- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 9, 2006

12:42 p.m.

JERUSALEM — Israel’s Security Cabinet today approved a wider ground offensive in southern Lebanon that was expected to take 30 days as part of a new push to badly damage Hezbollah, a Cabinet minister said.

The decision came as fierce fighting was reported overnight with Hezbollah militants in southern Lebanon, and Arab broadcaster Al Jazeera reported that 11 Israeli soldiers had been killed.

The Security Cabinet authorized troops to push to the Litani River, 18 miles from the Israel-Lebanon border. Currently, 10,000 soldiers are fighting Hezbollah in a four-mile stretch from the frontier.

The proposed operation was expected to take 30 days, Cabinet Minister Eli Yishai said. However, an internationally backed cease-fire was expected to be imposed well before then.

“The assessment is it will last 30 days. I think it is wrong to make this assessment. I think it will take a lot longer,” he said.

The decision, approved by nine ministers with three abstaining, gave authorization to Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to order the wider offensive and to decide its timing. However, it did not obligate them to act.

An Israeli security official told Cabinet members the offensive could mean 100 to 200 more military casualties, a participant said on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about the closed-door meeting. So far, 67 Israeli soldiers have been confirmed killed.

Al Jazeera reported that 11 Israeli soldiers were killed today in heavy fighting with Hezbollah guerrillas near the border in southern Lebanon. The Israeli army declined to comment on the report but had said earlier that 15 soldiers had been wounded in overnight clashes.

A Hezbollah statement said it killed or wounded 10 Israeli soldiers and destroyed a tank as it advanced toward the village of Qantara, north of the border.

Since the fighting began, at least 700 people have died on the Lebanese side. The Israeli toll stood at 103 killed — including 36 civilians.

The approval by the 12-member Security Cabinet came a day after the commander of Israeli forces in Lebanon was sidelined in an unusual midwar shake-up — another sign of growing dissatisfaction with the military, which has been unable to stop Hezbollah’s daily rocket barrages.

The army denied it was dissatisfied with Maj. Gen. Udi Adam, but military commentators said the commander was seen as too slow and cautious. The deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky, was appointed to oversee the Lebanon fighting.

Under the army’s proposal for a wider offensive, troops would push to and in some cases beyond Lebanon’s Litani River. So far, more than 10,000 Israeli soldiers have been fighting several hundred Hezbollah guerrillas in a four-mile stretch north of the border but have faced fierce resistance.

Earlier this week, the Israeli military declared a no-drive zone south of the Litani and threatened to blast any moving vehicles as guerrilla targets. Country roads and highways were deserted throughout the area. In the Lebanese coastal city of Tyre, only pedestrians ventured into the streets.

Israel’s military struck Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camp today, killing at least two persons and wounding five. Lebanese and Palestinian officials said an Israeli gunship shelled the Ein el-Hilweh camp, but Israel’s military said the attack was an air strike that targeted a house used by Hezbollah guerrillas.

The camp is home to about 75,000 Palestinian refugees and their descendants who were displaced by the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

Israeli air strikes also leveled a building in the Bekaa Valley town of Mashghara, trapping seven persons from the same family under the rubble. Five bodies were pulled out, and the remaining two relatives were feared dead, officials said.

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