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(photo credit: AP [file])
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Despite approving the call-up of three reserve divisions, the security cabinet decided on Thursday against significantly widening the IDF's operations in southern Lebanon, rejecting a recommendation by Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz to escalate the offensive against Hizbullah.
For Jerusalem Online coverage of the day's events >click here.
Halutz, IDF officials said, asked the cabinet for permission to expand Israel's ground operations in southern Lebanon, to insert larger forces to sweep through the Hizbullah strongholds in the area. According to a high-ranking source in the Northern Command, Hizbullah has several hundred underground bunkers in southern Lebanon, mostly near the border with Israel.
Hizbullah fired at least 75 Katyushas at towns and villages throughout the Galilee on Thursday, lightly wounding two people in Kiryat Shmona.
As a result of the cabinet decision, the IDF said the operation in Lebanon, now called "the war within the straits" would retain its current format, according to which brigade and battalion-level forces - not division-level as Halutz had requested - carry out pinpoint incursions on specific targets. The IDF stressed that if Bint Jbail - where eight Golani soldiers were killed on Wednesday - did fall into Israeli hands, the victory could have a ripple effect on other Hizbullah strongholds and cause them to surrender.
Halutz said the IDF would now immediately call up the senior commanders of three reserve divisions. The soldiers, he said, would only be mobilized when the need arose. "We need to be ready for every scenario," Halutz said during a joint press conference with Defense Minister Amir Peretz. "This is the IDF's duty and the government has allowed us to fulfill it [by calling up reservists]."
"We did not say there would be a change in the nature of the operations, or a widening of the activity, but that we would be prepared for any situation that would necessitate larger forces," Peretz said.
The security cabinet approved the reserves call-up by an 11-1 vote, with Culture and Sport Minister Ophir Paz -Pines casting the lone negative vote. He acted out of concern that the decision would lead to a large-scale ground operation, which he opposes.
Senior officials in the Prime Minister's Office denied reports that the cabinet had slammed the brakes on widening the IDF's operation. This was supported by comments Halutz made at Thursday evening's press conference, in which he realigned his position with Peretz.
"We did not request approval for a ground operation today, so the cabinet did not approve a ground operation," he said. "We asked for the right to prepare the reserves for a time when we might need them, and we got that from the government."
Despite the call-up vote, Peretz told both the press conference and the cabinet that Israel had no intention of broadening the war to include Syria. Concerns were raised in the security cabinet that approval of a call-up would be interpreted by Syria as an indication that Israel was indeed going to widen its operations.
The special session of the security cabinet followed a five-hour meeting of Prime Minister's Olmert's inner cabinet - the so-called Forum of Seven - late Wednesday night.
According to officials in the Prime Minister's Office, five military options were discussed in the Forum of Seven. Widening the ground offensive was one of the options, but not the one preferred by the IDF.
At the press conference Thursday, Peretz deflected criticism of the army's conduct of the was made by Industry and Trade Minister Eli Yishai and Justice Minister Haim Ramon. The two ministers said there should have been more use of air power to soften up targets before ground forces were sent in.
Peretz said that no one was holding the army back, and that the military professionals were making the operational decisions, without intervention from the political echelon. He said that the critics should demonstrate "a little bit of restraint."
Following Thursday's meeting, the cabinet issued a statement saying that it decided on "the continuation of intensive combat against Hizbullah, including striking at its infrastructures and command centers, its professional capabilities, its war materiel infrastructure and its leaders, with the goal of returning the abducted soldiers to Israel and halting the firing of missiles at Israeli communities and targets, and to remove this threat."
The panel decided that military operations would continue in accordance with previous security cabinet decisions, another indication that the IDF did not intend to widen the operation. The statement said that any change in the "character of the activity" would be submitted to the full cabinet for approval. This followed criticism from a number of cabinet ministers that the decision to send ground troops into Lebanon was made without their knowledge.
Peretz said that the goal of the IDF's operations in southern Lebanon was to create a "special security zone" where a Hizbullah presence would not be tolerated.
"We will not allow a Hizbullah flag to fly along the Israeli border once again," he said. "Our goal is to create a Hizbullah-free zone for the crisis to come to an end... This security zone will provide protection for northern Israel."
Referring to the fierce battle Golani Battalion 51 fought on Wednesday in Bint Jbail, Halutz said the IDF had succeeded in "extracting a heavy price" from Hizbullah. "Dozens of terrorists were killed and have been left in the field," he said.
Meanwhile Thursday, the IAF pounded roads and suspected Hizbullah residences in southern and eastern Lebanon, as well as a Lebanese army base in the north, while artillery shells pounded the border region as ground fighting continued.
The IDF's call for greater firepower came after Israel suffered its heaviest casualty toll of the current campaign in a single battle, with nine soldiers killed and 25 wounded in house-to-house fighting on Wednesday in and near Bint Jbail, known as the Hizbullah's "terror capital" in southern Lebanon.
Also Thursday, IAF fighter jets bombed the marketplace in Bint Jbail as well as roads and houses, many believed to belong to Hizbullah guerrillas.
The fighting has taken its toll on tank crews, some of whom have been in continuous action for the last two weeks. On roads near the border, the Armored Corps has set up sites where tank crews can drive up, replenish their ammunition and supplies, and refresh themselves before returning to Lebanon.
"It's not simple fighting the war while at the same time taking care of all the logistics," said Maj. Avi, deputy commander of Battalion 51, which operates the new Merkava 4 tanks, "but we're dealing with it."
The biggest problem the tank crews have come up against in this conflict is the large number of anti-tank missiles in Hizbullah's hands, which have hit a significant number of IDF tanks, though Avi insisted they were not surprised by this. The missiles come in a wide variety, not only the Russian-made RPGs and Saggers that the IDF has dealt with before, but also French-made Milan missiles. "You can buy anything with money" smiles Avi.
Another concern had to do with the tiredness of the forces, some of whom have been on the go for the last four and a half weeks, ever since Hamas captured Cpl. Gilad Shalit in Kerem Shalom, and have fought on two fronts.
"I'm especially worried about traffic accidents due to the soldiers fatigue," said an adjutant of one of the tank battalions. On our first night here, a tank knocked into a jeep that then ran over a soldier's leg. It could have been much worse." A significant part of the briefing given to Golani soldiers about to enter Lebanon on Wednesday night dealt with safety procedures when leaving their armored jeeps.