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WARFARE IN THE MIDDLE EAST

Israel's Attack Is 3-Pronged

Jets Target Hezbollah's Missiles, Logistics and Symbols

July 19, 2006|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — With the air war over Lebanon entering its second week, Israeli commanders believe they have been able to significantly reduce Hezbollah's military power but plan to press ahead with a campaign that has been running at nearly 300 combat sorties a day.

Officials here acknowledge that international pressure for a diplomatic solution will eventually choke off their offensive. But they have made it clear that they hope to continue until they have destroyed a greater share of Hezbollah's missiles and the group's ability to launch them.

"Overall, knock on wood, there have been fewer rockets" fired at Israeli towns and cities, Maj. Gen. Udi Adam, the chief of Israel's northern command, said Tuesday on Israeli television. "I think we should assume that it will take a few more weeks" to complete the job, he said.

The air campaign has three prongs, military analysts say.

In southern Lebanon, the goal is to undermine Hezbollah's ability to launch rockets against towns and cities in northern Israel.

At the start of the fighting, Israeli analysts estimated that Hezbollah had 10,000 Katyusha rockets and a smaller store of sophisticated, longer-range missiles from Syria and Iran. Many of the rockets are positioned in densely populated neighborhoods, sometimes cached in homes, officials here say.

Israeli strategists believe that the round-the-clock airstrikes have destroyed about one-third of the long-range missiles, according to news reports here citing military intelligence sources.

But the same reports suggested that the offensive would not be considered a success unless it made a deeper dent in Hezbollah's arsenal -- taking more than 60% of the rockets out of commission.

Beyond quelling the rocket fire, Israel has two other goals.

In the eastern Bekaa Valley, which Israeli officials have described as a prime route for smuggling arms from Syria, Israel is seeking to destroy Hezbollah's logistical network.

An Israeli airstrike Tuesday blew up a convoy of trucks in the Bekaa carrying arms for Hezbollah that were being moved in from Syria, the Israeli military said.

Officials declined to specify the amount or type of weaponry they believed the trucks were carrying, but said the strike triggered enormous secondary explosions, indicating a large arms shipment.

In the southern suburbs of Beirut, the chief targets are the symbols of Hezbollah's power.

"The army is acting on all three of these levels with increasing force," wrote Alex Fishman, the military affairs correspondent for Israel's daily Yediot Aharonot newspaper.

In pressing its air campaign, Israel is prosecuting the war on its own terms, but faces a formidable adversary and a constrained timetable.

A poll published Tuesday in the Yediot Aharonot indicated that 86% of the Israeli public believes the wide-ranging assaults against Lebanon have been an appropriate response to Hezbollah's actions.

Outside Israel, however, criticism has mounted rapidly over the rising civilian death toll in Lebanon, more than 230 as the fighting ended a seventh day, and the devastation of the Arab nation's infrastructure.

However, the Bush administration, Israel's main ally, has taken no steps to rein in the attacks.

Israeli officials say they are taking all possible measures to avoid killing and maiming innocents. But with warplanes staging relentless strikes on roads and bridges and with Hezbollah's weaponry said to be scattered among southern Lebanon's villages, civilian deaths and injuries are inevitable.

Attacks on roads and bridges are generally described by the Israeli military as intended to impede the movement of weaponry, but some observers also see them as meant to punish and demoralize the Lebanese population for having granted Hezbollah so great a share of political power.

The second constraint involves the limitations of air power.

Israeli strategists acknowledge that Hezbollah's rocket and missile stockpiles cannot be dealt with by airstrikes alone.

"It's not practical to think that destruction of all the missiles and all the launchpads can be done by the air force," former air force commander Avihu Ben-Nun told Israel Radio. "This is because of camouflage and concealing of rockets in deep bunkers and inside villages where they are protected by the civilian presence."

But Israel remains extremely wary of ground combat in Lebanon.

The bloodying the Jewish state's troops suffered at Hezbollah's hands in the "buffer zone" Israel tried to carve out in southern Lebanon during the 1980s and 1990s left Israelis extremely reluctant to again engage the guerrillas on their home turf.

A large-scale ground incursion remains an option, but one that Israel hopes to avoid. To many Israelis, the watchword for land combat in Lebanon remains botz -- mud, or quagmire.

Maj. Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky, the army's deputy chief of staff, told Israel Radio on Tuesday, "At this point, we don't think we need to bring massive ground forces into Lebanon."

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