Ground troops take over as air war falters; no endgame in sight.


Slowly, reluctantly and with trepidation, Israel turned to its army this week to redeem a military campaign against Hezbollah in Lebanon that its air force has proved unable to win. The ground assault took place amid rising international opposition to Israeli actions, sparked by rising civilian casualties.

As the conflict entered its third week, Israeli boots on south Lebanese ground began fighting to take towns in South Lebanon. In them, the soldiers found intricate networks of tunnels and bunkers brimming with arms, including some of the Katyusha rockets Hezbollah continued firing on northern Israel. But the Shiite terrorist group appeared to retain an ample supply. And even those evincing confidence in Israel’s campaign could offer no assurance on if or how the ground troops would ultimately withdraw.

“If the air war has not worked, you must move on the Plan ‘B,’ ” said Shoshana Bryen, special projects director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs in Washington. “But do they stay in those towns or leave? Hezbollah would prefer they stay. Israel’s idea is to come in and go out” after destroying Hezbollah’s arms and infrastructure, she said.

Israeli officials, in fact, issued conflicting statements on this question. With memories still fresh of being bled slowly but steadily by Hezbollah during Israel’s occupation of Lebanon from 1982 to 2000, Israelis shuddered at the thought of getting stuck there — but fearful at the prospect of Hezbollah rearming. The United States and other countries met in Rome Wednesday to discuss the possibility of sending an international force to intervene. But they could, as yet, offer nothing about the timetable, makeup or mandate of such a force.

U.S. support for Israel — and against a cease-fire before Israel had clearly bested Hezbollah — remained solid. But amid the rising Lebanese casualties, most of the rest of the world, including Sunni Arab countries initially opposed to Shiite Hezbollah’s adventurism, were raising their voices.

As the diplomats talked, Israeli soldiers battled fiercely to take Hezbollah strongholds in south Lebanon, such as Bint Jbail and Maroun al-Ras. But Hezbollah militia withstood Israeli assaults on these centers for several days, boosting an image of prowess that Israel and its supporters consider crucial to puncture. Without such a puncturing, they warned, the mystique of Israeli power, which has played a crucial role in deterring attacks over the years, was under threat.

“That’s why you can’t just have a cease fire,” explained Aaron David Miller, a former senior Middle East negotiator through the administrations of George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and the current president. “Hezbollah then is the immediate winner.

Israel must find a way that they can say, ‘Look what we’ve achieved.’ It can’t just be a paper victory. It must be seen as a different status quo in which Israel’s adversaries are weakened as a result of Israel’s brilliant strategy.”

That was a perception whose restoration appeared far from achievement this week. After the initial Hezbollah attack, Israeli political leaders quickly approved a retaliation plan that its military chiefs had developed and rehearsed for as much as a year ago. At least initially, that plan depended exclusively on air power to take out some 13,000 rockets of varying ranges that Israel knew Hezbollah possessed. But commanders soon discovered that Hezbollah had dispersed those rockets to thousands of hidden sites across the country, including home basements, sheds and farms. Lacking the necessary intelligence, Israeli planes found it virtually impossible to locate them and take them out. This has allowed Hezbollah to continue retaliating against the bombings by launching their rockets against towns across northern Israel, including the city of Haifa.

In an attack that totally surprised Israeli military commanders, Hezbollah even succeeded in sinking an Israeli warship sitting off Lebanon’s coast in the Mediterranean, using a sophisticated radar-guided missile Israel did not know the militia possessed. It was, said Israeli military officials, an Iranian-made C-802, though Iran formally denied supplying Hezbollah.

With rockets so dispersed and hard to find, Israeli planes have bombed widely all over Lebanon, causing several hundred of civilian deaths and injuries, despite advance warnings for the populace to flee. Israel, meanwhile, has suffered more than 40 deaths, including more than a dozen civilian killed by Hezbollah’s rockets on Israeli towns.

Israel’s rain of bombs — including some dropped on residential buildings, Christian towns seemingly opposed to Hezbollah, Red Cross ambulances and on convoys of villagers fleeing their villages at the urgent instructions of the Israeli military — left an increasingly alarmed international community with the impression that at least some of its bombing was indiscriminate. The bombing of a UN outpost at Khiam Tuesday that left four UN officials dead only added to the outcry.

Indeed, The Jerusalem Post raised a furor when it reported Monday that IDF Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, had ordered the military to destroy 10 buildings in Beirut for every rocket strike on Haifa. The paper cited an off-the-record briefing given by a “high-ranking Israel Air Force officer” as its source. After initially charging the Post had misquoted the officer, the IDF spokesperson’s office retracted the charge and said the officer simply was mistaken.

If true, aside from its moral implications, the order reflected a clear sense of anger and frustration at the campaign’s failure to achieve its goals to date. This situation, on the heels of the inability to stop the kidnappings that set off the crisis, has led to unprecedented calls for the heads of some military commanders even as the battles rages.

“Right now, when the fighting is at its peak, it is necessary to deal with the series of failures that have afflicted the Israel Defense Forces,” wrote Reuven Pedhatzur, military correspondent for the Israeli daily Haaretz on Tuesday. He cited “poor soldiering skills, flawed intelligence and officers’ arrogance.”

Israeli military officials insisted the setbacks were merely tactical. And some experienced analysts agreed.

“Give the campaign time,” said retired military Brig. Gen. Nachman Shai. “There’ll be land, air and all kinds of special operations. At the end, with military, political and diplomatic moves, we’ll achieve our goals.”

But he admitted: “I don’t see what will be the diplomatic solution.”

Analysts said achieving success with Hezbollah was not only important to restore the IDF’s mystique; to a large extent, the contours of a cease-fire agreement with new security arrangements — assuming one eventually is reached — will reflect the reality achieved by one side or another on the ground.

“Obviously, the situation on the ground will have a huge effect on what’s being discussed [diplomatically],” said Yossi Alpher, an ex-Mossad official and former director of the Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies. “An agreement can’t be viable unless Hezbollah is enfeebled sufficiently to empower the Lebanese government to send its forces in with an international force.

“People may want an agreement now, or a week from now,” he said. “The question is, when are conditions ripe for an international force? If we don’t do enough damage to Hezbollah, it won’t be an agreement anyone wants.”

Some also raised serious doubts that Israel would get an international force with enough powers to not just stand between Hezbollah and Israel to prevent attacks but also prevent Hezbollah from re-arming. The group has received rockets and arms from Syria and Iran via Lebanon’s border with Syria, via ship and via plane. Most analysts doubted an international force would be empowered to seal the Syrian border and become, in effect, the nation’s customs agents at its ports and airports.

Chas Freeman, a former U.S. assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, viewed the very prospect of an international agreement as far-fetched. “I don’t think that idea will go anywhere,” he said. “Militarily it’s not attractive, and the U.S. experience in Iraq suggests it’s infeasible. No one is stepping forward to be part of it.”

In Freeman’s view, by turning to overwhelming but militarily ineffective force, accompanied by large civilian casualties seen widely on international media, Israel squandered its most crucial asset: the unprecedented support of the world.

If it had responded “proportionately,” with a sharp focus on Hezbollah rather than all of Lebanon, he said, “Israel would have had the support of the whole world, including Saudi Arabia and the Arab world. Now, support in the Arab world is swinging to Hezbollah.”

“If this process continues,” he said, “we could end up with a world of intermittent rocket fire and suicide bombers in Israel and a Shiite block from Iran to Iraq, reaching into Lebanon with the facilitation of Syria [and] Hamas, a Sunni group, making common cause with it.”