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Senior officers said that the IDF would continue with pinpoint ground incursions into Lebanon, and admitted that they were having trouble stopping Katyusha rocket fire with ongoing air strikes against guerilla targets.
Two soldiers from the elite IDF paratrooper unit Maglan were killed on Wednesday during clashes with Hizbullah guerrillas in southern Lebanon, about two kilometers from Moshav Avivim along the border. Two children, ages nine and three, were also killed after a Katyusha rocket struck a courtyard outside their home in the Israeli Arab town of Nazareth.
"We have a pre-prepared operational plan," head of the IDF's Planning Directorate Maj.-Gen. Yitzhak Harel said Wednesday. "We are already operating by land, air and sea and we plan to complete our plan until we have achieved our goal."
The goal he said, was to "change the reality" along the northern border and severely impair Hizbullah's ability to fire rockets at Israel.
IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz is known to be opposed to a ground incursion into Lebanon, which he has said would only be carried out as a last resort.
Harel said that while this possibility existed, the chances that the IDF would launch such an incursion were slim. But many experts believe Israel has little chance at eliminating the rockets unless it launches a ground offensive to push rocket launchers back so they cannot reach Israel. A ground offensive would be costly in terms of casualties, officers said, referring to the clashes on Wednesday near Moshav Avivim.
Without a ground operation, counter-terrorism expert Boaz Ganor said, "It can be assumed that they [Hizbullah] will get new rockets from Iran and Syria. I think they have room to breathe for weeks. If they get more supplies... it can last longer."
Late Wednesday night, IDF troops prevented a Hizbullah cell from infiltrating into Israel near Metulla. Under the cover of a barrage of Katyushas, a group of Hizbullah operatives attempted to sneak up to the border and cut the fence. Troops spotted the movements and maneuvered to engage the operatives. IAF helicopters tracked them from the air while ground forces fired at their location. Three Hizbullah operatives were reportedly killed by IDF fire.
Earlier in the day, two soldiers from Maglan were killed after they encountered a Hizbullah cell while operating in southern Lebanon just north of Moshav Avivim. The soldiers had entered Lebanon overnight Tuesday. Towards morning, as the force began to exit the area, it was met by Hizbullah guerrillas and heavy gunfire along the border, near the former IDF Shaked outpost - evacuated during Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000.
St.-Sgt. Yonatan Hadasi, 21, from Kibbutz Merhavia and St.-Sgt. Yotam Gilboa, 21, from Kibbutz Maoz Haim were identified as the soldiers killed in the fighting. At least one Hizbullah terrorist was killed in the fighting. A tank that was sent in to support the troops sustained a mortar hit. One of the soldiers in the tank was seriously wounded and three of his comrades were lightly wounded.
Chief IDF Intelligence Officer Brig.-Gen. Yuval Halamish said Wednesday that despite the firing of 110 Katyusha rockets at Israel on Wednesday, the military had succeeded in delivering what he called a "significant blow" to Hizbullah. "We have struck some of their most strategic sites," he said.
On Wednesday, IAF fighter jets and helicopters continued to strike targets throughout Lebanon, including the underground bunker in Beirut believed to be the hiding place of Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.
Senior officers said that air strikes had destroyed "about 50 percent" of Hizbullah's arsenal, but that more time was needed to deal the group an unforgettable blow. "It will take us time to destroy what is left," said Brig. Gen. Alon Friedman, deputy head of the Northern Command.
Also Wednesday, IAF aircraft struck six Katyusha rocket launchers in southern Lebanon as well as 20 suspicious cars believed to be carrying Hizbullah operatives and weaponry.
Halamish said that Hizbullah was not allowing residents of southern Lebanon to flee their homes despite Israel's warnings that they could be harmed if they remained in the vicinity of the terror group. He also revealed that Palestinians caught Wednesday in Nablus told interrogators that they had received direct instructions from Hizbullah in Lebanon to step up terror attacks against Israel.
Two suicide bombers were caught this week on their way to attacks in the center of the country. Defense Minister Amir Peretz imposed a full closure on the West Bank from Wednesday until Saturday night in an effort to prevent terrorists from infiltrating into Israel.
Syria, Halamish further revealed, tried again on Wednesday to smuggle weapons to Hizbullah. On Tuesday, IAF fighter jets struck four trucks in northern Lebanon carrying weapons transferred from Syria to Hizbullah.
AP contributed to this report.
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