Israel's Military Dilemma: How Far Into Lebanon to Go?

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A young Israeli tank commander who calls himself Sgt. Yoshua knows what awaits him in Lebanon. When his 82nd Battalion crossed the border a few days back, every imaginable threat seemed to pop up in front of him. Three of the four tanks in his unit encountered landmines, missile fire and snipers. Yoshua's best friend, a guitar player, was in one of the tanks hit by a missile and lost both his legs. Three others were killed. "It's not like fighting Palestinians in Gaza," explains Sgt. Yoshua, a gaunt, bearded young soldier. "Hizballah has better weapons. They're highly organized and — I don't know if the word is fearless or crazy — but they'll stand right in front of the tank, and fire at us."

Now Sgt. Yoshua is venturing back into Lebanon, and, judging from the difficulty facing the United Nations in brokering a truce acceptable to both sides, he and his tank battalion could be parked there for months.

Just how far into Lebanon the Israelis should advance — and how long they should stay — is the subject of rancorous debates in Israeli cabinet meetings and war rooms. Israeli leaders are haunted by the specter of the last Israeli invasion of Lebanon to root out a terror threat, in 1982. That operation had also been intended to be a quick and surgical operation, but it dragged on for 18 years and cost the lives of close to 2,000 Israeli soldiers before Israel withdrew and left the border area to Hizballah.

Still, there is consensus in the Israeli leadership that even if Hizballah agrees to stop pelting Israel with hundreds of rockets every day, calling off the Israeli offensive right now would mean admitting failure. Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University in Jerusalem, summed up the opinion of many Israelis: "If Israel withdraws from Lebanon without striking harder at Hizballah, we will have accomplished nothing for all our suffering."

The source of Israel's dilemma is Hizballah's resilience. In the flush of hubris that accompanied the opening salvos of the campaign, few Israeli decision-makers wanted to believe that four weeks later, the estimated 4,000 fighters of the Shi'ite militia would still be trading punches with one of the world's most advanced armies.

The depth of Hizballah's resistance has seen Israeli leaders scale back their definition of success, from crushing Hizballah as a fighting force to a more limited set of goals. Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter told TIME that Israel now seeks the release of two Israeli soldiers held by Hizballah, the cessation of all attacks on Israel from Lebanon, and the creation of a "fire zone" along the southern Lebanese border. This swath will be taken over, he says, by a brawny multi-national force, and when that happens, Israel will withdraw. "We want combatants who are allowed to open fire — not just write letters of complaint," Dichter says.

But until the foreign force arrives — and the delay lies not simply in assembling volunteers, but in getting Hizballah to agree to a truce, which many prospective troop contributors insist is a precondition for deployment — Israel's leaders must decide just how far into Lebanon Sgt. Yoshua's tank should roll.

The Israeli media is reporting a disagreement on this question between Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Guided by his generals, Peretz wants to press on to the Litani River, up to 12 miles north of the Israeli border, and even beyond. That would also extend the duration of the campaign for at least another week, say Israeli military experts. The prime minister, mindful of the gently increasing pressure from the White House, and of the risk that expanding the ground offensive could bring large numbers of Israeli casualties, has insisted the assault be more limited.

Olmert's caution is reinforced by military experts who note that even if Israel clears a buffer zone — which would require the forced eviction of tens of thousands of Lebanese villagers — Hizballah rockets fired from beyond the Litani River could still reach north and central Israel. And war planners have not forgotten that the last time Israeli forces dug in north of the border, their bases and supply lines were easy prey for Hizballah's guerrilla units.

But Israel is skeptical of how much help it will receive in policing Hizballah from Lebanon's weak and ill-equipped army, which currently lacks the ability — and the political will — to confront Hizballah.

Although Hizballah has indicated a willingness to trade an end to its rocket fire into Israel in exchange for an end to Israeli bombing of Lebanese cities, it also insists that it will continue to fight against any Israeli forces that seek to remain on Lebanese territory. Which means that Hizballah won't accept the cease-fire currently being discussed at the U.N., which envisages Israel remaining in southern Lebanon until the international force arrives — thus effectively postponing the deployment of such a force.

Even the Israelis admit that an international force, no matter how robust, won't be able to enforce a peace without Hizballah's consent. Says one Israeli former security chief, "All Nasrallah has to do is speak the language of the Middle Ages — call these troops 'crusaders' who are helping the Jews — and the Muslim extremists will turn against the peacekeepers."

Israel's past troubles with the U.N. forces in Lebanon suggest the international mission could also be complicated by Israel's reacting directly to perceived threats by killing Hizballah leaders or bombing supply lines from Syria. Still, despite the limited optimism over its prospects, the Israelis and the Lebanese agree that it may be their only hope of achieving a cease-fire. Until, Sgt. Yoshua says he intends to keep updating the marks on the barrel of his tank's cannon with the number of Hizballah kills claimed by his platoon — 50 so far, he says. And somewhere across the line, a Hizballah missile-man is probably keeping a similar tally of dead Israelis. Sgt. Yoshua is in his early twenties, but his gaze is battle-hardened, hollow. The soldier knows that Lebanon holds many perils for Israelis — and for future keepers of the peace.

With reporting by Aaron Klein/Avivim and Andrew Butters/Beirut