Nearly 9,000 IDF soldiers operated on the ground in southern Lebanon on Wednesday as the army made one last push to take up key positions outside known Hizbullah strongholds.
Senior officers said they believed the IDF would meet the goal it had set for itself by Thursday morning: recreating the 'security zone' that Israel maintained in south Lebanon from 1982 until the army withdrew in 2000.
On Wednesday, the IDF paratroopers sustained casualties during clashes with Hizbullah gunmen in Aita a-Sha'ab, just north of the Israeli community of Shtula. Three paratroopers were killed in the village on Tuesday.
More than 15 Hizbullah guerrillas were killed during clashes with IDF troops on Wednesday, four of them by a reserve unit operating in western Lebanon. Reservists entered Lebanon on Tuesday for the first time during the current campaign.
Meanwhile Wednesday, Hizbullah fired close to 220 rockets at Israel, the most since the escalation in violence on July 12. One hit near Beit She'an, about 65 kilometers inside Israel, the deepest rocket strike into Israel so far, while another stray missile hit the West Bank for the first time.
David Martin Lelchook, an Israeli-American, was killed outside his home at Kibbutz Sa'ar, near Nahariya, and 21 people were wounded across the North.
"We will achieve our goal," a member of the IDF General Staff said Wednesday. "We will retake control of the traditional security zone in southern Lebanon."
Senior officers stressed that the military did not plan to rebuild the outposts it had maintained in Lebanon until 2000, but said that troops were under orders to take up key positions from which they would could control southern Lebanon.
The next stage, the officers said, was for the IDF to sweep through the villages there to eliminate Hizbullah.
A high-ranking IAF officer said Wednesday that the military was considering escalating the offensive by stepping up the use of targeted killings in daily operations. "Hizbullah is like a puzzle made up of different pieces," the officer said, "and now we need to begin to knock off each and every piece."
Earlier Wednesday, an soldier from the Golani Brigade was seriously wounded in clashes with Hizbullah in the town of Mehibev. Two others soldiers were lightly wounded elsewhere in south Lebanon, the army said. The soldiers were evacuated for treatment.
The IDF continued operations deep inside Lebanon as infantry, combat engineers and armored units took up strategic positions in: Mis al-Jabal and Balida in the southeast sector; Ataybeh, al-Adisa, and Rav al-Tadis, northwest of Metulla; and Maroun a-Ras, Bint Jbail, and Aita a-Sha'ab in the southwest.
A division commander said Wednesday that the IDF had killed more than 350 Hizbullah gunmen since Operation Change of Direction began on July 12.
"We have the ability to progress according to the orders given to us by the political echelon and to escalate the offensive to any depth needed," he said.
A high-ranking officer said the army was considering advancing north of the Litani River. On Tuesday, IAF fighter jets dropped flyers in villages north of the river calling on residents to flee north in anticipation of IDF operations in the area.
IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz said during a visit to a military base near Kiryat Shmona Wednesday that Israel did not plan to accept a unilateral cease-fire with Hizbullah. "This is out of the question," he said.