BEIRUT, Lebanon – Hezbollah dealt Israel its heaviest losses in the Lebanon campaign Wednesday, killing nine soldiers in fierce firefights. With key Mideast players failing to agree on a formula for a cease-fire, an Israeli general said the operation could last weeks.
Israel said it intends to damage Hezbollah and establish a “security zone” that would be free of the guerrillas and extend 1.2 miles into Lebanon from the Israeli border. Such a zone would prevent Hezbollah from carrying out cross-border raids such as the one two weeks ago which triggered the Israeli military response.
Israel said it would maintain such a zone, with firepower or other means, until the arrival of an international force with muscle to be deployed in a wider swath of southern Lebanon – as opposed to the U.N. force already there that has failed to prevent the violence.
The Israeli bombardment has failed to stop guerrilla rocket fire, even while killing hundreds, driving up to 750,000 people from their homes and causing billions of dollars in damage. Hezbollah fired another large barrage into northern Israel on Wednesday – 151 rockets that wounded at least 31 people and damaged property from the suburbs of the port on Haifa on the Mediterranean Sea to the Hula Valley above the Sea of Galilee. Over the past two weeks, the guerrillas have fired 1,436 rockets into Israel.
Pushing Hezbollah back with ground troops was proving to be bloody. Several thousand troops are in Lebanon, Israeli military officials said – mainly in a roughly 6-square-mile pocket around the town of Bint Jbail, a Hezbollah stronghold just over two miles from the border.
The Hezbollah fighters are heavily outnumbered, with some 100 in Bint Jbail and several hundred more in surrounding fields, bunkers and caves, according to the officials. But they use classic guerrilla tactics, planning when to strike in the hilly territory they know well. They are dug in with extensive tunnel networks and stockpiling weapons, including rockets with which they pelted Israeli forces Wednesday.
Violence was also increasing on the other front of Israel’s fight on Islamic militants: Gaza, where Hamas-linked militants are holding an Israeli soldier seized a month ago. A force of 50 tanks and bulldozers entered the northern Gaza Strip to battle Hamas gunmen. Israeli air and artillery attacks killed 23 Palestinians, including at least 16 militants and three young girls.
The chief of Israel’s northern command warned that the fight would drag on.
“I assume it will continue for several more weeks, and in a number of weeks we will be able to (declare) a victory,” Maj. Gen. Udi Adam told a news conference.
While the ground battle was intensifying, the bombardment in the rest of Lebanon appeared to be easing. Israeli jets were heard repeatedly over Beirut in the evening, but the capital saw no strikes.
But early today, local broadcasters said Israel hit an army base and an adjacent relay station belonging to Lebanese state radio at Aamchit, 30 miles north of Beirut, knocking down a transmission tower. It wasn’t immediately clear if the attack was by air or shelling from ships. The Israeli military had no immediate comment on the reports.
The eight deaths in Bint Jbail, which Israel has been trying to take for four days, were the heaviest Israeli casualties in a single battle during the Lebanon campaign.
Israeli troops had thought they secured the area around the town, but the guerrillas ambushed a patrol before dawn, said Capt. Jacob Dallal, an Israeli army spokesman. A rescue force went in, and fighting escalated. Hezbollah said its guerrillas ambushed an Israeli unit from three sides as it tried to advance from a ridge on the outskirts of the town.
Eight soldiers were killed and 22 wounded in the fighting, the army said. It later reported a ninth soldier killed and several other casualties in the nearby village of Maroun al-Ras.
At least 30 guerrillas were killed Wednesday, an Israeli military official said.