Israel braces for costly offensive

Security Cabinet OKs southern Lebanon push


JERUSALEM -- These are busy days on the rocky, shaded slopes of Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem.

While family and friends wept and embraced at the funeral of Staff Sgt. Phillip Mosko, one of the latest fatalities of Israel's war with Hezbollah, cemetery workers had cleared away ground to prepare for at least four other gravesites nearby.

Yesterday's decision by Israel's Security Cabinet to authorize a broader and risky ground offensive into southern Lebanon will mean these graves and perhaps scores more will be put to use in the weeks ahead.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert decided to put the campaign on hold for two or three days to see whether diplomatic efforts will produce results, the Associated Press reported a senior Israeli government official said on condition of anonymity.

But even without the broader offensive, 15 soldiers were killed yesterday - the Israeli military's deadliest day in the conflict thus far.

An aggressive push of at least 20 miles into Lebanon to the Litani River or even beyond with the goal of significantly reducing Hezbollah's ability to fire missiles into northern Israel will likely be costly.

It will expose thousands of troops to Hezbollah's snipers, roadside mines and its most lethal weapon, the advanced anti-tank missiles that are wreaking havoc against Israel's armored vehicles. One of those missiles killed Mosko, 21, a paramedic, while he was riding early Tuesday in an armored vehicle in the Lebanese town of Debel.

In the grim arithmetic of battle, Mosko's death might be an indicator of the bloody cost-benefit ratio of the next phase of the campaign. Mosko was one of five soldiers killed in fighting during a 24-hour period in which Israeli forces reported killing 30 Hezbollah fighters and eliminating more than a dozen rocket launchers.

Before voting in favor of the new offensive, the Security Cabinet mulled its options for six hours, reflecting the deep concerns about the prospect of heavy casualties and likely criticism that Israel is not giving diplomacy a chance to establish a cease-fire.

This week Israeli fatalities reach 103, including 36 civilians. (At least 700 Lebanese have been killed, including as many as 400 Hezbollah fighters, Israeli officials say.) According to some estimates in the Israeli media yesterday, Israel can expect a hundred or more fatalities during the expanded ground operation.

But those are losses that Israeli society, increasingly impatient with the army's slow performance in Lebanon, appears to be willing to tolerate if it means an end to rocket attacks and a clear victory.

"We must win this," Yitzhak Fishelevich, Mosko's high school history teacher, said walking slowly away from his student's grave. `This is the price we pay. It is a terrible price but it is the price to live or not to live. This is a war of Israel's existence."

Nor will it likely be its last. Mosko is buried on a hillside covered with headstones of other Israeli soldiers who have fought and died in Israel's wars since its 1948 War of Independence. Each war instilled fear in Israel's neighbors and assured - for a time - that they would think twice before attacking Israel again.

But after nearly a full month of fighting Hezbollah, Israeli forces have failed to deliver a decisive victory, severely eroding the Jewish state's hard-won deterrent capability, critics say. Images of funerals like Mosko's, Israeli tanks crippled by Hezbollah missiles and weary Israel troops returning from the front lines have deflated Israel's image in the Middle East as an unstoppable fighting force.

Meanwhile, the horrific scenes of destruction in Lebanon from Israeli warplanes have largely erased international support for Israel since Hezbollah kidnapped two Israel soldiers last month, triggering this conflict.

"There are a lot of people in the Arab world who feel there is reason to be encouraged by the fact that Israel didn't finish this problem as quickly or as elegantly as its reputation would have led some people to believe. To the point where Hezbollah will undoubtedly declare victory no matter what happens," said Mark Heller, a senior researcher at Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.

Many of Israel's troubles have been attributed to the surprising battle skills and equipment of the Hezbollah fighters. But military analysts also place some of the blame on the Israeli military's weaknesses.

Martin Van Creveld, a military historian, is not surprised by the Israeli Defense Forces' difficulties on the battlefield.

In an interview last week with the weekly newspaper Yerushalayim, Creveld, a professor at Hebrew University on sabbatical in Germany, offered a blunt analysis of the Israel Defense Forces, criticizing them for becoming soft while fighting inferior enemies during the past 30 years.

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