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:
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