Behind Israel's Delayed Invasion

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Israeli soldiers carry a wounded comrade off an armored personnel carrier to a waiting ambulance after crossing the border from Lebanon into northern Israel, Wednesday,

Throughout the Lebanon crisis, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has insisted that a return to the status quo ante is unacceptable — a radical Iran-backed militia could not be allowed to operate along Israel's northern border, as Hizballah was doing on July 12 when it captured two Israeli soldiers. But Israeli leaders are also mindful of the danger of restoring the status quo of six years ago, when Israel occupied southern Lebanon at the cost of a slow but steady flow of casualties inflicted by Hizballah guerrillas that eventually forced its withdrawal.

A wariness over plunging back into what Israelis remember as their own Vietnam may help explain Israel's caution over expanding the ground war. And so even though the Israeli cabinet on Wednesday gave Prime Minister Ehud Olmert the authority to order a wider invasion, Israeli officials made clear that ordering such an move further north into Lebanon would wait a few days to see the outcome of the diplomatic wrangling at the U.N.

That same caution, in fact, helps explain one of the oft-obscured realities of Israel's military campaign — for all the talk of its incursion into south Lebanon, Israeli forces do not currently control very much of it, and they have intentionally limited their operations to something less than trying to hold ground. So President Bush referred to a fact not yet established on the ground when he insisted on Tuesday — over objections from Lebanon and other Arab governments — that Israel be allowed to maintain control of southern Lebanon until the arrival of an international force.

Israel currently has 10,000 troops operating in southern Lebanon, but they're not digging in. Instead, they're attacking Hizballah village strongholds, maintaining mobility instead of establishing fixed positions. In fact, the Israeli soldiers are mostly living inside their tanks and APCs, where they eat, sleep and conduct their ablutions. Once they have expended much of the ammunition they're carrying in firefights with Hizballah, they are typically relieved after a few days, driving back to the Israeli border to refuel, rearm and, for many of the soldiers, to catch a day or two of r&r in abandoned resorts near the border — which can even include visits from mothers, wives and girlfriends, before being sent back in.

Hizballah's tenacity and its guerrilla tactics have allowed it to inflict substantial casualties on the Israeli forces — upward of 70 soldiers since the campaign began, and 15 on Wednesday alone — and to continue fighting despite Israel's huge technological advantages. That makes Israeli control of the areas in which they've deployed partial, at best. For example, the Israeli military first announced that they had captured the village stronghold of Bint Jbeil two weeks ago, yet they have lost more than 20 men in ongoing fighting there since that date. And the decentralized and mobile nature of the Hizballah formations makes it difficult to bring to bear Israel's advantages in firepower. Most of the Israeli casualties have been inflicted by antitank weapons, often fired from as far as 2 miles away.

Now, the Israeli government has given its approval for a campaign to drive all the way to the Litani River, some 18 miles into Lebanon, which would involve deploying as many as 20,000 more troops and then working back down towards the Israeli border, sweeping through dozens of villages to eliminate the thousands of Hizballah fighters that remain there. Still, Israeli leaders remain cautious over going ahead, for a number of reasons:

  • The intensity of the fighting thus far has made clear that Israel would suffer substantial casualties in such an invasion; it would expect to lose as many as 100 more troops in the first week (taken as a proportion of the population, that's the equivalent of the U.S. losing 5,000) and probably more in the cleanup operations in the weeks that followed;
  • Pushing north to the Litani River would make driving back to the border to refuel and rearm every few days impractical, and Israel would be forced to develop fixed positions and supply lines — something they've carefully avoided until now, because these offer very tempting targets to Hizballah;
  • Deploying up to the Litani wouldn't necessarily eliminate the rocket threat to northern Israel, because even Katyusha rockets fired from north of the river could hit the city of Kiryat Shmona and other Israeli population centers;
  • Once in, the Israelis may find it difficult to easily extract themselves — the international force that would ostensibly take over does not yet exist, and there are doubts over whether it would materialize at all as long as there was a shooting war between Israel and Hizballah.

    So, while Israel certainly has the forces to put boots on the ground and take control of southern Lebanon, it must now assess whether the advantages of doing so outweigh the costs and potential complications. Until now, it clearly hasn't thought so, and only a continuing failure of diplomacy will likely change its mind.

    — With reporting by Aaron Klein/Jerusalem