Drawn into what now appears to be a two-front war, Israel sent its forces into Lebanon on Wednesday in a major military offensive. The move came after Hezbollah terrorists launched a coordinated attack on communities and military positions in northern Israel and captured two soldiers, vowing to release them only in exchange for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called the attack “an act of war” as he launched a large-scale military campaign into Lebanon. The kidnapping came 18 days after an Israeli soldier was captured by terrorists who infiltrated into southern Israel from Gaza, where Israel stepped up its military actions as well.
Within hours after the Hezbollah attack, the IDF chief of staff, Dan Halutz, ordered the mobilization of thousands of reserve infantry troops to help forces already along the northern border with Lebanon. As many as seven Israeli soldiers were reportedly killed in the initial fighting.
Israel launched a ground offensive into Lebanon in an effort to rescue the two kidnapped soldiers, in addition to responding with artillery fire, missile attacks from the air and shelling of Hezbollah positions by Israeli gunboats. Two Lebanese civilians were said to have been killed when Israel destroyed three bridges in Lebanon to prevent Hezbollah from moving the captured soldiers out of the area.
Until Wednesday’s attack, there had been a debate among Israeli leaders about the best approach to stop the Palestinian Kassam rocket barrages that have rained down on southern Israel from Gaza and to secure the release of Gilad Shalit, the other captured Israeli soldier. Some members of the IDF, including Halutz, favored a “massive, quick operation in Gaza, believing that the more the crisis dragged out, the more international pressure there would be” to stop the offensive.But others — including Olmert — had favored a “slower, more careful approach to avoid getting caught up in an incident that would force us to have a cease-fire,” according to Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University.
The Hezbollah attack “may have changed their minds” and made them realize that “part of the cost of going slowly is to open the door for Hezbollah,” he said.
The capture of two more Israeli soldiers was seen by Israeli analysts as increasing the chances for a prisoner swap that until now Olmert had flatly rejected.
“If Olmert thought he could play tough and be the first Israeli prime minister to refuse to bow to this kind of blackmail, he will not be able to for much longer because there is no realistic way to get the soldiers back,” said Yossi Alpher, a former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. “It seems likely now that when we get one soldier back, we will get all three,” he added. “There will be a united front of Islamic elements.”
Shalit, who was abducted June 25 by Palestinian terrorists during a daring raid on his military outpost near the Gaza Strip, was said to be alive and well. That word came Monday from the man Israel suspects coordinated the abduction, exiled Hamas leader Khalid Mashal, during a press conference he held in Damascus. He said Shalit’s release is predicated upon Israel’s release of Palestinian prisoners. Olmert flatly ruled that out later in the day, telling reporters that Mashal “is a terrorist with blood on his hands” and that he would not negotiate with Hamas.
“I will not release prisoners to trade off Cpl. Gilad Shalit to Hamas,” he vowed. Shlomo Aronoson, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said one concern was that “if you give Hamas any concession, you are going to damage the prestige of the more moderate Palestinians” such as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. “So you cannot give Hamas any plus points if you want to maintain a positive dialogue with the Palestinians who accept Oslo and are bound by international norms,” he said, referring to the 1993 Olslo Accords that outline a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.The Jerusalem Post reported Wednesday that Israeli military officers were in touch with United Nations and Red Cross officials in Lebanon in an effort to initiate negotiations through those groups with the Lebanese government in the hope of getting the two newly abducted soldiers back through diplomatic measures.
And Zaki Shalom, a senior research fellow at the Ben-Gurion Research Center, said that by midweek talks for the release of Shalit were progressing. “Negotiations are being carried out through mediators with Hamas and now Hezbollah for the release of the prisoners,” he said. “Eventually, this will lead to a deal between Hamas and Hezbollah and it will hopefully bring back the kidnapped soldiers.” The attack by Hezbollah Wednesday morning came just as Israeli troops made a fresh push into the Gaza Strip in search of Shalit. The Israel Air Force also reportedly dropped a quarter-ton bomb on a Gaza house that Israel said had been used by senior Hamas leaders to plot terrorist activities. Seven people were said to have been killed, including senior Gaza Hamas leader Nabil Salmiah. Another senior Hamas leader, Mohammed Deif, was reported by Palestinians to have been injured.
Steinberg said Hezbollah decided to attack just hours later “to compel a fight on two fronts [with the hope] of bringing international intervention to force a cease-fire on unfavorable terms for Israel.”
He pointed out that such an attack was widely expected and that the Israel Defense Forces had planned for it.
“It is part of the standard scenario that the IDF be able to do this,” he said, “although it might take a day or two to mobilize all the forces.”
There were some analysts who suggested the Hezbollah attack was ordered by Iran, its chief sponsor, after talks Tuesday between Iranian negotiator Ali Larijani and Javier Solona, the foreign policy chief of the European Union, ended in frustration. Larijani insisted that his government needed more time to respond to a June 6 offer of incentives in return for ending its nuclear development program. Shalom said Iran might “want to show the EU that it could make the region burn with fire and that if it wanted quiet, it had to be less pushy and more moderate on Iran’s nuclear activities. But it is hard to establish proof of that.”
Steinberg discounted any connection, saying the Hezbollah assault had to have been planned well in advance. The attack included a barrage of Katyhusha rockets and mortar shells fired at IDF positions and communities in the north, one of which hit a house in Shtula. Four civilians were reportedly injured. Residents of the Western Galilee were directed to enter shelters and fortified rooms.
Even as the fighting continued, questions were being asked about Hezbollah’s success in capturing two soldiers.
“It is a victory for them and a failure for us,” said Alpher. Shalom said the kidnapping of three Israeli soldiers within three weeks “marks a failure — no, more than that — I wouldn’t say a collapse but a deterioration of Israeli deterrent power.”
“There should be some soul searching,” he said. “What has happened to us in recent years? Has the [Gaza] disengagement contributed to a deterioration of our deterrence? I am expecting academia to carry out a public debate about our deterrent power. There is no doubt we are superior to our enemies, that we can crush Hamas and Hezbollah in half-an-hour, and still we have our hands tied and don’t exercise our power. Maybe something has happened to us.”