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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 July 2006, 17:37 GMT 18:37 UK
Debate grows over Israel strategy

By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent, BBC News website

Israeli soldiers with a Hezbollah flag
Israel's minor ground campaign contrasts with massive air power
The deaths of nine Israeli soldiers in the battle for the village of Bint Jbeil plus the continued ability of Hezbollah to rain rockets onto northern Israel have prompted questions in Israel about its military strategy in Lebanon.

Overall, there is clarity about Israeli intentions - the release of the two captured soldiers and the removal of Hezbollah from southern Lebanon, but lack of clarity about how to achieve them.

Ze'ev Schiff, the most respected military analyst in Israel commented: "Israel is far from a decisive victory and its main objectives have not been achieved."

The 12-strong "security cabinet" nevertheless decided on Thursday to continue with the current tactics of air bombardment (perhaps stepping this up) coupled with a limited ground operation near the border. However, 30,000 reserves are being called up, thereby keeping open the option of a major expansion of the ground campaign.

The decision appears to have been a compromise between those who want to be more aggressive and those who fear the consequences in terms of increasing both Lebanese civilian and Israeli military casualties. Defence Minister Amir Peretz is thought to be among the more cautious.

Mismatch

There has been, in the view of some military analysts, a mismatch between the major air campaign and the minor ground campaign.

The air attacks have copied the tactics of the US air force in both Gulf Wars but have not been followed up with the other half of the so-called "Powell doctrine" - the massive use of forces on the ground.

This is unlike the situation in 1978 when Israeli forces went right up to the Litani River some 20km (12.4 miles) to the north - or 1982 when they went to Beirut. Perhaps the memories of those days have affected current thinking.

There is a mismatch of information
Instead this time Israel has sent in limited numbers of troops across the border for only a few kilometres to set up a so-called "buffer zone". They found themselves in difficulty almost immediately against well-trained and well-armed defenders. The Israelis found themselves using their hi-tech Merkava tanks as ambulances for the wounded.

At the same time, the missiles still come crashing over the border - 151 on Wednesday alone.

Some in Israel have called for more widespread action. A former Likud party Defence Minister Moshe Arens said that troops should be used to "suppress" the rocket fire. This could not be done from the air, he said.

Indeed, an example of the limitations of air power came in an incident filmed by the BBC in Beirut the other day. The Israeli air force destroyed two trucks carrying water-drilling rigs, presumably thinking they were rocket launchers.

Air attacks

Others are saying that more air power should be used anyway. One minister, Eli Yishai of the Shas party, said that after warnings had been given, "we must not enter villages where Hezbollah terrorists are hiding before we have turned them into sand boxes".

But there is a mismatch of information about these villages. Haim Ramon, the Justice Minister and Kadima party colleague of the Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, claimed that Bint Jbeil had been emptied of its civilians.

Destroyed Lebanese bridge
Some Israeli ministers favour targeting Lebanon's infrastructure
"Only Hezbollah gunmen remain," he said, " [and it] should be pounded from the air and with artillery before ground troops enter."

Yet an Israeli military spokesman was simultaneously telling the BBC in a live interview that Hezbollah had deliberately kept the villagers inside Bint Jbeil in order to hinder Israeli operations.

Public disagreements about basic facts often indicate disagreements about basic tactics.

Mr Ramon also wants further attacks on infrastructure, including electricity supplies. He had earlier infuriated the EU by claiming that the Rome meeting on Wednesday, which failed to produce a unified call for an immediate ceasefire, had given Israel the green light to continue.

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk






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