By Molly Moore and Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 10, 2006
JERUSALEM, Aug. 9 -- On the deadliest day of fighting yet for Israeli soldiers in Lebanon, the Israeli security cabinet Wednesday authorized the military to expand ground combat operations to try to root out Hezbollah guerrillas who continued to mount fierce resistance.
The cabinet debated military options during an acrimonious six-hour meeting that occasionally dissolved into shouting matches among members torn between the public's growing anger over the military's failure to stop Hezbollah rocket attacks and concerns that enlarging an already treacherous battlefield will result in high numbers of combat casualties, according to participants.
Wednesday's toll drove home those fears -- 15 soldiers were killed and 25 wounded in Israel's worst day of battlefield deaths since the conflict began, according to Israeli military officials.
Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah, in a defiant televised address Wednesday night, warned that expanded Israeli military operations in Lebanon would be repelled by the same fierce resistance that has prevented Israeli troops from controlling the terrain in the last 29 days of warfare.
"You can invade, you can land by air, by sea and take any hill, we will expel you with force and transform our land in the south to a graveyard for Zionist invaders," Nasrallah said. "We will kill your officers and soldiers and inflict a calamity on you in the battlefield."
Nasrallah also called on the Arab residents of Haifa to evacuate their neighborhoods. "To the Arabs of Haifa, a special message," he said. "I plead with you to leave that city."
Hezbollah lobbed more than 180 rockets across northern Israel Wednesday, but they caused no serious injuries.
Israeli jets pummeled an often-hit bridge at Akkar in northern Lebanon and hit other bridges and roads in the Bekaa Valley near the village of Mashghara. Local residents told Lebanon's Future Television that seven people from one family were killed in the raid. Israeli warplanes have repeatedly attacked roads and bridges in the eastern Lebanese valley, seeking to cut off the transport of Hezbollah munitions, funds and rockets from Syria.
Another air attack shook southern Beirut in the late afternoon, part of Israel's almost daily pounding of the Dahiya area where Hezbollah's leaders and followers were concentrated. When the blast reverberated across the city, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, C. David Welch, was conferring with Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and other Lebanese officials on cease-fire negotiations underway at the United Nations. It was his second visit to Beirut in a week, as the Bush administration tries to narrow differences between Lebanon and Israel. But diplomatic efforts to ease the fighting continued to flounder.
Israeli planes dropped leaflets on the Dahiya suburbs overnight, blaming Nasrallah for the air raids that have hit the area almost daily for four weeks. "Nasrallah is playing with fire and Beirut is burning," said the leaflets, attributed to "the State of Israel."
Police in Lebanon said the death count from Monday evening's Israeli attack on the southern Beirut suburb of Al Shiyah had risen to 47 as bodies continued to be pulled out of the rubble, making it the single deadliest airstrike since the conflict began July 12.
Although the Israeli cabinet set no schedule for the escalation in ground combat because of ongoing international diplomacy, a buildup in Israeli ground forces was evident in the string of small Israeli towns that line the Lebanese border. In Zarit, dozens of tanks and artillery pieces stretched along a half-mile access road into the town. A military official said more than 1,000 soldiers were moving into Lebanon to augment the 10,000 troops already operating there. The official said as many as 5,000 more Israeli troops would soon join the operation.
The majority of the soldiers have been fighting in a narrow strip ranging from a few hundred yards to about four miles into Lebanon, though a few units are operating about 12 miles deep and an advance team is near the outskirts of Tyre, according to military officials.
The military has proposed opening the front across a 13-mile-deep swath of southern Lebanon to the Litani River, a strategic geographical line.
But after more than four weeks of air and ground combat, soldiers are still struggling to control some villages they claimed to have seized more than two weeks ago.
Eli Yishai, the Israeli trade minister, said the military estimated it will need 30 days to conduct an operation that deep into Lebanon.
"I think it will take a lot longer," said Yishai, who abstained from voting on the decision to authorize a widening of the operation.
Yishai told reporters he abstained because he believes the military should prolong its air campaign against rocket launchers. "In my opinion, entire villages should be eliminated from the air when we have verified information that Katyusha rockets are being fired from there," he said.
Nine cabinet members voted to allow Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz to decide the timing of an accelerated ground campaign, and three members abstained. Much of the debate centered on the risk of high troop casualties associated with expanding the number of ground forces in southern Lebanon.
