Israelis tone down rhetoric on goals for Lebanon incursion


JERUSALEM -- Even before yesterday's bruising day on the battlefields of southern Lebanon, Israel's leaders had begun scaling back public expectations of a decisive - or quick - victory over the guerrillas of Hezbollah.

Heading into the confrontation, senior Israeli officials had declared that the Shiite Muslim militia would be dealt a blow from which it could not recover. Its arsenal would be destroyed and its fighters driven out of southern Lebanon, the officials said.

Some spoke openly of killing Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, who triggered the confrontation two weeks ago by sending guerrillas on a deadly cross-border raid that resulted in the capture of two Israeli soldiers.

"We intend to break this organization," Defense Minister Amir Peretz said of Hezbollah during the first days of fighting.

Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, chief of staff of the Israeli army, said Israel wanted to make it clear to the Lebanese "that they've swallowed a cancer and have to vomit it up."

With the fighting in its third week, however, Israelis are being told that Hezbollah can be weakened but not eradicated; that Israeli forces will not be able to police the border zone themselves; and that Hezbollah's missiles and rockets might continue to threaten Israeli cities and towns.

"The target is not to totally dismantle Hezbollah," said Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter, a former head of Israel's domestic Shin Bet security service. "What we are doing now is to try to send a message to Hezbollah."

Yaron Ezrahi, a political analyst at Hebrew University, said, "The rhetoric from the political establishment was extremely overheated in the early days" of the confrontation. "Now they are trying to calibrate people's expectations, bring them more in line with what might actually be achieved."

The difficulty of the fight Israel faces was obvious yesterday, when nine of its soldiers were killed in southern Lebanon.

Early in the campaign, there was widespread acknowledgment among Israeli policymakers and commanders that Israel could not achieve its goals by air power alone.

On the ground, in their first major forays into the border zone, Israeli troops encountered tougher resistance than they had expected, and casualties were heavy.

Elite forces found an elaborate maze of fortified caves and tunnels from which Hezbollah fighters, armed with sophisticated weapons, were able to strike at will.

Israeli military intelligence officials think that about 150 Hezbollah fighters have been killed in the offensive. Hezbollah has not acknowledged such losses, which would be substantial for a force that is thought to have a core of several thousand fighters.

Yet Hezbollah has maintained its ability to fight. A week ago, Israeli officials said that they had destroyed large numbers of Hezbollah missiles and noted that the number of rockets being fired into northern Israel was declining.

After a brief lull, however, the number of rockets launched at Israeli towns and cities rebounded and has continued unabated, virtually shutting down a swath of the country where nearly 1 million people live.

Nineteen Israeli civilians have been killed by rocket fire, the latest being 15-year-old girl who was killed Tuesday. Thirty-three soldiers have died in the fighting, Israel's biggest combat loss in years in such a short span.

Israelis have bitter memories of a drumbeat of deaths during Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon in the 1980s and 1990s, and many dread returning to ground combat there.

Now, with the ground campaign going slowly, influential military analysts have begun to criticize Israeli commanders' tactics, notably the decision to use a relatively small force to try to take the Hezbollah stronghold Bint Jbeil, two miles from Lebanon's border with Israel.

Amir Rappaport, writing Tuesday in the mass-circulation Maariv newspaper, wrote of the "enormous gap between the military challenge posed by Hezbollah, a shadowy guerrilla organization equipped with the best Iranian and Syrian weaponry, and the relatively smaller number of troops" that took part in the incursion into Lebanon.

"In the end, the size of the operation that was decided on - neither several armored divisions that would surge in nor an aerial operation alone - is liable to claim many casualties without bringing about any dramatic military accomplishment," Rappaport wrote.

Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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