- The Washington Times - Friday, July 21, 2006

TEL AVIV — Israel called up its reserve soldiers as tanks and troops massed on the Lebanese border in preparation for a ground war to drive Hezbollah guerrillas back from threatening range of Israeli territory and to destroy bunkers and weapons stockpiles of the Iranian-backed militia.

The evacuation of foreigners from Lebanon continued, with ships lining the docks of Beirut and helicopters ferrying the sick and elderly to Cyprus or to warships waiting offshore.

At least 11 Hezbollah rockets hit the northern Israeli city of Haifa, wounding five, while Israeli jets pounded the highway connecting Beirut to Damascus, a supply route for Syrian and Iranian weapons to guerrillas in southern Lebanon.

“We will fight terror wherever it is because if we do not fight it, it will fight us. If we don’t reach it, it will reach us,” Israeli army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz told reporters in Tel Aviv.

Gen. Halutz described ground operations as “limited” and said Israeli troops had killed nearly 100 Hezbollah guerrillas in more than a week of fighting.

Ships lined up at Beirut’s port as the evacuation of Americans and other foreigners picked up speed. U.S. officials said more than 8,000 of the roughly 25,000 Americans in Lebanon will be evacuated by the weekend.

The Israeli army confirmed that small units have been operating in Lebanon for days.

An official of the United Nations monitoring force in southern Lebanon said 300 to 500 Israeli troops were believed to be in the western sector of the border, backed by as many as 30 tanks — a likely precursor to a larger ground force that Israel could use to sweep Hezbollah out of the area.

Israel’s goal is not to create a permanent buffer zone, as it did during its occupation of southern Lebanon from 1982 to 2000, said a senior military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the topic’s military sensitivity.

But with the reserve call-up, speculation centered on an Israeli push to the Litani River, about 20 miles north of the border.

While Israel wants to eliminate Hezbollah’s presence in southern Lebanon, where it operates outside control of the Lebanese government, the Jewish state is also concerned about becoming mired in Lebanon for an extended period. An 18-year occupation of south Lebanon followed the 1982 invasion to expel the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Hezbollah was born with the 1982 invasion.

“We don’t plan to become bogged down in any move that Hezbollah wants to drag us into,” Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz told reporters. “At the same time, we’ll act in every place necessary in order to win decisively.”

Hezbollah gunmen, who have dug in considerably in the six years since Israel left southern Lebanon, have so far put up stiff resistance.

Israel began its offensive on July 12 after Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a border raid.

Lebanese television and the Dubai-based Al Arabiya reported yesterday that the body of one missing Israeli soldier had been recovered. There was no confirmation from the Israelis and no further details were available.

In Washington, Israeli Ambassador Daniel Ayalon said that Israel’s drive has been slowed by its efforts not to hurt civilians or to inflict unnecessary damage on Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure.

“The operation could be halted right away if we get the return of our soldiers,” he said, referring to two soldiers abducted by Hezbollah. “We do not seek a long campaign.”

At least 335 persons have been killed in Lebanon in the Israeli campaign, according to the Lebanese health minister; 34 Israelis have been killed, including 19 soldiers, according to AP.

At the United Nations, Israeli Ambassador Dan Gillerman said yesterday he expected a humanitarian corridor for food, medicine and other supplies to be opened right away.

U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland told the U.N. Security Council that “it is estimated that Beirut only has days of fuel supplies remaining.”

The Lebanese toll was expected to rise with heavy Israeli strikes yesterday in Shi’ite regions of the country’s south and east.

In the southern towns of Nabatiyeh and Aytaroun, buildings were leveled — including one on a commercial street — killing at least one person. But rescue crews were too afraid of the continuing waves of strikes to search for more dead or wounded trapped in the rubble.

The U.N. has estimated that a half-million people have been displaced by the fighting.

Beirut was swelling with refugees from the south as well as from the city’s own southern neighborhoods, heavily hit by Israeli strikes.

They crowded into in parks and schools; those with enough money stayed in hotels.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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