Skirmishes with Hizbullah guerrillas in the southern Lebanese village of Ayta al-Shaab on Tuesday left three soldiers, including an officer, of a Paratrooper Brigade unit dead and at least another 25 wounded. The names of the fallen have been released: St.-Sgt. Yonatan Einhorn, 22, of Moshav Gimzo; First Sgt. Michael Levin, 21, of Jerusalem; and Lieutenant Ilan Gabbai, 22, of Kiryat Tivon.
Einhorn was laid to rest at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday in the military cemetery at Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem.
Gabbai's funeral will held at the military section of the Kiryat Tivon cemetery on Wednesday at 5 p.m.
Levin will be buried on Mt. Herzl at 4 p.m. on Thursday.
Dozens of Hizbullah gunmen, the IDF said, surprised a force from the brigade's Battalion 101 as it moved through the small town just over the hill from the Israeli community of Shtula, in the central sector. Once home to 5,000 Shi'ites, Aita al-Shaab was believed by the IDF to be a Hizbullah stronghold, one of many in which soldiers were operating on Tuesday as the IDF geared up for an effort to push Hizbullah north to the Litani River.
Led by Lt.-Col. Ariel Yohanon, commander of Battalion 101, the troops moved quietly through the narrow alleys in the small village with some troops taking up positions in homes vacated by their owners who fled north in anticipation of the expected incursion. Suddenly, IDF officers recalled, a wave of anti-tank missiles, RPGs and heavy gunfire hit a group of troops in one of the homes. Two soldiers were killed during the initial clashes and a third was killed in a later rocket attack.
The battle lasted for several hours and the wounded soldiers were treated at the scene under heavy gunfire, as an evacuation was deemed almost impossible.
Yohanon and his men fought fiercely, senior officers in the Northern Command said, and succeeded in killing more than 15 Hizbullah guerrillas in the village, which was simultaneously bombarded by missiles fired by attack helicopters providing cover for the ground troops and artillery shells.
The idea, a senior officer said, was to stay in the village for up to 24 hours, to kill as many Hizbullah gunmen as possible and then to move on to the next village with the ultimate goal of pushing the Hizbullah as far north as deemed necessary even beyond the Litani. A total of five brigades were operating in the region, and heavy gunfights involving light machine guns and rockets were reported.
In a separate incident, three soldiers on the northern border were moderately wounded by Hizbullah mortar fire last night.
Early Tuesday morning, the security cabinet approved expanded ground operations in Lebanon, while the IDF, under the assumption that only a few days were left for operations against Hizbullah, geared up Tuesday night for a massive ground incursion on three different fronts, utilizing reservists for the first time.
Defense Minister Amir Peretz dismissed criticism from former defense officials who claimed that Israel had waited too long to launch a massive ground invasion.
"There is no room for such criticism," he declared while talking to troops of Brigade 300 near Shomera. "The way we operated was the correct way and the operation should only be judged at its conclusion."
Peretz said he was sorry that there were people who underappreciated the IDF's achievements, which he said have "changed the reality in southern Lebanon."
Regarding diplomatic initiatives to end the conflict, he said the IDF had presented different types of operations, which could accommodate various diplomatic windows made available to Israel. He said that the IDF was taking into consideration that the window might be narrow.
Meanwhile, while the IDF suspended most air strikes on south Lebanon for 48 hours, the IAF struck three Hizbullah bunkers in the western zone on Tuesday afternoon.