Drums of war echo at border

Amid the beat of guns, Israeli soldiers regroup in a staging area as the Lebanon offensive grinds on

July 28, 2006|By ROBERT RUBY | ROBERT RUBY,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

AVIVIM, ISRAEL — AVIVIM, Israel-- --The sergeant stood in the road yesterday and looked at his tank's damaged right tread, which lay unspooled on the torn pavement. Boulders in southern Lebanon, less than half a mile away, had caused the problems this time, not the mortars or machine guns.

Sgt. Alex, as he identified himself, was part of a four-member Israeli crew in an armored convoy. The soldiers' army green uniforms were turning dark with grease and sweat as the men labored over their tank. The temperature yesterday morning was rising into the 90s. They had begun working the previous day about noon, kept working through the night and still had hours to go.

"It's just like here," the sergeant said, looking at the steep terrain, where the bitterly contested Lebanese town of Bint Jbail was a valley and hilltop away. "It's the same rocks and hills. The border is just a line someone drew on a map."

Israel's northern border, at one of the army's main invasion routes into southern Lebanon, remained an orderly staging area for tanks, armored personnel carriers and towering armored bulldozers, loudly grinding back and forth from the fighting. Commanders here said they expect the war between Israel and Hezbollah to last for at least several more weeks, a prediction endorsed publicly by the Cabinet.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's senior ministers, the members of his security Cabinet, gave the army permission yesterday to mobilize up to three more reserve divisions and to get them battle-ready, a call-up potentially involving at least 15,000 troops. Officials said the mobilization was to help relieve the soldiers battling Hezbollah forces in Lebanon, but the size of the mobilization suggests that Israel could decide to expand its offensive.

Much of the fighting yesterday was concentrated in and around Bint Jbail, where senior commanders indicated that the fierce resistance by Hezbollah had not been expected and had forced the army to alter its battle plans.

"We didn't intend to conquer Bint Jbail," Brig. Gen. Shuki Shahar, deputy chief of Israel's Northern Command, said yesterday during an outdoor briefing at his headquarters. "The mission was to control the area outside town and identify infrastructure" belonging to Hezbollah. Nine Israeli soldiers were killed and 22 wounded in fighting there Wednesday. Shahar said Hezbollah suffered casualties "double and triple" Israel's losses.

He acknowledged criticism by some Israelis that the military is acting too slowly, or is failing to use all possible firepower.

"When you have a balanced war, between two armies, it's quite easy," the general said. "In a nonbalanced war, you sometimes have to use not your full power. If we find we will have to use more, we will."

He said Israel is targeting Hezbollah's leadership, including Sheik Hassan Nasrallah; Imad Mugniyah, its military chief and the person the United States holds responsible for the deadly bombing of a Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983; Mugniyah's deputy; and commanders in Tyre and other parts of Lebanon.

"We are looking for the arch-terrorists," Shahar said.

The army's chief of staff, Gen. Dan Halutz, spoke more cautiously at a news conference last night in Tel Aviv, side-stepping a question as to whether Israel was still trying to kill Nasrallah. The Hezbollah leader was reported to be in Syria, which Halutz and Defense Minister Amir Peretz did not confirm.

Peretz said Israel does not want to expand the fighting into Syria. "We have no intention of opening a front with Syria," he said. "We very much hope Hezbollah will not drag Syria into this."

Halutz said, "We have no intention of killing off every member of Hezbollah."

The day wore on at the road junction. Alex, the sergeant, oversaw another member of the tank crew wielding a 4-foot socket wrench, tugging a bolt on a drive wheel. A soldier sat in the shade under the nose of a tank, talking to his family by cell phone.

Someone delivered stacks of morning newspapers from Tel Aviv. Front-page headlines were devoted to the fighting. "Black Day in Lebanon." "We will Erase Villages That Fire Missiles."

The APCs, like enormous insects, bristling with antennas and with hooded windows like heavy-lidded eyes, lined up on the east-west highway. Most of the tanks were on a short spur road, pointing north, a minute's steep drive to the border. Someone was beating the steel drum again, faster. The muzzles of the tanks' guns shined like fine silverware.

Katyusha rockets launched by Hezbollah came south. One landed with a roar lasting just an instant, followed by the explosion in the grass between the switchbacks of the east-west road. Then came more. By late afternoon, a hillside of pines and cedars was burning brightly just north of the Israeli village of Alma.

Soldiers closed the road. Clouds of smoke rose from the hills on both sides of the border. The beating of the drums came faster.

robert.ruby@baltsun.com

Developments

Israel's government decided not to expand its offensive against Hezbollah but called up at least 15,000 troops to begin training for duty in Lebanon.

President Bush condemned Iran's role in the fighting. "Hezbollah attacked Israel. I know Hezbollah is connected to Iran," Bush said at the White House.

Israel's justice minister said world leaders, in failing to call for an immediate cease-fire during a Rome summit, gave Israel a green light to push harder to wipe out the guerrillas in Lebanon. Germany's foreign minister called that interpretation a "gross misunderstanding."

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said "intensive efforts" were under way for a deal that would gain the release of an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas.

Associated Press

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