Israeli troops stand by for next move

THE BALTIMORE SUN

METULA, Israel -- As the heat rose yesterday along the border with Lebanon, a 27-year-old tank gunner named Avi stood amid the stubble of a wheat field with his battalion awaiting orders: to go north for expanded battles against Hezbollah, or to go south, back toward their families and homes and a quieter Middle East.

Both possibilities hung in the air, even after the United Nations Security Council voted last night unanimously in favor of a resolution calling for a halt in the fighting. Israel's Cabinet is scheduled to discuss the resolution tomorrow, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said yesterday that he favored accepting it.

But no one has set the day and the hour for the fighting to stop - and the tank battalion maintained its wait.

Avi, a reservist from Carmiel, had every reason to want a quick end to this war. Last week, his wife gave birth to their first child, a daughter, and he knows he's needed at home and at his job as an electrical engineer.

But he also wants Israel to finish what Hezbollah started. To end the fighting now would mean that Israel would be seen walking away from the war after failing to meet the two goals that it announced when the fighting began: eliminating the threat of rocket fire and crushing Hezbollah.

A Hezbollah rocket fell a few hundred feet from his home last week, forcing Avi and his wife to flee south so she could give birth out of rocket range. He doesn't want to raise his daughter in such dangerous conditions. Only more fighting, he said, could bring a lasting peace.

"Nobody wants to fight this war, but we want to have a sense of security," said Avi, who was not allowed to give a last name for security reasons. "What would be painful for people is suffering losses and then to see Hezbollah is still at the fences and still shooting rockets. No one wants to die for that."

Avi's dilemma was well-documented in the Israeli press yesterday as the public's once-united front for this war appeared to crumble.

Shimon Shiffer, writing in Yediot Aharonot, Israel's largest daily newspaper, argued that an immediate cease-fire would allow Israel to suffer fewer lost lives and to know it had reached a number of substantial achievements.

"Thousands of Lebanese soldiers will deploy on our northern border, supported by over 10,000 foreign soldiers with enforcement powers; southern Lebanon will be emptied of rockets and Katyushas, and the international force will supervise the border crossings between Syria and Lebanon and enforce an embargo on weapons deliveries to Hezbollah," he wrote.

But Ben Caspit, writing in Maariv, said a cease-fire should give the country and especially the Israel Defense Forces, as the military is known, little reason to rejoice.

"Deep concern must reside in the heart of every Israeli who loves this country," he wrote. "Why? Because our great IDF, which is supposed to deter a dark Islamist world teeming with forces around us, did not defeat a few thousand Hizbullah fighters.

"This campaign was conducted negligently, hesitantly, indecisively. When we needed to attack, we waited.

"When we should have waited, we attacked. Weak, predictable, slow. And now, we have jumbled together a last-minute cease-fire, because we did not agree to pay the price. In the Middle East, if you do not pay up the capital today, you will pay compound interest tomorrow and be declared insolvent the day after."

Polls indicated that public confidence in the military's ability to carry out its goals was slipping. A survey in Yediot Aharonot showed that 37 percent of the 500 people questioned believed Israel would cripple Hezbollah, compared with 40 percent in a previous survey.

Seventeen percent thought Israel would lose the war, and Hezbollah would return to south Lebanon, up from 13 percent previously, according to the poll conducted by the Dahaf organization. It had a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.

The poll also showed Prime Minister Olmert's personal approval rating falling to 66 percent from 73 percent.

Ari Shavit, one of Israel's most influential newspaper columnists, said Olmert should no longer be prime minister because he mishandled the war.

" If Olmert runs away now from the war he initiated, he will not be able to remain prime minister for even one more day. Chutzpah has its limits," Shavit wrote in Haaretz. "You cannot lead an entire nation to war promising victory, produce humiliating defeat and remain in power. You cannot bury 120 Israelis in cemeteries, keep a million Israelis in shelters for a month, wear down deterrent power, bring the next war very close, and then say, 'Oops, I made a mistake.'"

In conversations with Israeli soldiers, there appeared to be solid support yesterday for continuing the fight if it meant more conclusive results for the Israeli military, which has struggled against Hezbollah during the past month of combat.

"I hope the cease-fire won't take place before we will do a few more moves," said a 34-year-old tank commander named Avishai, a father of six who works as a music director at a religious school. "I wish I could tell the prime minister what to do. But I'm a soldier. My job is to obey orders."

He and other members of the battalion were busy preparing for the possibility of more combat. Tank crews banged armor plates into place on the sides of their tanks, tightened the wheels on the tracks and loaded their vehicles with fuel and boxes of rations.

"We are fixing everything that needs to be fixed, prepared what needs to be prepared and we are waiting for our orders," Avishai said.

The military welcomed television crews, photographers and reporters to take a glimpse at the long rows of tanks, their guns pointed north, their tracks churning up the open field. It was a way of conveying a not-so-hidden message to Hezbollah and the world that Israel would not shy from more fighting even if diplomacy was under way.

"Part of diplomacy is having an army like this ready," said Mitch Pilcer, a spokesman for the Israeli army, gesturing to the field packed with dozens of tanks stirring up dust.

Avishai said he didn't pay much attention to the debates either in Israel or at the Security Council, because the war - in his opinion - has been won.

"What is it to win this war?" he said. "If to win is to kill Hezbollah soldiers we will never win. But if to win is the feeling people have in this country. I think we have already won. The spirit we have is that we can go on. They can't stop us."

Avishai took more heart in the fact that it has brought the Israeli people together.

"Everybody is fighting along with us," he said.

Yesterday, Israel's fighting force included an ice cream truck that pulled into the crowded field with its loudspeaker blaring a recording of children's song proclaiming "We have the best ice cream in the world." Soldiers lined up as the truck pulled to a stop, handing out Popsicles to sweaty soldiers.

But real fight was difficult to ignore. As the children's song played, Hezbollah rockets slammed into hillsides nearby, setting a grassy field ablaze, and soldiers took cover from a fresh barrage of missiles.

Israeli forces swiftly answered with hundreds of rounds of artillery fire.

jmurphy@baltsunnews.com

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