanese border towns. It said at least 20 Hezbollah fighters had been killed in the day's clashes. [On Wednesday, it announced that two other soldiers had died in fighting Tuesday in south Lebanon, the Associated Press reported.]
In Naqourah, on the Mediterranean coast just north of the Israeli border, Hezbollah said its fighters attacked an Israeli patrol, killing a number of soldiers. The Israeli military acknowledged two killed in the battle.
Israeli warplanes pursued their bombing campaign against Hezbollah positions across southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley. One airstrike killed five people in the village of Ghazieh, south of Sidon, as villagers were burying 15 people who had been killed Monday in a similar bombing run, Hezbollah and Lebanese media reported.
Fighting also raged around Bint Jbeil, a town three miles north of the border that has been the scene of almost daily clashes since Israeli forces pushed into Lebanon. Hezbollah said its militia fighters entrenched in the town destroyed an approaching Israeli armored bulldozer and inflicted a number of casualties.
As Arab envoys traveled to the United Nations to push Lebanon's case for an immediate cease-fire, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said the Lebanese army is capable of assuming control of the border area in cooperation with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, if Israeli troops withdraw as Lebanon has demanded.
Siniora has proposed dispatching 15,000 Lebanese soldiers under the UNIFIL aegis until a more permanent international peacekeeping force can be assembled and deployed. In an interview on al-Arabiya television, he sought to allay Israeli fears that such an arrangement would allow Hezbollah fighters to rearm and remain in place just north of the Lebanese border with Israel in terrain they have controlled for years.
"There will be no authority, no one in command, no weapons, other than those of the Lebanese state," he said.
If the army were to be stationed in the border area, it would mark the first time it has returned in force since 1978, when it was chased out by an earlier Israeli invasion. Hezbollah has controlled the border zone since Israeli forces withdrew in 2000 after an intervention that began on a small scale in the late 1970s and grew into a full-scale occupation in 1982.
Olmert described the Lebanese government's proposal of deploying 15,000 soldiers to south Lebanon as "an interesting step that we need to examine and investigate and see if it's all that it means." He said one of Israel's primary goals has been persuading the Lebanese army to disarm or remove Hezbollah fighters from southern Lebanon.
There were numerous signs Tuesday that a broader Israeli invasion was imminent, pending government approval. The government began evacuating about 15,000 residents of northern towns struck frequently by rocket attacks. An estimated half-million residents of the north, about half the region's population, have already left on their own or with assistance from private groups.
At several staging points used by Israeli soldiers to enter Lebanon, including the town of Metula, columns of tanks and armored vehicles could be seen lined up Tuesday night. And the army told Lebanese civilians in leaflet drops and radio messages not to travel by vehicle in the country's south.
In a briefing for reporters Tuesday evening, Brig. Gen. Shucki Shacher, deputy commander of Israel's northern forces, listed what he called the accomplishments of the operation to date, adding, "The Israeli government will have to decide tomorrow if this is enough or not."
Other commanders have in recent days called such an expansion "necessary" to stop the rocket attacks that have plagued northern Israel for nearly four weeks.
Israeli forces dropped leaflets that residents found in the streets of Tyre on Tuesday morning, warning of attacks on any cars on the roads in southern Lebanon. The leaflet was addressed to the "people of Lebanon living south of the Litani River."
"Any vehicle of any type that moves south of the Litani River will be targeted because it will be suspected of carrying rockets and other military equipment," it said. "Be warned that anyone traveling in any vehicle will be exposed to great danger."
The warning removed almost all traffic from Tyre. Only a few shops opened, as residents gathered for coffee or hurriedly unloaded the few shipments of bread arriving into town. The Lebanese Red Cross and aid groups were hunkered down.
The United Nations was awaiting permission from Israeli forces to rebuild a bridge that was destroyed Sunday night over the Litani, which bisects southern Lebanon. Bulldozers stood at the ready, but the drivers were afraid to operate the machines without an Israeli guarantee. In the afternoon, residents standing in knee-deep water passed dozens of packets of bread across the river by hand.
Among those crossing a fallen tree over the Litani, effectively the last link between southern Lebanon and the rest of the country, was Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, who visited Tyre on Tuesday and was on his way to Israel on Wednesday.
"We must have access to evacuate wounded civilians in villages," he said at a news conference in Tyre. "We've had no access so far."
He said he also was trying to win more access to remove corpses from the rubble.
Kellenberger, hewing to the strict Red Cross policy of neutrality, stopped short of criticizing any party to the conflict. But in an implicit criticism of Israeli forces, he said, "By letting down leaflets, you do not get rid of your responsibility under international law."
Cody reported from Beirut. Correspondents Molly Moore in Jerusalem and Anthony Shadid in Tyre contributed to this report.