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Israel Threatens to Expand Military Effort Against Hezbollah

August 9, 2006 at 1:01 PM EDT

GWEN IFILL: Israel expands its war against Hezbollah. We begin in the Lebanese city of Tyre with a report from Independent Television News correspondent Alex Thomson.

ALEX THOMSON, ITV News Correspondent: A month and a day of brutal war, so any convoy out of Tyre is a life-and-death gamble. Go by road in any direction from Tyre and you will be skirting the craters, the countless vehicles blown to the roadside.

Breakfast time this morning, and Tel Aviv sends Tyre a propaganda shower of leaflets. The message: Don’t blame us for the carnage. Blame the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah.

Some vehicles — civilian or Hezbollah, it’s hard to tell — still moving around the city despite Israel’s threat to hit anything moving on wheels. As we walked down the street, men presumably sympathetic to the Hezbollah stopped us filming.

Well, that altercation with the people who didn’t want us to film happened just up that street, so good idea to move around here. This is an extremely jumpy city. By night, militiamen with their machine guns wandering around doing a kind of home guard duty for the Hezbollah, if you like. By day, you can film happily on one street. The next street, it’s out of the question.

Overhead, Israeli helicopters quarter the city, throwing out missile deflecting flares, yet still the Hezbollah rockets are fired out in reply.

Israel prepares for offensive

GWEN IFILL: Now, ITN correspondent Lindsey Hilsum reports on the Israeli preparations for a wider war.

LINDSEY HILSUM, ITV News Correspondent: The gunners were ready, the commanders, the drivers, as the tanks mustered along the border this morning. And all the time, Katyusha rockets kept landing in the hills around. We started to film the smoke. Two more.

The month-long campaign seems to have done little to limit Hezbollah's ability to strike Israel, with up to 200 rockets every day for the past week. These soldiers are preparing their tanks and armored bulldozers to go over the border into Lebanon whenever the order comes. And rockets are being launched from the other side and landing just nearby. You can probably see the smoke behind me.

Whatever the politicians and diplomats say, Israel's military leaders want to go further into Lebanon and in greater numbers. They believe that that's the only that they can take out the places from which those rockets are being launched.

Brush fires from rockets everywhere. Retardant quells the flames, but the military want to get to the source of the problem. While the defense spokesman showed me a destroyed Hezbollah border post, the Israeli cabinet was in a six-hour meeting. The defense minister and army chief of staff reportedly putting huge pressure on Prime Minister Olmert to approve the 30-day expanded operation.

MAJ. ZVIKA GOLAN, Israeli Defense Forces: We're going to be inside with big forces, and we just to go village by village, because they're hiding in villages. And (inaudible) ran to another village, and they can come back again to the same village.

LINDSEY HILSUM: The German foreign minister met the defense minister in Jerusalem today. The message from the Israeli cabinet was that Israel intends to keep fighting.

TZIPI LIVNI, Foreign Minister, Israel (through translator): Our expectation as we discussed in the meeting is that the international community will act so, at the end of the operations the Israeli army is doing today, a change will be possible in Lebanon, a change meaning that Hezbollah will not be in south Lebanon.

LINDSEY HILSUM: There are already 10,000 Israeli troops inside Lebanon, operating by day and night. That number could now reach 15,000 or more as they push beyond the Litani River deep into Lebanon.

GWEN IFILL: Margaret Warner takes the story from there.

Command structure of war

Ori Nir
The Forward
What I think happened today was that the cabinet gave a directive to the military to wave the baton but not strike yet. The idea is to let some time for the U.N. Security Council to bring about some kind of a diplomatic resolution...

MARGARET WARNER: And for some insight into why the Israeli government has approved an expanded operation into Lebanon, we turn to Ori Nir, Washington bureau chief for the Forward, a Jewish weekly. He's a former West Bank and Gaza correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz.

And Ehud Eiran, research fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. An Israeli army veteran, he also served on former Prime Minister Ehud Barak's foreign policy staff.

And welcome to you both.

