Monday, July 17, 2006

JERUSALEM — The fierce Israeli attack in Lebanon is part of a carefully orchestrated plan — not yet half-completed — that calls for four stages of mounting intensity, culminating in the movement of ground troops into Lebanon, according to Israeli reports.

Military correspondents with access to senior military officials say that in the first stage — which began shortly after Hezbollah raiders seized two soldiers on Wednesday — Israeli warplanes attacked missile caches throughout Lebanon, particularly those housing long-range missiles.

Fifty caches, some hidden underground and some in private homes, reportedly were destroyed, a military briefer told reporters yesterday. It is not clear what percentage of the 13,000 missiles known to be in Hezbollah hands that accounts for.

At the same time, artillery pounded Hezbollah positions and command posts from the Israeli side of the border. In this first stage, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) also bombed the Beirut airport and imposed a sea blockade to impress upon the Lebanese government the consequences of failing to stop Hezbollah from attacking Israel from southern Lebanon.

In the second stage, which began early Friday, warplanes attacked the heart of Hezbollah’s power, destroying high-rise buildings in southern Beirut that house the organization’s command structure and the home of Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah.

Sheik Nasrallah reportedly was trapped for a while in the militia’s underground command center when the building above it collapsed, covering the entrance. He apparently was not injured.

The third and fourth stages are secret. However, the operational plan calls for each stage to be more powerful than the previous one, said the correspondents, who appear to have received detailed briefings.

One reported principle is that the targets should be hit in a predetermined order, with no deviation from the plan, in response to specific Hezbollah actions. A constantly expanding “target bank,” consisting of hundreds of sites selected by the IDF, is approved at periodic meetings of a Cabinet subcommittee chaired by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

One of the final stages, presumably, is the entry of ground forces into Lebanon.

If Israel’s main objectives — a halt in the firing of missiles into Israel and a Lebanese government agreement to displace Hezbollah from the border area — have not been achieved by the end of this week, ground troops will cross the border, according to the sources.

Israel is unenthusiastic about the prospect of getting bogged down again in southern Lebanon as it was for 18 years before its pullout in 2000.

But the head of the IDF operations directorate, Brig. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, said Saturday that any ground incursion will be limited in time and in the area affected.

Israeli officials say they don’t think the international community will force Israel to cease fire before its goals are achieved.

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