Last Saturday, OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Udi Adam toured the Lebanese border near the scene of this week's attack, in which three IDF soldiers were killed and two others kidnapped.
The view from the border, Adam told reporters, was pastoral and peaceful, but also deceiving. In the brush just meters away, he saw Hizbullah gunmen pointing their weapons at him, as they have done dozens of other times he has toured the area.
Wednesday's attack on an IDF convoy shattered that seeming quiet. In the ensuing pursuit of kidnapped soldiers Ohad Goldwasser and Elad Regev, a tank drove over a large explosive device, killing four others. An hour later, a member of the rescue team sent in after the tank was also killed.
The sequence of events and Hizbullah's stunning success, veteran military reporters said, were almost unprecedented. Images of Israeli soldiers once again crossing the border into Lebanese territory brought back memories of Israel's last major incursion into Lebanon, 1982's Operation: Peace for the Galilee.
But this time, the hope was to avoid any long-term Lebanese quagmire. The current ongoing IDF operation in the North, dubbed "Just Rewards," would be harsh and swift, senior officers promised a mere few hours after the attack. During security consultations in the IDF war room in the Kirya Military Headquarters in Tel Aviv that day, high-ranking sources said Israel would use precise strikes on critical infrastructure to set Lebanon back 20 years.
That's just what began to happen Thursday morning, when IAF fighter jets bombed Beirut's International Airport. Later in the day, other Beirut targets were hit and a high-ranking officer said Israel would also target Beirut's Dahiya neighborhood, Hizbullah's stronghold and home to the family of Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. The message was clear: Israel would answer fire with fire, targeting civilian neighborhoods just like Hizbullah was targeting Israeli cities in non-stop rocket attacks.
As the hours went by on Thursday, the northern border turned into something of a chessboard, Hizbullah making a move and Israel responding with a counterattack. Indeed, at a meeting Defense Minister Amir Peretz held with Adam and the chief of staff that morning at northern command headquarters in Safed, menacing booms were heard. The three paused to look at each other, wondering whether the sounds came from Hizbullah Katyushas or Israeli artillery fire. "What's the big deal? I come from Sderot," quipped Peretz.
Unfortunately, the northern chessboard is likely to get even more complicated, considering the thousands of missiles in Hizbullah's arsenal, capable of reaching Haifa and even Hadera.
WHILE OPENING the front in the North, IDF troops were still on the ground in the Gaza Strip, battling Kassam rocket cells, and working to pressure the Hamas government into releasing kidnapped Cpl. Gilad Shalit.
Those attacks were no less severe than the ones in the North. Early Thursday morning, IAF jets bombed the Palestinian Authority Foreign Ministry offices in Gaza. According to Israel, Foreign Minister Mahmoud al-Zahar not only knew of the attack during which Shalit was kidnapped some three weeks ago, but also was involved in its planning.
Nor did IDF operations stop there. In addition to the action in the North and the South, Israel is quietly fighting on a third front - the West Bank, where troops raid Palestinian cities like Nablus and Jenin daily to destroy terror infrastructure. Nonetheless, Palestinian terrorists in those towns are still working hard to develop Kassam rockets like their Gaza Strip counterparts. This week alone, they tried firing two rockets, but both attempts failed. This new threat of rockets being fired from the West Bank could mean Israel might become a country under attack on all of its three different fronts - the North, South and East.
For now, however, the main question the IDF command is addressing, other than how the attack on the Lebanese border happened in the first place, is how to prevent similar ones in the future. While the IDF says it is committed to retrieving the kidnapped soldiers in Gaza and Lebanon - believed to still be alive - officers readily admit that their operations against the terrorists and attacks on civilian targets in both places are meant not only to pressure the governments there to return the soldiers, but to deter the terrorists from any further abduction attempts.
This is what the operations on both fronts are about, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz said Thursday during a visit to Northern Command headquarters in Safed: restoring Israel's damaged deterrence in the eyes of its enemies around the world. Those include Iran, which Israel has said was behind both kidnappings. Nasrallah himself made the connection between them in a speech on Wednesday afternoon, and called on Israel to prepare for a prisoner exchange, in which all three soldiers would be released.
SENIOR NORTHERN command officers said they were not deluding themselves into believing that the ongoing operations in both Lebanon and Gaza would be the sole factor in bringing their comrades home. They are meant to create the right circumstances for the diplomatic echelon to use in talks with international organizations and other countries over the soldiers' release.
There are already Israeli government ministers discussing the need for some sort of prisoner exchange, despite Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's declared steadfast opposition to such a move. Peretz, The Jerusalem Post has learned, believes Israel should be willing to release prisoners in what he has called a "gesture" to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, if Shalit, Goldwasser and Regev are released.
Israel has made such deals in the past - most recently in 2003 - when the remains of three IDF soldiers and captured businessman Elhanan Tennenbaum, held by Hizbullah, were returned to Israel in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. Such a swap, officers admitted on Thursday, might turn out to be the only way to get the soldiers back. The IDF siege on Lebanon and Gaza can't go on forever, and eventually the international community will lose patience with Israel's use of force.
"A military operation will not solve the Hizbullah problem," a high-ranking Northern Command officer said. "The international community needs to get involved and place pressure on the Lebanese government to disarm Hizbullah. That is the only way out."