Mr. Eiran, starting with you, why did the Israeli cabinet -- I mean, even while these negotiations are going on at the U.N. to try to solve this conflict, why did the Israeli cabinet vote today to expand this war into Lebanon? Mr. Eiran, can you hear me?

EHUD EIRAN, Kennedy School of Government: Yes, I'm sorry, thank you. Probably for two reasons. First, the military threat from the north is still ongoing. There's shelling of between 150 to 200 rockets every day. And the military predicts that controlling the ground from which those rockets are being fired might diminish substantially the threat to Israel.

I think there's also something else, and that is the point you had made regarding the discussions in the United Nations, and that is that Israel wants to secure some military achievements so, as the end game gets closer, it has more chips to play with.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Ori Nir, was this controversial? The vote was 9-4 and just three abstentions. Are there concerns about the risks of this expanded operation?

ORI NIR, Washington Bureau Chief, The Forward: There are concerns about the risk, and that's why the operation is not ongoing yet.

What I think happened today was that the cabinet gave a directive to the military to wave the baton but not strike yet. The idea is to let some time for the U.N. Security Council, for the international community, to bring about some kind of a diplomatic resolution under the threat of an Israeli ground attack.

If that doesn't happen, Israel will, in fact, go ahead and launch the strike, this broadened strike. What needs to be understood is that broad strike is very costly and is, in a way, not easily reversible. Once you go out with overwhelming force, you're out there and you have to act. Israel would like to wait with the actual execution of that.

MARGARET WARNER: So when you talk about the risks, what are the risks people are raising?

ORI NIR: Well, there are risks, both in the current situation...

MARGARET WARNER: I mean, from the Israeli perspective, obviously.

ORI NIR: The risks in launching this massive ground attack, obviously, are Israeli casualties. The conservative assessment is that this is going to cost between 100 and 200 soldiers on the ground. There are some people who are saying that it could mushroom to 700 or something like that.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Eiran, there was also, of course, this shake-up within the command structure of this war, with a new general brought in over the general who has been running this. Now, what's behind that?

EHUD EIRAN: This deputy chief of staff, General Kaplinsky, was appointed special adviser to the current commander. Again, I think there are two reasons.

One, there was complaints, both beneath the former commander, as well as the levels above him, feeling that the current or the past commander is some sort of a bottleneck in pushing ahead the operation.

But there's also a political dimension, and that is that the former commanding officer of northern command gave an interview on Friday to the Israel media stating that, in fact, it was the politicians that held him back. So there were some uncomfortable feelings, I would say, in Jerusalem regarding that interview.

MARGARET WARNER: So when you say that he gave this interview and said the politicians held him back, you're referring, of course, to -- there has been quite a bit of criticism within Israel, has there not, about how the war has been conducted?

EHUD EIRAN: Absolutely. The war began in somewhat -- it doesn't fit the classic books, if you will. It began with massive air strikes, which although we don't know the exact details, must have been predicated on some assumption the air force made to the prime minister that air force itself might be enough.

Israel then moved to a short border range combat and then moved to sort of a long-term usage of larger forces, but still not all its force. So it's this mixture of different tactics, none of them very successful, that created an uncomfortable feeling, even among some professional circles, about the way Israel performed.

Non-military experience

Ehud Eiran
Harvard University
There were a number of surprises, both in the strength of Hezbollah and its fighting force... So many people were wondering, what was Israeli intelligence doing in the last six years when it was clear that Hezbollah was preparing for another round?

MARGARET WARNER: So, Ori Nir, also there has been commentary that the fact that the prime minister, Ehud Olmert, and the defense minister, Peretz, are new in their jobs, have no military experience. Has that been a factor? Has that played into both the decisions that have been made and the way they've been received?

ORI NIR: I think it is. It's a factor of both the sense that the two rushed, some say, into a very broad operation instead of just doing some kind of very painful but limited retaliatory attack.

MARGARET WARNER: Sort of surgical...

ORI NIR: A surgical attack. It is also -- it comes into play in the way that the military, at least in the first phases of this operation, the military was very dominant in determining the plan, rather than the politicians putting the brakes and the checks as they went along.

MARGARET WARNER: Meaning what, meaning that Olmert listened too much to the military?

