The Israeli Cabinet vote on the authorization for the Israeli Defense Force to expand ground operations in southern Lebanon highlights the government’s lack of a cohesive plan at the war’s outset and the hesitation to take the fight directly to Hezbollah on the ground. At the start of the war, the initial plan was to establish a 1-2 kilometer buffer zone and patrol southern Lebanon via air. This morphed into a 6-8 kilometer buffer, which was basically the posture of the Israeli Defense Force up to the withdrawal from Lebanon in 2002. Hezbollah’s continuous shelling of northern Israel has shown the limitations of these limited incursions.
Haaretz reports the plan authorizes “troops to push at least up to the Litani River some 30 kilometers from the Israel-Lebanon border,” and in some cases to operate beyond the river boundary. The Israeli government is looking for relief from the short range Katyusha rockets. The Israelis have learned there are limitations with using an air campaign to defeat a well trained, entrenched and motivated enemy. Israeli forces are having difficulties with Hezbollah missile teams just a few kilometers from the border after 4 weeks of fighting.
But the proposed expanded ground offensive in southern Lebanon is still on hold. The Israeli government is signaling it is seeking a diplomatic solution, and is delaying back the ground offensive to allow diplomacy to run its course. “The offensive would not begin for two or three days so as not interfere with ongoing efforts to broker a cease-fire at the United Nations, said one minister in the meeting,” according to Haaretz.
I respectfully disagree with Zeyno Baran’s assessment that “Israel has finally gotten over its ‘Lebanon trauma'” and is prepared to move into Lebanon in force, and that “Israel destroyed most of Hizbollah’s weaponry through its superior air force.” Although the cabinet vote approved the extended incursion, the Israeli leadership still wavers over sending troops en masse deep into southern Lebanon, and Prime Minister Olmert is said to be very concerned with taking casualties in the fighting. Hezbollah has been launching short range rockets at northern Israel at a steady rate of 100 – 200 per day, and there are serious questions within the U.S. intelligence community about the Israeli Air Force’s claims that Hezbollah’s assets have been seriously degraded. Hezbollah’s command and control is intact, coordinated rocket attacks are launched regularly, the IAF has yet to kill a senior Hezbollah political or military leader, and estimates that up to two-thirds of Hezbollah’s long range rockets are just that.
As the Israeli government puts the ground offensive on hold while waiting for a unlikely diplomatic solution, the IDF and Hezbollah continue to engage in fierce skirmishes in villages that have been battlegrounds since the conflict began. A look at the battle map will show that little has changed over the past week. The towns of Bint Jubayl, Ayta al-Shaab and now Dibil have been the scenes of intense battles. Hezbollah anti-tank teams have taken their toll on the IDF Merkava main battle tanks as well as Israeli armored fighting vehicles. The IDF Withdrawal from the Hezbollah stronghold of Bint Jubayl was a serious tactical error and a strategic propaganda defeat that Israeli troops are paying for with their lives. Hezbollah is said to have suffered anywhere from 30 to 40 killed in action, while the IDF suffered 15 killed and 37 wounded in fighting along the border.
Four weeks after the open of the war with Hezbollah, the Israeli government has finally decided to do what should have been done from the start – put boots on the ground deep into southern Lebanon and directly engage Hezbollah’s well trained military. But there is little talk of dealing Hezbollah a decisive military defeat, which would require a ground engagement in the Bekaa Valley.
A diplomatic solution at this stage in the fighting benefits Hezbollah, not Israeli, as Hezbollah would retain its military assets and gain stature from standing up to the Israelis. As long as the Syrian-Lebanese border remains open and Hezbollah bases in the Bekaa valley remain operational, Hezbollah will retain its power and threaten the security of the Lebanese and Israeli states.
Are you a dedicated reader of FDD's Long War Journal? Has our research benefitted you or your team over the years? Support our independent reporting and analysis today by considering a one-time or monthly donation. Thanks for reading! You can make a tax-deductible donation here.