Israel set to invade Lebanon despite lessons of 1982 war

Ground Offensive
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Israel has approved a major escalation of war by voting to send thousands of fresh troops deeper into Lebanon in an expanded offensive echoing its invasion nearly a quarter of a century ago.

The decision came as attempts at the United Nations in New York to agree a ceasefire resolution were said last night to be on the point of collapse.

Israel gave the army the green light to push troops at least to the Litani river, around 15 miles beyond the border into Lebanon, despite the risk this could add hundreds more casualties to the rapidly mounting death toll of Israeli soldiers. Another 15 soldiers were killed in heavy fighting in southern Lebanon yesterday.

At a tense six-hour meeting in Jerusalem, the cabinet authorised Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the Defence Minister, Amir Peretz, to order a substantially expanded offensive at a time of their choosing. It was approved by nine ministers. Three, including the former prime minister Shimon Peres, abstained.

The decision was strongly recommended by Mr Peretz and the military's chief of staff, Dan Halutz. Mr Olmert, elected only five months ago, was widely reported to have hesitated before finally throwing his weight behind it.

The principal goal of such a ground offensive was described by officials as being to halt the firing of shorter-range Katyusha rockets, most of which Israel believes are launched from the area between the border and the Litani. Another 160 of them were fired into northern Israel yesterday. One minister said after the meeting that the military assessed the operation would take 30 days to complete.

The timing ­ and even the choice of whether to implement the decision ­ was left to Mr Olmert and Mr Peretz. This could allow still more time for the UN Security Council to come up with a resolution which would meet Israel's central demands, including an international force to disarm Hizbollah.

Insisting that the decision did not conflict with the ­ currently badly faltering ­ diplomatic efforts to secure a UN ceasefire resolution, Tzipi Livni, Israel's Foreign Minister, said: "The faster the international community passes a resolution, the faster an international force arrives to help the Lebanese army, the better."

Although Israeli officials declined to say last night when Mr Olmert was likely to implement the decision, one minister present at the meeting was quoted by Haaretz as saying that Mr Olmert would not act on the decision for two or three days to allow a window for the diplomatic process to bear fruit. One senior official said last night that the international community still had a window to halt a wider ground offensive that Israel would ideally prefer not to launch.

But the gravity of yesterday's decision ­ invoking unwelcome memories of the 1982 Lebanon invasion­ was underlined by the abstentions of both Mr Peres and the Labour minister Ophir Pines-Paz. Both argued in the cabinet that more room should be allowed for the diplomatic process.

The third minister to abstain, Eli Yishai, from the ultra-orthodox party Shas, did so on the grounds that while it was right to expand the campaign there should be a longer aerial bombing campaign before an intensified ground operation was launched. He said after the meeting: "In my opinion, whole villages should be removed from the air when we have verified information that Katyusha rockets are being fired from there."

It was Mr Yishai who disclosed the military's belief that the operation would last a month, adding: "I think it is wrong to make this assessment. I think it will take a lot longer," he said.

In Washington, a State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack, said Israel had a right to defend itself, but added that it "must take utmost care in avoiding civilian casualties".

Lebanese officials reported that at least five people had died in air strikes yesterday. Most of the Israeli soldiers killed were reservists, casualties of the anti-tank missiles which have proved to be Hizbollah's most potent weapon in the ground war. The Israeli military said 40 Hizbollah guerrillas had also been killed.

Hundreds of reservists called up to reinforce the Israeli deployment were seen moving in formation towards the eastern sector of the border near here. Fire was exchanged, using small arms, machine guns, shells and missiles, with positions in southern Lebanon. Plumes of smoke rose from Lebanese villages close to the border.

Red tracers visible from the Israeli side of the frontier crossed the sky early today as repeated tank and artillery fire demonstrated that Israel had still not secured all the immediate border areas of southern Lebanon.

As sirens sounded repeatedly, the reservists, some with camouflage paint on their faces and mainly from the Golani brigade, took cover behind walls. They were mindful of avoiding the fate of 12 colleagues killed in a single Katyusha attack at Kfar Giladi, five miles away from here, on Sunday.

