Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Israel’s military operation in Lebanon is designed to cripple Hezbollah by destroying its headquarters, weapons stockpiles and supply network, and eventually eliminating the militant group, Israeli officials and analysts said yesterday.

Targeting Hezbollah’s leadership is a secondary priority for the time being, they said, although Israel would not hesitate to act if it had credible intelligence regarding the whereabouts of the militia’s leaders.

“We are trying to create a new reality that would not enable Hezbollah to operate,” one Israeli official said.

The United States supports that goal, even as it cautions Israel to exercise restraint in carrying it out. “The root cause of the problem is Hezbollah, and that problem needs to addressed,” President Bush said yesterday.

Hezbollah, a Shi’ite militia founded in 1982 whose name means “Party of God,” opted for the mainstream of Lebanese politics last year, winning 14 seats in parliament and a Cabinet seat. At the same time, it refused to disarm or change its tactics.

“Our immediate objective is the return of the two Israeli soldiers,” who were kidnapped a week ago in a cross-border attack that sparked the current crisis, the Israeli official said. “But we are also destroying Hezbollah infrastructure and bases along the international border and trying to eliminate their stockpiles, headquarters and supply network.”

Hezbollah is thought to have up to 13,000 missiles. According to the London-based al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper, Iran transferred to Hezbollah 11,500 missiles and rockets between 1992 and 2005, along with large numbers of artillery shells and rocket launchers.

In 2004, Hezbollah subsidized nearly 70 percent of Palestinian terrorist attacks and offered old-guard Fatah and Hamas militants as much as $100,000 to deliver suicide bombers into Israel, according to Israel’s International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism.

Israel views the weeklong crisis as a chance to find a long-term solution to the Hezbollah problem, officials and analysts said.

“As tragic as it is, it also affords an opportunity to deal a blow to Hezbollah and Iran,” said Michael Herzog, a general in the Israeli army who is a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Israel has taken it upon itself to degrade Hezbollah’s military capabilities, he said.

“Given the impressive arsenal they have, it’s impossible to completely wipe it out through air strikes — you have to send ground troops to clean it up,” he said, noting that limited forces have briefly been sent into “a narrow strip” along the border.

There are two main difficulties in targeting Hezbollah’s arsenal, said Yehudit Barsky of the American Jewish Committee.

One is that many of the rockets are mobile and easily can be moved, although Mr. Herzog pointed out that Israel’s control of the Lebanese airspace complicates such operations. The other difficulty is that Hezbollah has been hiding missiles in civilian homes.

Daniel Byman, director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University, said Hezbollah’s “capacity comes down to its people,” and “what makes a guerrilla group formidable is dedication and training.”

The Israeli official said that the targeting of the group’s leadership has taken a back stage in the campaign so far, but, “If we have an opportunity, we are not going to miss it.”

He also said Israel would support a diplomatic intervention once it has achieved its military goals, such as an internationally sponsored process to implement U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, which requires the disarming of Hezbollah.

“Once a new reality is created in Lebanon, we won’t have to deal with Hezbollah at home,” the Israeli official said.

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