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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 August 2006, 17:57 GMT 18:57 UK
Israel's offensive one month on
By Martin Asser
BBC News

Israeli air strike in southern Lebanon
Israel has launched air strikes throughout Lebanese territory
The ever-volatile Middle East has been in turmoil since Hezbollah guerrillas launched a cross border attack from Lebanon into Israel four weeks ago, killing eight Israeli soldiers and capturing two others.

The conflict has marked a new escalation of the Arab-Israeli struggle - taking hundreds of lives, causing massive destruction and displacing hundreds of thousands of people.

It pits the region's most powerful and technologically advanced army against a small, guerrilla force galvanised by a taste for engagement with the enemy and martyrdom.

Fighting has been fierce and bombs have continued to rain down on both civilian populations.

Israel, despite its overwhelming military advantage, has been forced into a radical re-think tactically and strategically in the last month.

Meanwhile, international diplomacy has been powerless to halt the killing, as a humanitarian catastrophe looms in Lebanon.

And the parallel Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the most important factor to deal with in any Middle East settlement, rages on unabated.

Elusive success

It is probable that Hezbollah seriously underestimated Israel's response to its 12 July raid which triggered the crisis.

FOUR WEEKS' FIGHTING
Deaths: 998 Lebanese, 102 Israeli
Injuries: 3,493 Lebanese, 690 Israeli
Displaced: 915,762 Lebanese, 500,000 Israeli
Official sources and NGOs as of 8 Aug 2006

A similar foray several years ago led to a prisoner-swap deal that saw hundreds of Palestinian detainees released, as well as prominent Lebanese held for decades by Israel.

This time, with a newly-elected Israeli government that had yet to win its spurs, the response was more like Israel's bloody 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

But if Israel's goal was to free its soldiers and scotch the shower of unguided missiles fired at it by Hezbollah, it has failed.

In fact, the Katyusha salvoes have hit more and more frequently and deeper into Israel, unchecked by the massive air power used to combat them.

Israel has been criticised internationally for what many see as its disproportionate military response, just as Hezbollah has been criticised for its unguided rocket attacks against Israel.

New tactics

The big question is whether Hezbollah will be goaded into firing its longest-range missile type, the 100km Zilzal, at Israel's largest city Tel Aviv.

Lebanese youth holds out Israeli leaflets criticising Hezbollah
Israel has tried to undermine support for Hezbollah in Lebanon
Speculation in the Lebanese capital Beirut is that that could trigger a much wider bombardment by Israel - beyond the mainly Shia southern suburbs that have been hit so far.

While an attack on Tel Aviv remains very much up Hezbollah's sleeve, Israeli tactics have been steadily evolving.

At the beginning it was suggested, somewhat naively perhaps, that air power and artillery could achieve Israel's stated goal of removing Hezbollah as a hostile force in Lebanon.

Israeli jets are unopposed in the skies over Lebanon, but they are mostly powerless to deal with the highly-mobile rocket crews.

Thousands of ground forces have been steadily introduced, but they have had to fight for every inch of territory and pay for it in soldiers' blood.

The plan now appears to be to carve out what Israel is calling a "security zone" in southern Lebanon, to put a buffer between it and the rocket crews.

Sectarian cracks

On Wednesday the Israel security cabinet approved a risky new thrust north to the strategic Litani River, up to 30km (18 miles) into Lebanon.

If prolonged, the deployment could expose Israeli forces to the kind of attritional armed resistance that forced their retreat from Lebanon in 2000.

A woman is led to a shelter in northern Israel
Hezbollah has taken the fight to civilians in northern Israel
This time though they would not have a proxy militia from southern Lebanon to bear the brunt of attacks.

It also seems inevitable that the punishment meted out across Lebanon, aside from the onslaught faced by Hezbollah, will continue and increase.

Key infrastructure items, such as roads, factories and bridges, have already been destroyed.

An environmental disaster followed the Israeli bombing of a coastal power station and fuel storage depot.

But the most acute situation could come if petrol and diesel ran out, preventing transport and electricity generation, which could happen within days.

Israel's unstated intention could be to show the wider Lebanese population that they too have to pay for Shia Muslim resistance, and it is a price not worth paying.

However, in many quarters, Hezbollah's prestige has been enhanced, for its steadfast stance, compared with the ineffective governments across the Arab world.

If small cracks are forming in Lebanon's fragile sectarian system of power-sharing, most Lebanese people still view Israel as the enemy, especially given the heavy civilian toll it has exacted.

The consensus is that the cracks would open up only if Israeli forces remained in the south, especially if allowed to do so under an international resolution pushed through by Israel's allies at the UN.




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