Lebanon fight has no winner

Conclusive outcome eludes combatants


TELL HATZOR, Israel -- As trucks carrying Israeli tanks and artillery climb the last hills to the border with Lebanon, they pass a high grassy mound that is a sobering reminder about the limits of both force and diplomacy in the Middle East.

The 200-acre mound contains the remains of the once-powerful city of Hatzor, where the ancient Canaanites and then the Israelites kept watch over the trade route linking their kingdoms to Egypt and the lands to the north and east, all the way to Babylon. As many as 20,000 people lived here about 1700 B.C. before the Canaanite city was violently destroyed. An Israelite city replaced it until it, too, was demolished by an invading Assyrian army.

Whatever was gained solely by force of arms here, it has nearly always crumbled away.

If Israel or Hezbollah ever believed that their fierce clashes in southern Lebanon might be a final, conclusive battle, both sides now seem to grimly sense that the conflict will not be over even when the shooting, bombings and rockets finally stop.

"You cannot achieve peace only by using the Israeli army, but you can gain time," said Ori Orr, a retired Israeli army general who commanded the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon in the late 1980s, and served as deputy defense minister in the 1990s. "We cannot defeat Hezbollah for all time. But what we can do is make them think much more before they act again, maybe for the next five, six, 10 years."

The U.N. Security Council moved closer yesterday to demanding an end to the fighting, after the United States and France announced they had agreed on a draft cease-fire resolution. Though the council could vote as early as today, the resolution will not necessarily bring the violence to an immediate close.

For Israel's army and its government, 25 days of fighting have produced fewer clear-cut victories than hoped for, and a steep decline in expectations.

Hezbollah fighters have not melted away, but instead remain an elusive enemy that has demonstrated impressive stamina. They have no barracks, no fleets of marked vehicles and no uniforms - none of the conventional infrastructure that can clearly mark a target. Their fighters can't easily be spotted except when they are actually firing their weapons, including the rockets that by the end of last week were striking Israel at the rate of more than 150 a day.

During the first days of fighting, Israel relied almost entirely on its air force. That choice is now being strongly criticized and blamed on the military's chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, the first air force officer to head the armed forces.

Early on in the fighting, relatively small numbers of Israeli troops crossed the border but encountered stiff resistance. In recent days, as many as 10,000 more soldiers entered Lebanon. They have advanced three to five miles, the army says, but without yet winning full control of the villages that are within sight of the border, and where some of the most intense fighting has occurred.

"If you want to be engaged in this kind of warfare, you have to separate the civilians from the fighters," said Shlomo Brom, a retired Israeli general who was deputy to the government's national security adviser. "Only in the last week has it been possible to engage in a real war in southern Lebanon."

Yesterday, Israel expanded the ground battles by landing commandos near the city of Tyre, where the army said it attacked fighters believed to be responsible for launching longer-range missiles that struck cities in central Israel. Israeli forces, according to wire reports, also dropped leaflets in the city of Sidon, more than 30 miles north of the border, warning residents to evacuate.

Casualties have risen as the fighting has expanded. Since Thursday, the death toll includes eight Israeli officers and soldiers killed in combat, 14 Israeli civilians who were victims of rockets fired by Hezbollah, more than 30 civilians in Lebanon, as well as an unknown number of Hezbollah fighters.

Simply increasing the size of Israel's military effort would not guarantee success. A substantially larger Israeli ground force would still encounter major obstacles, say military experts who cite as evidence the United States' failures in Iraq. The world's richest, best-equipped military has occupied that country for more than three years without being able to subdue armed militias or restore civil order.

Israeli commanders can also cite their own chastening experiences in the Gaza Strip. During an occupation that lasted more than 30 years, Israel failed to find political allies, or help build an economy that might have tempted Gazans away from militancy. It has also not yet managed to stop rocket attacks from there into southern Israel - missile launchings that are a disquieting copy of Hezbollah's earliest tactics.

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