Flashback 1982

By Anne Penketh, Diplomatic Editor

In June 1982, the Israeli army swept across the Lebanese border with orders to expel Palestinian guerrillas who had been firing rockets into northern Israel.

Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) were indeed forced out of Lebanon. But Israel's ill-fated occupation lasted 18 years, tarnished the reputation of its military machine, and led to the creation of the Islamic Hizbollah militias, which are now firing much more powerful rockets into Israel.

On 6 June 1982, on the pretext that Palestinian fighters had attempted to assassinate Shlomo Argov, the Israeli ambassador to London, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin sent 30,000 soldiers into Lebanon. He told the Israeli cabinet that the PLO was behind the attack, withholding the fact that it had been carried out by Arafat's sworn enemy, Abu Nidal, on the orders of Saddam Hussein.

Ariel Sharon, then defence minister, was put in charge of "Operation Peace for Galilee" ostensibly aimed at silencing Palestinian rockets by moving Israeli troops 30kms inside Lebanon up to the Litani river.

But the Israelis thrust as far as the Lebanese capital, with public support remaining buoyant despite the deaths of 100 soldiers in the first days. In August 1982, Yasser Arafat and his fighters left the rubble of Beirut on a ship for exile in Tunis, in the same month that 2,000 Syrian troops pulled out. Under a US-sponsored ceasefire agreement, a multinational force of Americans, French and Italians was deployed.

Bashir Gemayel, a Maronite Christian, was elected president, and Israel began to hope that a peace treaty could be signed. But Lebanon, split by factions and conflicting foreign interests, once again confounded optimists. Gemayel was assassinated on 14 September 1982. Two days later, in revenge killings whose scale shocked the world, Israeli forces allowed their allied Lebanese Christian militias into the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps, where they slaughtering 1,700 fighters and possibly thousands of civilians.

Sabra and Chatila, the bloodiest single incident in the Arab-Israeli conflict, marked a turning point in Israeli public support for the occupation, and led to Mr Sharon being found "personally" responsible for the massacre, and forced to resign as defence minister.

The massacre prompted the US President, Ronald Reagan, to boost the multinational force. On 29 September, the new troops entered Beirut, with about 1,800 marines, joined by 1,500 French Foreign Legion paratroopers, and 1,400 Italians. Their mission was officially neutral, but was intended to support the new Lebanese government under President Amin Gemayel, who was allied with the US and Israel.

But the presence of the foreign forces provided Syria and Iran with an opportunity as they backed the Hizbollah Shia fighters who had sprung up to resist the invading Israelis. On 18 April 1983, a suicide bomber demolished the US embassy in Beirut. On 23 October 1983, 241 marines were killed in a truck bombing of their Beirut barracks. Twenty seconds later, a truck rammed into the building where the French peacekeepers slept, killing 56 paratroopers. A US district judge ruled in 2003 that senior Iranian officials had approved and funded the attacks by Hizbollah, which he described as the "most deadly state-sponsored terrorist attack made against United States citizens before 11 September 2001". The multinational force pulled out of Beirut.

Israel withdrew to a buffer zone in southern Lebanon. Its forces stayed for 17 years, but when they left, Hizbollah claimed that it was the Shia militia that defeated the regional superpower.

Day 29

* Israel's security cabinet votes in favour of sending more troops deeper into Lebanon towards the Litani river.

* Israeli air strike targets Palestinian refugees for the first time at Ein el-Hilweh, Lebanon's largest camp. Air strike also kills five in the Bekaa Valley.

* Israeli forces push deeper into Hizbollah territory in southern Lebanon, reportedly suffering 11 fatalities.

* Hizbollah fires more than 160 rockets into northern Israel, including four into the West Bank. No casualties reported.

* Warplanes drop leaflets over Tyre and Beirut, accusing the Hizbollah chief, Sheikh Nasrallah, of "playing with fire".

* Humanitarian efforts in southern Lebanon stall for a second day.

* The United States and France fail to agree on a UN resolution draft.

* At least 1,005 Lebanese and 101 Israelis killed in nearly one month.