July 28, 2006
Olmert resists generals’ pressure but approves troop call-up
By Ian Black, Jerusalem and Rory McCarthy, Safed
Israel resisted calls for a full-scale invasion of Lebanon yesterday and stuck to its strategy of air strikes and limited ground operations to dislodge Hizbullah guerrillas from their border strongholds.
Warplanes and artillery blasted targets across southern Lebanon and radio masts near Beirut. But 80 more Hizbullah missiles hit northern Israel, further hardening the public mood after nine soldiers were killed in one battle on Wednesday.
Ehud Olmert, the prime minister, held off criticism by cabinet colleagues, generals and the media to insist that Israel would carry on fighting without an all-out ground offensive – for the moment.
Mr Olmert fears conjuring up the ghosts of the 1982 war and exposing troops to a protracted guerrilla campaign and the occupation of Lebanese territory. But ministers did approve the call-up of an unspecified number of reserve forces, sending an important signal. Israeli television reported that the mobilisation could come within days.
“We are preparing for any eventuality,” Amir Peretz, the defence minister, said last night. “Hizbullah’s flags will not fly on our borders again. We must win this.”
Major General Dan Halutz, the Israeli military chief, told reporters more time was needed to “finish the job”. Operations were moving slowly and carefully to avoid risks, he said.
With the US and Britain resisting calls for an immediate ceasefire, Israel feels at liberty to continue this approach. Even its bombing of the UN observation post at Khiyam drew only a watered down statement from the security council last night which expressed “distress” but no condemnation.
The cabinet also repeated that Israel had no intention of attacking Syria, which would be a dangerous escalation in an already volatile situation. Syria has placed its air defence systems on high alert.
As the soldiers killed on Wednesday were buried, there was a shift in Israel’s national mood. “We need to be strong because this is a war for our existence,” said Ami Schreier, grieving for his 22-year-old son, Yiftah, an infantry officer who died in a Hizbullah ambush at Bint Jbeil. “If we can’t stand it in the rear, the soldiers won’t be able to stand it at the front.”
There was a realisation that what most Israelis had so far referred to as a “campaign” had become a war – one that is far more widely supported than the disastrous 1982 Lebanon invasion, which has come to be seen as Israel’s Vietnam.
“In the Yom Kippur war [in 1973] hundreds of soldiers were killed every day,” wrote the columnist Sima Kadmon in Israel’s largest daily paper, Yedioth Aharonot. “This war is no less just, and no less a war of no choice, and its young victims have not fallen in vain. Perhaps that should comfort us.”
Before the cabinet met, military commentators suggested Israel needed to launch a massive ground operation or use deadlier air strikes and heavy artillery barrages to soften Hizbullah targets.
Newspapers reported that the army wanted to hit Lebanese strategic targets, but that this had not happened so far for fear of weakening the Beirut government. Another suggestion was that Israel would “wipe out” any Lebanese village from which Hizbullah rockets were fired.
Brigadier General Shuki Shachar, the deputy head of Israel’s northern command, said his forces were not using all the military power at their disposal. “This is unbalanced warfare, and with unbalanced warfare sometimes you have to not use all your full power. You have to be very accurate, very tricky and fight counter-guerrilla warfare,” he told reporters.
Hizbullah has fired about 1,485 rockets since fighting began with a raid across the border and the abduction of two Israeli soldiers on July 12.
Troubling questions remain about Israel’s exit strategy and what will constitute a victory. But Ze’ev Schiff, the country’s senior military commentator, made clear what was at stake. “Hizbullah and what it symbolises must be destroyed at any price,” he wrote in Ha’aretz newspaper. “If Hizbullah does not experience defeat in this war, it will spell the end of Israeli deterrence against its enemies.”