Israel steps up ground offensive amid international cease-fire calls
By Dan Baron
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JERUSALEM, Aug. 2 (JTA)—Casualties continue to pile up in the Israel-Hezbollah conflict, amid increasing international calls for a cease-fire.
On Aug. 2, Hezbollah rockets killed an Israeli in Kibbutz Sa'ar and wounded six. The militia's rocket fire, which had slowed earlier in the week, was in full force by Aug. 2, Wednesday, with 210 strikes on cities and towns in northern Israel.
Israel pressed its ground offensive in Lebanon, reaching the eastern town of Baalbek, a Hezbollah stronghold near the Syrian border, in a pre-dawn raid on Aug. 2. Troops captured five Hezbollah combatants.
Two Israeli soldiers kidnapped by Hezbollah on July 12, precipitating the crisis, had been taken to the militia's hospital in Baalbek for treatment, according to Israeli intelligence.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's Security Cabinet decided on Aug. 1 to call up more reserves and expand search-and-destroy operations to a number of villages in southern Lebanon. Three Israeli soldiers died in clashes that day.
Israel is coming under increasing international pressure to cease fire in the wake of the death of dozens of civilians after combat aircraft bombed the village of Kana on July 30 in an attempt to stop rocket fire from there.
Olmert insisted the Kana carnage was an accident that occurred in the course of Israel's self-defense. But he added that the offensive in Lebanon would continue.
Olmert said that Israel was "winning the battle" against Hezbollah. Between 300 and 400 of the terrorist group's combatants reportedly have died in the conflict so far.
In the last week of July the army called up some 30,000 reservists, partly for the Lebanon conflict and partly to be ready in case Syria, whose military is on high alert, chooses to broaden the war, Israeli officials said.
Some Western leaders condemned Israel's decision to continue the offensive.
"It is unacceptable for Israel to continue with its current policy," Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja, whose country holds the rotating E.U. presidency, told reporters Aug. 1.
Tony Blair, however, placed the conflict in a broader context in a speech the same day in Los Angeles. The British prime minister said that the "issue of Israel is just part of the same wider struggle for the soul of the region."
Blair called Hezbollah's July 12 raid a "provocation" whose purpose "was to create chaos, division and bloodshed, to provoke retaliation by Israel that would lead to Arab and Muslim opinion being inflamed, not against those who started the aggression but against those who responded to it."
The United Nations was to meet Aug. 3 to discuss the placement of an international peacekeeping force in Lebanon. France is refusing to participate, citing its opposition to discussing such a force before a cease-fire takes place.
After the incident in Kana, Israel coordinated with the United Nations to allow a 24-hour period for residents of southern Lebanon to leave the area.
Israel also agreed to suspend air strikes in southern Lebanon for 48 hours. They were resumed early on Aug. 3.
Israel's failure to defeat Hezbollah quickly has raised questions about the effectiveness of military force alone. But offsetting the doubt is anger over the mounting Israeli losses—51 soldiers and civilians—and the belief that Hezbollah is the vanguard of an Iranian regime that is preparing for all-out war with Israel.
"In Iran, they say, 'We are targeting Israel,' but Israel is the first Western outpost. Their target is the West, period. Their rockets that they're developing in Iran are targeted to you, they already reach us but they are arranging now rockets that will reach London," opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who in a bit of irony has become one of the most eloquent foreign spokesmen for Olmert's government, said in an interview with Britain's Sky Television.
"Beware, you've been warned. Don't attack the victim, attack the attacker," he said.