Even as it buries its dead, Israel's resolve is strong

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The Independent Online

When Captain Alex Shwarzman, 23, was buried in the military cemetery here, two of his comrades in the Golani brigade could not hold back their tears. After the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, had resonated through the still heat of the night ­ the cantor unable to drown out the sobs of the women in Captain Shwarzman's family ­ and before the guard of honour fired their rifles over the grave, you could hear the thump of three Katyushas landing in the distance.

"The soldiers you loved are still fighting in Bint Jbeil," his battalion commander declared over the coffin." You fought like a lioness protecting your cubs."

Earlier, 10 miles away in Acre, Marina Flecher also cried as she described her neighbour Alex Shwarzman, one of nine soldiers killed in the hellish battle of Bint Jbeil on Wednesday ­ and the second from the same street to die in the present conflict ­ as "a good boy, a sweet boy" who was always asking her if she needed anything after her heart operation.

But Mrs Flecher, 47, one of whose two sons is himself serving in the Israel Defence Forces, was adamant that the war should continue. "We have to kill Hizbollah," she said, "but it's so sad for the boys."

Mrs Flecher lives two floors below the Shwarzman apartment in a shabby and rapidly emptying block in the poor Burla district of this ancient port city. Current estimates are that 60 per cent of Acre's population ­ including Captain Shwarzman's mother ­ have left the city to take refuge out of range of the Katyushas. Mrs Flecher's son, who declined to give his name because of his naval service, explained bluntly the reason his parents were still there ­ they couldn't afford to leave.

It goes without saying that casualties from the Katyushas, which have killed 19 civilians in the 16 days of this "asymmetrical" war, are trifling compared with more than 400 civilian deaths in the relentless bombardment of Lebanon.

The few motorists speeding through the streets of an eerily deserted Haifa, jamming on their brakes and running anxiously to take shelter under a bridge when the sirens sound, is hardly normal life; but the death and devastation wrought in much of Lebanon is something quite different.

But real fear of the rockets, and anger at how they have shut down an entire region of Israel, helps to explain why families like the Flechers remain, for now, so strong in their support of the war against Hizbollah despite the serious military reverse. For Mrs Flecher it must go on "because then there will be quiet and we won't have to cry any more".

She is in good company. A poll in the Ma'ariv newspaper yesterday showed 82 per cent wanted the military to continue the fighting to remove Hizbollah from the border and only then begin ceasefire negotiations. Earlier polls, moreover, have shown that the strength of feeling is even higher in the north than the rest of the country.

The Israeli press and mainstream politicians were largely in tune yesterday with the Flechers' reaction to Bint Jbeil. The headline of a Ma'ariv editorial argued for "more determination and less sensitivity" in pursuit of the war.

But while the Flechers remain in a large majority at present, that may not last for ever. Losses of soldiers by a public well used to war are one thing; but losses without tangible results in increased security ­ not least in halting the rocket attacks ­ might be another.

On Wednesday, Channel Ten's well-connected military correspondent, Alon Ben David, suggested that even some IDF officers seemed to be looking for a "ladder to climb down" ­ like a political agreement to disarm Hizbollah.

But yesterday the big news of the war was the cabinet decision to summon three divisions of reservists to the northern front, the biggest call-up of its kind since Operation Defensive Shield four years ago. At the same time, the cabinet made it clear it was not yet authorising a full-scale land invasion.

Which means that it could be no more than postponing, for perhaps a week, a difficult decision between pursuing the diplomatic route, or invoking memories of the ­ eventually ­ deeply unpopular 1982 Lebanon war by mounting just such an invasion.

What the Israeli press says


Amnon Dankner and Dan Margalit

"The time has come to change the record and not seek a ground confrontation when much more can be done from a distance and from the air. Woe unto us if we act proportionally... We must continue until victory, with more determination and less sensitivity."


Evelyn Gordon

"Unless the rest of the international community rejects the idea of conditioning Hizbollah's disarmament and the Lebanese army's redeployment on an Israeli withdrawal from Shebaa Farms, the Lebanese ceasefire deal will prove the death knell of Middle East peace for many years to come."


Ze'ev Schiff

"Hizbollah and what this terrorist organisation symbolises must be destroyed at any price. We cannot afford a situation of strategic parity between Israel and Hizbollah. If Hizbollah does not experience defeat in this war, this will spell the end of Israeli deterrence against its enemies."