- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 2, 2006

HAIFA, Israel — Israel ended its bombing pause and sent thousands of reservists into action in Lebanon yesterday, seeking to carve out a broad buffer zone north of its border in a dramatic expansion of its ground offensive against Hezbollah militants.

North of Beirut, a fierce firefight was reported at a hospital in the Bekaa Valley city of Baalbek, where Hezbollah claimed to have surrounded an Israeli commando unit that landed by helicopter.

The broadened ground offensive, approved by Israel’s security Cabinet Monday night, was a tacit acknowledgment that air strikes and pinpoint attacks have failed to rout Hezbollah’s well-dug-in fighters, who killed three Israeli infantrymen yesterday in the Lebanese village of Ayta a-Shab.

Fighting also was reported in several other border towns as Israel resumed air strikes on Hezbollah targets across southern Lebanon even before last night’s expiration of a 48-hour bombing pause meant to allow civilians to flee to safety.

Hezbollah’s chief spokesman, Hussein Rahal, told the Associated Press that Israeli troops had landed near Dar al-Hikma Hospital in Baalbek and were quickly surrounded by members of the Islamic militia.

“A group of Israeli commandos was brought to the hospital by a helicopter. They entered the hospital and are trapped inside as our fighters opened fire on them, and fierce fighting is still raging,” Mr. Rahal said.

Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper also reported on its Web site that commandos had landed in the area.

The action comes amid mounting international pressure for a cease-fire after Israeli bombs killed more than 30 children in the Lebanese town of Qana on Sunday.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said before leaving Israel on Monday that she was convinced that both “an urgent cease-fire and a lasting settlement” could be achieved this week.

But disagreements with France over whether the international force deployment can take place without a political settlement, as well as Israel’s decision to expand its offensive, cast doubt on the secretary’s hopes, diplomats in Washington and New York said.

“We are at the beginning of a political process that in the end will bring a cease-fire under entirely different conditions than before,” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in Jerusalem.

“Every additional day is one that erodes the power of this cruel enemy. Every additional day, the Israeli army reduces their ability to fire and also their ability to strike in the future.”

Israel seems determined to see that Hezbollah does not emerge intact from the three-week-old war for fear that it will become an even more formidable adversary. Israel has called up 15,000 reservists for what most expect will be a final push against Hezbollah on the ground.

A reporter with the London Times yesterday reported seeing long lines of Israeli Merkava tanks, battle tanks, Puma armored cars, D9 armored bulldozers and military vehicles lining up on border roads for the coming battle.

Wire services quoted Israeli officials as saying that their soldiers are to go as far as the Litani River, about 18 miles from the border, and hold the territory until an international buffer force is deployed.

“I reckon the time required for the [army] to complete the job, and by that I mean that the area in which we want the international force to deploy is cleansed of Hezbollah, will take around 10 days to two weeks,” Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told Army Radio, Reuters news agency reported.

“In the end to fight terror and guerrillas, there are no miracles. You have to fight on the ground,” said Yaakov Amidror, a former Israeli general.

He added that Israel’s huge technological advantage over Hezbollah will be less important in the coming fighting “because of the terrain, and the ability of the other side to take cover.”

The slow military progress has stirred some critics to say the army has been too cautious. But public approval of the government’s actions remains at about 80 percent, according to the daily Ma’ariv.

Israel’s justice minister said about 300 of an estimated 2,000 Hezbollah fighters had been killed, and the tourism minister later said 400 had been killed. Hezbollah, which says it does not hide its dead, has announced 43 deaths and said the Israeli statements were false.

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