Israel makes tactical change

Olmert reverses avoidance of Lebanese entanglement

both sides hit harder

July 16, 2006|By JOHN MURPHY | JOHN MURPHY,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

JERUSALEM -- In the six years since Israel withdrew its forces from southern Lebanon, the Islamic group Hezbollah made it abundantly clear that Israel would not find quiet along its northern border.

Posted in watchtowers, Hezbollah fighters continued a campaign of rocket and mortar attacks, shootings and abductions that menaced Israeli communities. Israel responded largely with restraint. Neither side wanted a deeper conflict. They settled for a bitter coexistence.

But tensions, analysts say, were always building. And yesterday they were expressed in an expanding cycle of strike and counterstrike, with Israel bombing Lebanon for the fourth day and Hezbollah rockets striking deeper into Israeli territory.

Twelve children were among the dead in a convoy of civilians fleeing southern Lebanon, and rocket barrages struck Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee.

"Israel was sitting on a time bomb," said Boaz Ganor, a lecturer in counterterrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, "and it was clear there would be a spark that would blow this time bomb."

The spark came Wednesday when Hezbollah crossed the border, kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, exchanged gunfire and set mines that killed other Israeli soldiers.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has responded by launching the largest military campaign in Lebanon since Israel's 1982 invasion, marking a sharp departure from the policies of recent Israeli governments. In a phrase often repeated last week by Cabinet ministers and military staff, Israel wants to "change the rules of the game" in its fight against Islamic militants.

The old rules were defined by the two previous ministers, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon. Barak avoided engaging Hezbollah despite the kidnapping of three Israeli soldiers in October 2000. Sharon followed Barak's lead, perhaps, analysts say, because of his own disastrous experience during the Lebanon war and his reluctance to open up a second front while battling militants in the West Bank and Gaza.

"For six years since Israel left Lebanon, the two prime ministers, both generals, developed a certain attitude that I would call a denial," said Arye Carmon, president of the Israel Democracy Institute.

Olmert rejected that approach, choosing to answer Hezbollah's attack with a military operation that he promised would be "very, very painful."

Israeli jets bombed the runway and fuel depot at Beirut's international airport, blasted bridges and bombed the Beirut-Damascus highway.

Israel, already conducting a military operation in Gaza to free another Israeli soldier kidnapped three weeks ago by Palestinians, was suddenly thrust into a second front in its war against Islamic militants.

Olmert understood the threat posed by Hezbollah, which had used the last six years to accumulate weapons, secure its political and military position and train its fighters, analysts say.

"Hezbollah was able to create a deterrent against Israel," Ganor said. "Israel was taught by Hezbollah that for any activity against their organization, there would be a severe answer, on the one hand with attacks against civilian towns in Israel and attacks against Jewish targets worldwide."

Northern Israel experienced the full power of Hezbollah's weapons last week as mortars and rockets rained down on cities and towns as far south as Tiberias and Haifa, killing four people, injuring scores more and forcing thousands of residents to flee south.

Olmert's military goal is to eliminate Hezbollah, by targeting its headquarters and weapons stores and pushing the militia away from the border. At the same time he is holding the government of Lebanon responsible for allowing Hezbollah, which holds seats in parliament and two Cabinet ministries, to attack Israel from Lebanese territory.

Israel's broad air campaign has killed 106 people, mostly civilians, according to wire reports.

"Olmert has demonstrated a very determined leadership that he is to take advantage of the new reality and hit them very, very hard. He endeavors to undermine Hezbollah not just physically but by isolating them and undermining their legitimacy in Lebanon itself," Carmon said.

When Olmert became prime minister, many critics questioned his ability to deal with military crises, citing his background as a lawyer and career politician and his choice of Amir Peretz, who rose to prominence as a labor union leader, as defense minister.

Before the explosion of violence along the Lebanese border, Olmert's military operation in Gaza to release a kidnapped solider and stop rocket fire failed to achieve either of its goals and was losing public support. But the criticism disappeared last week when the country came under attack from Hezbollah rockets.

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