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Israel suffers losses, debates tough choices
JERUSALEM — On a day of heavy Israeli military casualties and failed international talks to end more than two weeks of fighting, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met with senior Cabinet ministers Wednesday to assess the course of Israel's offensive in Lebanon in the face of growing domestic doubts about the conduct of the campaign.
As televised images of wounded soldiers carried off helicopters raised haunting memories of Israel's 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon, critics began to raise questions about the tactics of the offensive and the army's performance in the face of determined resistance by Hezbollah.
As the crisis enters its third week, there's scant evidence Israel's air and ground attacks have crippled Hezbollah and little reason to think that an international force will do so. That means the Israelis must decide whether to step up the pressure on the militants or to accept something that falls short of disarming Hezbollah.
Putting up a stronger fight than expected, Hezbollah guerrillas inflicted heavy losses on Israeli troops in Wednesday's combat, killing nine soldiers and wounding 25 in the worst single-day toll for the Israelis since the start of the campaign.
"We walked into a wasp's nest and we knew it would be a wasp's nest," said Maj. Zvika Golan, a spokesman for the Israeli army's Northern Command.
The fighting passed two other milestones of intensity Wednesday: One hundred fifty-one missiles were fired from southern Lebanon into Israel, the most in a day in the current conflict; and 24 Palestinians were killed in fighting in the Gaza Strip, the highest number since Israeli settlers and forces were pulled out of the strip last year.
The casualties in the fighting in the hill town of Bint Jbail in southern Lebanon were also a blow to the army's credibility after some senior officers announced in media interviews Tuesday that resistance in the town had been broken and that it was under the control of Israeli forces.
A key stronghold of Hezbollah some two miles from the border with Israel, Bint Jbail has been the focus of an Israeli ground push that the army says is meant to kill the group's fighters and destroy its bunkers and rocket stocks in villages near the frontier.
Most of Bint Jbail's 30,000 residents have fled, but several hundred are believed to still be in the town, along with an unknown number of Hezbollah guerrillas dug in among the homes.
Maj. Gen. Udi Adam, chief of the army's northern command, said several dozen Hezbollah fighters ambushed troops from the crack Golani brigade as they advanced into the town. The guerrillas set off explosives and opened fire at the soldiers, killing eight and wounding 22, an army spokeswoman said. The military said another soldier was killed and three others were wounded when guerrillas fired an anti-tank rocket at a house occupied by troops in the neighboring village of Maroun al-Ras, which the army said previously it had taken.
The leader of Hezbollah, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, said in a televised speech early Wednesday that his group would wage a guerrilla war against the Israelis in southern Lebanon. "What's important in the ground battle is the degree to which we inflict casualties on the Israeli enemy," Nasrallah said.
Olmert told a parliamentary committee Wednesday that Israel wanted to establish a 1.2-mile-deep buffer zone in southern Lebanon that would be free of Hezbollah guerrillas and prevent rocket attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians.
However, Olmert indicated that Israel would not go back to an occupation similar to the "security zone" it maintained in southern Lebanon in the '80s and '90s. "If Hezbollah does not experience defeat in this war, that will spell the end of Israeli deterrence against its enemies," military analyst Ze'ev Schiff wrote in the Israeli daily newspaper Ha'aretz after Wednesday's attacks. "We did not choose this war, but we have reached a strategic crossroad."
Israel has reluctantly accepted the idea, but not the specifics, of an international force and has sent tanks and soldiers to drive Hezbollah out of southern Lebanon to pave the way for foreign troops.
International reluctance to step into the fight was compounded by Israel's airstrike on a U.N. outpost Tuesday that killed four unarmed peacekeepers.
The rise in violence came as high-ranking diplomats gathered in Rome but later adjourned without agreeing on a plan for stopping the violence. The U.S. delegation, led by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, rejected calls from other representatives for an immediate cease-fire.
Rice said participants agreed Wednesday on the need for a strong international force under a U.N. mandate. Italy, Turkey and Spain all said they might send troops.
Responding to international concern over a mounting humanitarian crisis in Lebanon, Israel's government acted on a pledge to ease a two-week blockade to allow regular shipments of goods into Beirut by sea and air.
Compiled from Chicago Tribune, Associated Press, McClatchy News Service, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post reports
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