JERUSALEM - Israeli commandos snatching Hezbollah operatives deep inside Lebanon.
Israeli soldiers battling Hezbollah fighters in villages along the Lebanese-Israel
border. Thousands of troops streaming into south Lebanon. Hezbollah rockets
again raining down by the dozens on towns in northern Israel. Fighter planes
renewing their bombardment of targets inside Lebanon.
Just over two days ago, when Israel agreed to a 48-hour hiatus in its aerial
bombing campaign in Lebanon to investigate the strike in the village of Qana
that killed dozens of civilians it had seemed as if the fighting might be
winding down. But with the Israeli Cabinet having decided Tuesday to expand
the ground incursion in south Lebanon, and committing thousands more troops
to the campaign, a cease-fire hardly seems imminent.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has made that clear: "There is no cease-fire
and there will be no cease-fire in the coming days," he declared this week,
at the same time telling Israelis they should prepare themselves for more rockets
and for "pain, blood, and tears." Israel, he has said, will not agree
to an unconditional cease-fire, as European countries have been demanding, but
will insist that an international peacekeeping force deploy in south Lebanon
before it ends its military offensive.
With Israeli troops still fighting Hezbollah guerrillas in villages in south
Lebanon on Wednesday night, Israeli officers said the military was close to
taking control of a six- to eight-kilometer strip of territory inside Lebanon
that would be a no-go zone for Hezbollah. The strip of territory was very similar
to the buffer zone Israel occupied in south Lebanon for 18 years before withdrawing
in mid-2000 after incessant attacks by Hezbollah guerrillas on its troops.
It is not clear how far north the army plans to advance. There have been some
suggestions that troops would push as far as the Litani River, some 30 km from
the Israeli border. Ephraim Sneh, Labor Party member of parliament and a former
deputy defense minister, said he expected the army to advance towards the Litani.
"This war must not end in a tie," he said. "The goals of this
war cannot be achieved without using more force for a longer time."
How much time Israel has to achieve its stated goal of weakening Hezbollah
and forcing the Shia group away from the border is not entirely clear. After
meeting Tuesday in the United States with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice, veteran Israeli politician Shimon Peres said Israel had "weeks, not
months" to complete its operation. But Rice said the timetable was much
shorter "days, not weeks."
Olmert's comments Wednesday that "Israel will stop fighting when the international
force will be present in the south of Lebanon" were clear indications that
he would not accept the demand by many European countries, who are likely to
make up the force, for an immediate cease-fire.
Israel, backed by the U.S., has been insisting that an unconditional cease-fire
will simply recreate the situation that existed on the eve of the fighting,
with Hezbollah operating freely along the border with Israel. "We can't
stop before because if there will not be a presence of a very effective and
robust military international force, Hezbollah will be there and we will have
achieved nothing," Olmert added.
There is a growing sense in Israel, though, that the military offensive could
end next week after the UN Security Council meets Monday on the issue of a cease-fire.
In the last 48 hours, Olmert has begun sounding like he is preparing the public
for the end of hostilities, and honing the "victory" message he will
want Israelis to digest.
With Olmert sure to encounter questions over the army's inability to neutralize
Hezbollah rockets over 2,000 have slammed into northern Israel since
the fighting began July 12 he has begun telling Israelis that no one
can promise them that once the offensive is over there "won't be missiles
within range of the state of Israel."
But, he insists, the military operation has bolstered Israel's deterrent capacity.
"No missiles, no matter where they come from Iran, Syria, or Lebanon
can break the will of the Israeli people to defend their country, and
this is a lesson which will prevail long after the fire will cease in this part
of the world," he said.
Olmert told Reuters in an interview Wednesday that "Hezbollah has been
disarmed by the military operation of Israel to a large degree" and that
more than "700 command positions of Hezbollah were entirely wiped out by
the Israeli army. All the population which is the power base of the Hezbollah
in Lebanon was displaced."
Hezbollah, though, does not seem to be listening. Over 200 rockets hit Israeli
towns across northern Israel Wednesday, killing one person in what was the heaviest
bombardment by the Shia organization in a single day since the fighting erupted.
More evidence that Olmert is beginning to look beyond the fighting were his
comments on what has been the cornerstone of his policy agenda since taking
office four months ago separation from the Palestinians by means of a unilateral
withdrawal from much of the West Bank, to ensure a Jewish majority for Israel.
The prime minister intimated Wednesday that the current conflict could boost
his plan. "I genuinely believe that the outcome of the present [conflict]
and the emergence of a new order that will provide more stability and will defeat
the forces of terror will help create the necessary environment that will allow
to create a new momentum between us and the Palestinians."
"We want to separate from the Palestinians," he continued. "I'm
ready to do it. I'm ready to cope with these demands. It's not easy, it's very
difficult, but we are elected to our positions to do things and not to sit idle."
But once the fighting in Lebanon is over, the task of persuading the Israeli
public to buy into his West Bank plan might be even tougher than Olmert imagines.
Israelis have watched the army pull out of Lebanon unilaterally, the attacks
by Hezbollah along their northern border continue, and the army reenter south
Lebanon. They have watched the military pull out of Gaza unilaterally, the rocket
attacks by Palestinian militants on southern Israeli towns continue, and the
army reenter Gaza.
Can Olmert now persuade Israelis to back another unilateral withdrawal, this
time in the West Bank, that will leave Palestinian militants on the doorstep
of Israel's major population centers? His answer, no doubt, will be that the
fierce military offensive he unleashed in Lebanon has made the price to be paid
for violating Israel's borders painfully clear.
(Inter Press Service)