Israeli air power alone is capable of damaging Hezbollah but not of defeating the Lebanese resistance movement, leaving Israel with a choice of a ground offensive in southern Lebanon or a diplomatic settlement, said Israeli Brigadier General Michael Herzog in an interview with Agence-France Presse.
Israeli ground forces have, for the past several days, been conducting "pinpoint" operations inside southern Lebanon, Israeli officials said, amid a buildup of forces near Israel’s northern border that could signal a larger ground offensive.
Israeli Brigadier General Michael Herzog, a visiting military fellow at a Washington think tank, said Israel’s objective in the south was to clear a kilometer wide strip along the rugged border. Israeli forces envision the strip as the first layer of a buffer zone about 12 miles wide that would be occupied by Lebanese army and international forces, he said.
However, heavily armed Hezbollah fighters entrenched in heavily fortified bunkers in the difficult rugged terrain were putting up fierce resistance in the border area, he said.
"There is no Israeli intention of a wide-scale invasion of Lebanon on the scale of ’82 or ’78. But it’s clear to me that Israel may require more forces to uproot Hezbollah," he said in an interview Friday.
The risks of a ground offensive are not lost on the Israelis. They failed to pacify southern Lebanon in a bloody 18 year campaign that ended in 2000 with the withdrawal of Israeli forces and Hezbollah as the uncontested power in the south.
"If you’re thinking about being decisive, in some sense it’s got to be an appealing strategy," said Michael O’Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution. "But it’s a high risk roll of the dice."
James Corum, a military expert at the Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, said he doubted the Israelis "would do anything more than send raiding teams and very short-term ground forces."
"And if ground forces do move, it would be for a very short period to basically destroy every piece of Hezbollah infrastructure within 20 miles of the border, within rocket range of Israel, and then withdraw fairly quickly," he told Agence France Presse.
Hezbollah has fired hundreds of rockets into Israel, killing 15 people, some of them civilians, in the 10 days since its capture of two Israeli soldiers in a raid set off waves of retaliatory Israeli air strikes across Lebanon. In addition, 19 Israeli soldiers have been killed in clashes in southern Lebanon over the last week.
Hezbollah rockets have struck farther into Israel than ever before, reaching targets in the Israeli port city of Haifa 35 km south of the Lebanese border, and hit an Israeli naval vessel on July 14 with an anti-ship missile, killing four Israeli soldiers.
Israeli fighter jets have been heavily bombarding southern and central Lebanon with hundreds of tons of explosives, in air strikes that have mainly hit civilian areas. 90% of the 340 Lebanese casualties are believed to be civilians.
Israeli officials have said their strikes are justified because they claim that Hezbollah operates from civilian areas.
But they have also bombed the Beirut International Airport, roads leading to Syria, and roads and bridges throughout southern Lebanon, essentially cutting the south of Lebanon from the north. Aid convoys have been hit by Israeli missiles, as have buses evacuating civilians to safety in the north. Israeli warships have also imposed a full-scale naval blockade on Lebanon.
Despite the evidence of massive civilian casualties, Herzog claimed, in his interview with Agence France Presse on Friday, "The focus was, is on Hezbollah. Anything that can strengthen Hezbollah, enhance Hezbollah’s capabilities, that will be targeted."
But the attacks have not stopped Hezbollah missile launches from the south, underscoring the difficulty of taking out fleeting short-range missile launchers from the air.
James Corum, the Kansas-based US military analyst, and author of "Air Power in Small Wars," published in 2003, said Hezbollah has proved to be "emminently resistant to being coerced by firepower."
"Any time you punished Hezbollah, killed some of their people, they had people lining up to volunteer to be suicide bombers," he said.
O’Hanlon estimates that past air campaigns suggests that Israel may succeed in reducing Hezbollah’s military capability by a quarter through air strikes.
But the longer the air campaign goes on, the more Hezbollah is likely to benefit from international outcry over civilian casualties in air strikes captured by the world’s media, he said.
The military gain is "not enough to warrant much more of something that already has probably gone too far in terms of Israel’s strategic interests."
Corum, however, suggests that Israel is attempting to use air power to create conditions on the ground that will put them in a superior bargaining position at the negotiating table.
"No, I don’t think the Israelis think they can defeat Hezbollah," he said.
"However, if they knock out a major proportion of Hezbollah’s military infrastructure, and damage them severely, it will be somewhat easier for the Lebanese to assert control.
Meanwhile, the Israeli military has amassed ground troops along the border, and have dropped leaflets warning civilians to leave southern Lebanon.
Israeli military officials say they have agreed to send ground troops into Lebanon, the only question is how big a force to send.
They said Israel would not stop its offensive until Hezbollah was forced behind the Litani river, 20 miles north of the border – creating a new buffer zone in a region that saw Israeli occupation between 1982 and 2000. Reservists in northern Israel were ordered to report for duty.
"It’s possible that in the coming days our ground operations will increase," Brigadier General Alon Friedman told the Maariv newspaper. "We have many forces, we will carry out a massive recruitment of reserves and it’s possible that many more forces … will reach the border in the next few days."
The Lebanese defence minister said Lebanon’s army was ready to defend the country against any land invasion by Israel. Elias al-Murr, when asked if the Lebanese army would fight alongside Hizbullah against any land incursion by Israel, told al-Arabiya: "Our constitutional duty is to defend Lebanon as a Lebanese army. This is our role."