Senior military personnel requested a widespread call-up of reserve soldiers for a two-month long ground operation to “cleanse” the area south of the Litani River of Hezbollah infrastructure.
full text, last updated – 02:51, the “cleanse” paragraph was removed from the website.
By Amos Harel and Aluf Benn, Haaretz Correspondents, Haaretz Service and Agencies
The security cabinet on Thursday authorized the mobilization of three divisions of reservists, “to prepare the force for possible developments,” but said that they will be deployed, if necessary, only after further approval by the cabinet.
Three divisions of reserve soldiers would amount to around 15,000 soldiers, or 5,000 troops per division, IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz said.
The only cabinet member who opposed calling up the reservists was Minister of Science, Culture and Sport Ophir Pines-Paz, who said that he feared that the force is meant to expand the ground operation in Lebanon.
At a press conference after the meeting, Defense Minister Amir Peretz said, “citizens of Israel, we are in the midst of a war… we are prepared for all possible eventualities. We are recruiting reserve troops so that, if need be, we will be able to exercise the necessary force in order to protect the state of Israel and achieve the goals of our operation.”
Calling the conflict in Lebanon “a war of no choice,” Peretz added, “I say this as a man of peace who has examined all other alternatives.”
During the cabinet meeting, which came a day after nine IDF soldiers were killed in fierce battles with Hezbollah, the ministers decided that while the troops would be called up, they would not be deployed until further notice.
The cabinet also decided during its meeting to continue “the intensive fight against the Hezbollah organization” and reiterated the aims of the war: “the return of the abducted soldiers to Israel, an end to the rocket launches against towns and Israeli targets, and the removal of that threat.”
During the meeting, a dispute emerged between the head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, and the head of Military Intelligence, Amos Yadlin, regarding the damage that Hezbollah has suffered from the Israel Defense Forces assault to date. Both intelligence chiefs agreed that the group has been weakened, but Yadlin estimated the damage inflicted as far more severe than did Dagan.
Both intelligence organizations agree that Hezbollah remains capable of
command and control and still holds long-range missiles in its arsenal.
The ministers agreed that all changes in the nature of the military operation – such as any expansion or the deployment of the newly called-up troops – would have to be authorized by the cabinet, a move aimed at reassuring Syria that it was not the target of an Israeli attack.
A disagreement also emerged among the ministers over what the next move
National Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer supported a broad
ground operation aimed at taking over an area between the border and the
Awali River to the north and clearing it of Hezbollah guerrillas. Ben-Eliezer termed this “a lightning operation that would deliver a powerful blow” and predicted that such an operation would bring Hezbollah closer to the breaking point.
Justice Minister Haim Ramon opposed a wider ground operation and called for expanding the air offensive, saying that Israel’s strength is in its
firepower. He added that the IDF should attack Hezbollah infrastructure in Baalbek, saying he was puzzled that “there is still electricity there.” The civilians have been warned, he argued, and once the IDF has asked them to evacuate, it is permissible to bomb those areas.
But Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog strongly opposed Ramon’s stance, saying
that it contradicted international law. “It is insufficient to call on
civilians to evacuate,” he said. “There are elderly people and families
that will stay in their homes, and we must not harm them.”
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert backed Herzog, saying that he opposed targeting civilian infrastructure.
Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, a former defense minister, also
expressed reservations about expanding the ground operation. “Let us assume that you get to the Litani [River], and they continue to fire against Haifa [from] north of the Litani. What have you achieved?” he asked.
The ministers all agreed that Israel should avoid a confrontation with
Syria. Peretz reiterated on Thursday that the mobilization of the reserves is not intended for use against Syria. Speaking at the Defense Ministry together with Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, he stressed that Israel has no offensive planned against Damascus.
“We will use this time to train the units, so that if they are needed, we
will be able to deploy the divisions,” Peretz said, in an effort to assuage any Syrian concerns regarding the calling up of reservists.
Ministers taking part in the meeting were told that the Syrians are on high alert, and fear an Israeli attack. Peretz is of the opinion that a wide-scale call up of reservists would exacerbate Syrian concerns that the operation is directed at them.
The only cabinet member who expressed support for an operation against Syrian targets in Lebanon was Public Security Minister Avi Dichter, who said that before expanding its ground operation, Israel must consider “the day after” and the goals it hopes to achieve.
Meanwhile, United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is due back in Israel on Saturday night, and she is scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Sunday.
Thursday, Olmert met with two other senior Bush administration officials,
Elliott Abrams and David Welch, who visited Israel to update officials here on the Rome Conference on Lebanon, which took place on Wednesday.
The prime minister also telephoned his Canadian counterpart, Steven Harper, to apologize for the death of a United Nations observer from Canada during an accidental IDF bombing of a UN post in southern Lebanon on Wednesday.