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Israeli Troops Prepare to Widen Ground Operation

Israeli troops wait for orders to enter into southern Lebanon at a location near the Israeli-Lebanese border, Aug. 9, 2006.
Menahem Kahana
AFP/Getty Images
Israeli troops wait for orders to enter into southern Lebanon at a location near the Israeli-Lebanese border, Aug. 9, 2006.

Israel's Security Cabinet approved a plan Wednesday to greatly expand the Army's ground offensive in south Lebanon against Hezbollah. The plan calls for a wider push about 15 to 18 miles north to the Litani River to try to weaken the rocket-launching and ground-fighting capabilities of the militant Shiite militia.

But after a month of heavy fighting, Israeli forces continue to face stiff resistance. Four Israeli soldiers were killed overnight and Arab media report that 11 more Israeli soldiers were killed Wednesday. Many analysts say there's little reason to think that a wider ground operation will be quick or easy.

Nearly 70 Israeli soldiers have been killed so far, and Israelis are now bracing for more casualties. One Army commander reportedly estimated that as many as 200 soldiers could lose their lives in a push to the Litani River.

On Wednesday, Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nassrallah, vowed to turn south Lebanon into a graveyard for Israel.

Hezbollah guerillas have been able to employ wire-guided anti-tank missiles with devastating effect. Army sources say that they're not just using the weapons against armored forces, but also against infantry in built-up areas. In addition, an Army official says it appears that Hezbollah commanders still maintain some level of "command and control" capability over their ground forces, despite weeks of heavy air and artillery fire.

According to Israeli Army Brig. Gen. Yossi Kupperwasser, Hezbollah is using guerrilla tactics but it is organized "like a real army."

"They have units just like a regular army. They have logistics, they have communications. They have an engineering corps, they have everything an army would have," Kupperwasser says.

After a month of fighting, and with more than 10,000 ground forces in Lebanon, Army officials say they think they've killed about 250 to 300 Hezbollah fighters. That number hardly matches the tough talk of "smashing" Hezbollah that some Israeli officials predicted at the start of the military operation.

Few here have any illusions that an expanded Israeli ground occupation will mean the end of Hezbollah as a fighting force.

"How do you defeat a guerrilla force? By capturing territory?" says Sholmo Brom, the Israeli Army's former chief of strategic planning. "We can capture every territory that we want to in Lebanon. But a guerrilla force -- when this happens, it either withdraws to areas that are not captured and continues its operations, or it melts into the civilian population and turns into a kind of insurgency. And that's what we see in Iraq."

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Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.