The fierce fighting that occurred at midweek in the south Lebanese village of Bint Jbail, (in which a reported 14 Israeli soldiers were killed and more than a dozen wounded) has caused at least one prominent analyst to question Israel’s handling of the war.
"I think it will raise doubts in Israel about the whole rationale and logic about using only more force in this war," said Yoram Meital, chairman of the Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy at Ben-Gurion University.
"To my mind Israel and the public should ask questions about the lack of political horizon in this war," he said. "What we hear today is what we have heard during the last two weeks: force and more force."
Bint Jbail, known as Hezbollah’s capital, was a 200-man stronghold in which a former Israeli military commander in Lebanon said Hezbollah?s best-trained and equipped fighters were stationed. The area is about three miles from the Lebanese border and the fighting for this hilltop town involved face-to-face combat, with Hezbollah fighters setting off explosives and firing missiles. The former commander, Moshe Eldad, saw the battle for Bint Jbail as crucial for Israel because he said Hezbollah lacks the "ability to fight in the second and third line" of defense.
"This was a symbol," he said. "They won’t have the ability to repeat it [as Israeli ground forces move] to Tyre, where Katyshua rockets are based. As [Israeli troops] get to Tyre, they might find that those who are shelling Haifa are not the best fighters; they were trained [only] to fire rockets."
Eldad, now a researcher at the Samuel Neaman Institute for Advanced Studies in Science and Technology at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, said Hezbollah has about 800 to 1,000 troops and as many as 5,000 reserve forces who are primarily in Beirut and the Bekka Valley.
But because Israel has destroyed bridges and roads leading south, he said, the reserve forces would have a difficult time reaching the south and "this is not the best time to send troops that can be detected" by the Israel Defense Forces.
But Meital argued that as the fighting rages, "the northern part of Israel is almost paralyzed and hundreds of thousands of people area living in shelters. Katyusha rockets are continuing to fall on major cities like Haifa. There is severe damage to the Lebanese infrastructure, and a high death toll in Lebanon of almost 400 civilians and Hezbollah fighters."
"The bottom line is that both sides are paying a very dear price," he said. "I think more Israelis are today asking more questions and even facing down the Olmert government and the IDF leadership. … I thought we had a good cause to face Hezbollah. But at the very outset of the fighting, Israel made a strategic mistake" by shelling the Lebanese infrastructure and cities rather than focusing on southern Lebanon where Hezbollah was based. (An Israeli poll last Friday showed Olmert with 78 percent of the public behind him and 95 percent in favor of Israeli military response.)
Also raising questions about the war is Hillel Frisch, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, who said Israel had not achieved its "grander objective of reducing Hezbollah’s might to the level that would encourage the Lebanese government to assert its sovereignty and dismantle Hezbollah."
"Unfortunately, whatever cost Israel imposed on Lebanon … is nothing compared to the cost of civil war, and Lebanon will not risk civil war out of a rational cost-benefit calculation," he said.
Regarding talk of an international force being placed along Lebanon’s southern border to replace Hezbollah, Frisch said he is afraid its members will be more interested in "bargaining [with Hezbollah] for their own safety" and less in preventing Hezbollah rocket attacks on Israel.
But Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said critiques of Israel’s war effort are premature.
"Nobody seriously expected that after two or even four weeks they would be able to destroy all of Hezbollah’s missiles and launchers," he said. "They are too carefully hidden and dispersed. The hope was to knock out [Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan] Nasrallah and cause [his troops] to abandon the battlefield. … There are setbacks. Remember that in Jenin 23 Israeli soldiers were killed in one day. Israeli troops went in there and found it booby trapped."
"Israel has a robust enough military and civilian framework to recover from events like this, as painful as it might be," Steinberg observed. "I don’t see it changing the strategic process. A week from now Israel could control up to the Litani River [about 20 miles from the border.]"
The protracted fighting in Bint Jbail came as Israeli officials apologized for killing four United Nations observers in Lebanon and heatedly denied the claim of United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan that this was an "apparently deliberate targeting" of their outpost. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called Annan to express his ""deep regret" and said it was inconceivable that it could be viewed as deliberate.
Israel’s UN ambassador, Daniel Gillerman, said in a statement that he was "shocked and deeply distressed by the hasty statement" of Annan’s. Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, said that such casualties are "unfortunately a common element in this type of warfare." Israel has promised a thorough investigation and Gold said such a review would examine the proximity of the UN post to Hezbollah positions.
"Many times the Hezbollah flag and the UN flag fly next to each other," he said. "That is not an excuse for what happened, but it provides the context for how mistakes are made."
Asked about Annan’s comments, he said the secretary general "has repeatedly demonstrated that while he speaks with quiet eloquence, he nonetheless has voiced some of the most anti-Israel declarations in UN history."