Government officials familiar with details of Wednesday's cabinet meeting, and the Israeli news media, reported that the session included several emotional outbursts, shouting matches and sharp exchanges between ministers. In one incident, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz -- Israel's former defense minister -- criticized Peretz's plan for an expanded operation as unnecessarily far-reaching. Peretz lashed out at Mofaz, accusing him of allowing the buildup of Hezbollah during his term as defense minister, according to numerous accounts. Olmert reportedly stepped in to calm the quarrel.
During the cabinet meeting, Olmert telephoned Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, according to Israeli and U.S. officials. During their half-hour conversation, Rice did not ask Olmert to hold back on the ground assault. "He can judge for himself how close or not to a resolution we are or how acceptable or unacceptable it is," a senior U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "She talked him through where we are, what we're going through and where we hope to end up. It's the same conversation she had with Siniora."
At least 13 of the 15 Israeli soldiers killed Wednesday were reservists, as were 23 of the 25 wounded.
"There has been very fierce fighting all the day in different parts of southern Lebanon," said Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz, an Israeli army spokesman. He said "tens" of Hezbollah militants had been killed in the fighting Tuesday, which was still raging well after dark.
[Early Thursday, the Associated Press cited Israel Army Radio reporting heavy battles in south Lebanese villages across from Israel's Galilee panhandle, which has been hard hit by rockets. Hezbollah said its fighters were engaged in "a violent confrontation" with Israeli forces advancing on a border village. No details were immediately available.
[Israeli troops, backed by tanks and armored vehicles, also entered the southern Lebanon town of Christian town of Marjayoun, witnesses said. They did not meet any resistance, according to the AP.]
Most of the combat Wednesday took place only a few miles inside Lebanese territory, underlining the difficulty Israeli infantry and armor units have encountered in seeking to clear the border strip of Hezbollah fighters and rocket launchers.
The deadliest incident came in Dbil, a Lebanese village about two miles from the northeastern Israeli border. A massive explosion there engulfed a house where Israeli forces were gathered, killing nine reserve paratroops and wounding at least 17, according to an Israeli military spokesman.
Maj. Svika Golan, a spokesman for the army's Northern Command, described the house as a "Hezbollah bunker with explosives in it."
He said it was not clear what had triggered the fatal blast, and that Israeli forces were seeking to determine whether the house had been booby-trapped or fired upon from outside.
It took hours to evacuate the wounded, some of whom were carried by fellow soldiers across the border, he said.
Four other reserve soldiers died when their tank rolled over a mine near the town of Ait Al-Shaab, the scene of some of the fiercest clashes in recent days, a military spokesman said.
An infantry soldier was killed by a mortar blast near Marjayoun, according to an Israeli military spokesman. No details were available on how the 15th Israeli soldier died.
Despite Wednesday's heavy losses, Lt. Col. Yishai Efroni, deputy commander of an infantry brigade operating along the western part of the border, welcomed the decision by the Israeli cabinet.
"That's the only way to solve this rocket problem," he said. "When we control more of their towns, the Lebanese people will realize they have much more to lose and will put pressure on Hezbollah themselves. Our soldiers just want to do this job and go home."
Several soldiers interviewed at a government-run hospital in Tzfat, where many of the previous day's wounded were evacuated, said the only way to stop the barrages of rocket fire was to push the militants beyond the Litani River, which at its farthest point in the west is 18 miles from Israel's northern border.
"We certainly have the ability to do more than we are doing," said Lt. Omri Schacher, a paratrooper whose right leg was shattered by shrapnel from an antitank missile Monday near the Lebanese village of Arteri. "We understand we will have to cope with more losses, but you have to sacrifice sometimes to achieve your goals, and we will do it."
Some soldiers said, however, that the ground fighting brought too high a cost. Lt. Shlomi Shriki, a combat engineer, was heavily bandaged with shrapnel embedded in his left arm and leg from a missile attack on his bulldozer Monday near Bint Jbeil. Asked whether he thought the army should intensify its attacks on Hezbollah, he said, "Yeah, but from the air."
"On the ground people get hurt. Too many people," he said, almost in a whisper. "I don't say no to ground forces, but it needs to be in a more organized way. So far, this has not been in an organized way."
Finer reported from Tzfat, Israel. Correspondents Edward Cody and Nora Boustany in Beirut and staff writer Robin Wright in Washington contributed to this report.