NAHARIYA, Israel — The conflict in southern Lebanon was ratcheted up on Wednesday as Israel brought in more troops for a large ground invasion and Hezbollah launched a record number of rockets into Israel. NBC’s Martin Fletcher reports from northern Israel on the changing nature of the 22-day old conflict and the prospects for a cease-fire.
Israel led its deepest raid yet into southern Lebanon on Wednesday with a ground invasion involving about 10,000 troops. What is Israel’s goal now?
They are concentrating on clearing an area that they say is between five to seven kilometers wide along the entire length of the border between Israel and Lebanon, which is about 90 miles long.
So, that is a lot of work to do if that is their goal.
They have about 8,000 to 10,000 troops inside and more on the way if they are needed. They are also still waiting to see how deep they are going to go in. There is a possibility that they will go as far in as the Litani River, which is about 18 miles inside Lebanon.
There has been bitter fighting and it isn’t clear really to what extent Hezbollah is still able to function. But each day that they fire rockets, they are firing more than the last time.
The last time there were airstrikes, Hezbollah fired 150 rockets at Israel. Then they had two days without rockets — they were matching Israel’s lull in airstrikes — and then on Wednesday, Israel resumed their attacks, and Hezbollah continued their attacks as well with at least 180 rocket attacks. More than 180 Katyusha rockets in one day is a new record.
So it’s clear that although Israel is making real progress on the ground, they are still nowhere near any kind of success in terms of stopping the Katyusha rockets, which is one of the key goals of the invasion.
But in order to achieve that key goal, they must succeed with what they call “clearing of the zone,” into which an international force will then go. One of the problems with an international force is that it’s not a force that is going to come in to fight Hezbollah.
One of the key obstacles to an international force is that the countries don’t want to send their troops into an area where there a potential war going on. They want to send the troops into an area where there is no real military threat.
So, Israel says that part of its goal in clearing a security zone is to make it safer for an international force to come in and occupy it. And the more safe it becomes — or the more Israel can defeat Hezbollah in that security zone — the safer it will be for the international troops.
At the moment there are still plenty of Hezbollah in the area. There is no agreement yet from the various sides about an international force coming, so it’s a very volatile situation.
What about Israel’s “48-hour suspension of airstrikes” earlier in the week? Despite the fact that Israel made that announcement, there were still some airstrikes during that period.
When Israel announced that 48-hour suspension, they said in the same breath that there would be a continuation of air attacks on strategic targets. In other words, if they saw people about to fire rockets, they would attack them. Or if they saw trucks trying to smuggle weapons in from Syria, they would attack it. So, that’s what they did, and there were some attacks during the 48 hour period. But the 48 hours ran out at 1 a.m. on Wednesday and since then they have returned to regular warfare activity.
What is the status right now on Israeli public opinion regarding the conflict?
It is still very supportive. The opinion polls show a slight questioning about the continuing war, but generally there is still huge support.
For example, we were just visiting some bomb shelters here in Nahariya, and even though these people have been sleeping in bomb shelters for 20 days, they are still supportive of the activity. They are exhausted, upset and sick of bad food in the bomb shelters, but they are still insistent that Israel should continue and must not stop until they defeat Hezbollah.
And outside another bomb shelter we saw a big sign outside that says, “Don’t Stop Until The Boys Are Back,” meaning the kidnapped soldiers.
What about the Israel opinion of the international condemnation that has emerged since the start of the conflict? For instance, the widespread criticsim of the attack in Qana last weekend and the idea that Israel is seen as the aggressor in this conflict? How do people feel about that?
There has been quite a lot of coverage in the press of international reaction to the conflict. During the first few days, there was surprisingly strong support for Israel because they were attacked.
Now, they are very aware that however justified they think they are, they are coming under tremendous pressure from world public opinion. They are very aware that outside Israel they are losing support dramatically. That said, it doesn't appear to be having any great effect — they still think overall that they are absolutely right to be doing what they are doing.
But as more and more civilians are killed in Lebanon — and the killing in Qana had particularly large effect on world opinion — they also are very aware that the images from Lebanon are hurting their argument.
Images, as always, speak louder than words.
Any ideas you are hearing on if and when a cease-fire may happen?
I think there is growing support for a cease-fire, but it’s still very, very small. The main support here is for the government and the army to continue.
The only question really is not did they do too much, but rather, did they do too little?