ORI NIR: Peretz and Olmert, this is the analysis that I'm hearing from many of my colleagues, listened too much, mainly, to the chief of staff, who advocated exclusively at the beginning an air war without any kind of a ground component.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Eiran, there has also been criticism, has there not, about the fact that Israeli intelligence wasn't particularly good about the strength of Hezbollah?

EHUD EIRAN: Absolutely. There were a number of surprises, both in the strength of Hezbollah and its fighting force, as well as specific ammunition it used, for example, surprising many of Israel's tanks with some Russian missiles. So many people were wondering, what was Israeli intelligence doing in the last six years when it was clear that Hezbollah was preparing for another round?

Public opinion

Ori Nir
The Forward
Many people view what has happened with Hezbollah in Lebanon as a kind of a precursor to what may happen in the West Bank once Israel withdraws from the West Bank.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Nir, we read that, though Israeli public opinion -- there might be criticism of the way the war is being conducted, but is quite united behind this war. Is that true? And if so, explain why. I mean, Israelis are famous for liking to have a lively debate about just about everything.

ORI NIR: And the Israelis are having a lively debate about this, as well. There is a very lively debate going on. Where there isn't that much questioning about is the legitimacy of this war and the fact that this war should end with decisive results. Israelis want results.

Israelis, you know, they can persevere, but they persevere with the expectation of decisive results in this case and the results being no more rockets on northern Israel. That is why this is so important now that the future steps, either taken by the international community or by the Israeli military and going in massive forces into Lebanon, bear fruit.

MARGARET WARNER: And what's happened to the peace camp in Israel?

ORI NIR: The peace camp in Israel has been weakened. There are many people who are very confused, who really don't know how to react to this. Many people view what has happened with Hezbollah in Lebanon as a kind of a precursor to what may happen in the West Bank once Israel withdraws from the West Bank.

There's a great deal of thinking and rethinking within the Israeli left. And at a time like this, when there's a real consensus regarding the legitimacy of the war and the war needing to end with results, the peace camp is pretty quiet.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Mr. Eiran, what is your take on public opinion and why -- I interviewed Shimon Peres last week, who's always been considered on the more dovish side. I think he was one who obtained today, but he said he'd never seen the Israeli public so unified. What is your reasoning on why that is?

EHUD EIRAN: Yes, I think when you look historically, Israelis were united behind their leaders, even when militarily things were not going that well. In the Yom Kippur War, in 1973, which ended with very mixed results, the governing party, the Labor Party, won an outstanding majority in the elections that followed two or three months afterwards.

So I would more attribute it to the fact that we are now at war. But I have no doubt that, if Israel does continue and the armed forces end up with a mixed result, there will be political consequences down the road.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you mean?

EHUD EIRAN: There's some talk in the fringes about possibly some investigation committee that will investigate, perhaps, the military or the interaction between civil-military relations.

The party that's now in power, Kadima, is the new party. It's not strong enough, perhaps, to withhold severe pressures. These are possible long-term effects. We don't see them yet, but I wouldn't rule them out, if the war doesn't end the way the Israeli public wants it to end.

MARGARET WARNER: But bottom line, Ori Nir, what you're saying is that the Israeli public so much wants this problem, quote, "taken care of" that they have accepted the argument that overwhelming military force and an expanded military operation, rather than, say, a diplomatic one, is the way to get it?

ORI NIR: Yes, they would say, if that's what it takes, so be it. But, again, that would have to end with decisive results.

I think, however, that the military and even more so the politicians are looking behind their shoulder already at the possibility of a commission of inquiry at the end of this war. There is a lot that happens, not much of it now plays out in the press, which shows that both the military and the politicians are taking that into account and calculating their steps accordingly.

MARGARET WARNER: But are you saying that some of these decisions, like the one today, are driven by political considerations?

ORI NIR: Well, yes, of course, they're driven by political considerations, not necessarily political in the sense of what will be political...


ORI NIR: ... partisan, but political considerations meaning the way this will play out politically and diplomatically on the international scene, yes.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Ori Nir, Ehud Eiran, thank you both.

EHUD EIRAN: Thank you.