Getting Home

The Israel Defense Forces will cease bombing deep inside Lebanon this morning. It will prepare for the rapid transfer of territory in the area south of the Litani river to the Lebanese Army or to UNIFIL. Its forces will prepare to exit Lebanon quickly, in a matter of weeks or days. The release of the reservists will begin even sooner.

This is the good news that emerged last night from the General Staff. One more thing that should be added is that Major General Moshe Kaplinsky will now go back to his post as deputy chief of staff and let the head of Northern Command, Major General Udi Adam, be free to breathe without having to ask permission.

The bad news stems from the ambiguity hovering over the situation. The IDF sought to draw a line along the Litani River front and use air power against the Nabatiyeh area in order to isolate Hezbollah pockets in the south from resupply routes in the north. Divisions of ground and armored forces fought to get to their positions, but throughout the area hundreds of Hezbollah fighters are still in place, with their weapons, including Katyusha rockets and anti-tank missiles.

At the General Staff they maintain that meeting their objectives, in terms of the ground offensive and clearing out Hezbollah fighters south of the Litani will require three additional days.

This is a complaint aimed at the politicians: Had they authorized the IDF operation last Wednesday, the army would have met its objectives.

While neither side can prove the other wrong, the fact that there are deadly clashes with Hezbollah fighters so close to the border, as Israel enters the second month of fighting, raises doubts about the IDF's ability to do away with the last Hezbollah man, even if there was no time constraint.

Apparently, Israel can interpret Security Council Resolution 1701 as permitting it to take action against Hezbollah inside the area it holds. The IDF is not permitted to carry out "offensive" operations, but in areas near the border, where Israeli territory is within range of Hezbollah fighters, this would be considered defensive. In fact, there is no desire in the IDF to fight Hezbollah in and around 30 or so villages where the guerrillas are positioned and to suffer casualties. The wish to strip Hezbollah of its stance of being a resistance group against Israeli occupation, and the desire to suffer minimum casualties, is leading the IDF to deploy in a very thin line along the Litani. The aim is to isolate the area, also by air and sea, in order to prevent direct Syrian and Iranian access to the region.

As late as last night the UN resolution has not been translated into military terms that would guide the rules of engagement. The soldiers and their officers cannot make do with reading the interviews given by U.S.Secretary of State Condolleezza Rice or listening to the press briefings of the senior IDF command. What should they do if they see an armed Hezbollah fighter? Should they shoot him or wait for him to shoot first? And what if he has an anti-tank missile? Should questions be asked about whether the missile is ready for use or in storage for a later launch? And if the missile is launched, is it O.K. to shoot the person who launched it, or call a jet to bomb the village?

The IDF intends to get home fast, as long as it takes for the government of Lebanon to announce that it takes responsibility over South Lebanon and the speed of UNIFIL vehicles moving into the area. For the General Staff the important thing is for Beirut to claim responsibility over the South, not necessarily deploy forces immediately.