The Push beyond the Litani River
When on Monday, July 31, Israeli PM Ehud Olmert told the city leaders of the rocket-blitzed north: “The war goes on. There will be no ceasefire in the coming days!” the script was ready for the next stage of the Israeli offensive to its push Hizballah back behind the Litani River. It was approved by the inner cabinet unopposed that night with no time scale. Next morning, Israel ground operations continued to destroy Hizballah outposts close to the border and hit rocket sites, weapons stores and fighters. The air force bombed arms vehicles incoming from Syria in eastern Lebanon.
debkafile‘s military analysts say it would be wrong to assume that that the Israeli advance to the Litani comes in the form of troops fanned out the full width of the southern Lebanese front. This is not so. The ground forces are in fact quite far from the river. They are driving forward in three spearheads in the western, central and eastern sectors, battling heavy Hizballah resistance in their path.
The Central Sector:. This force is fighting to take control of the villages of Rumaich and Yaroun south of Bin Jubeil and close to the Israeli border.
The Eastern Sector: This force has split in two, with A Section fighting to cleanse three villages directly north and west of the northernmost Israeli town of Metulla: Kila, Deir Mimas and Taibe; and B Section, which has turned east up the western slopes of Mt. Hermon, to operate 16-18 km east of Metullah in the villages of Shouba, Shab’a and Rachaiya al Foukhar, east of the Litani River and north of Golan. This operation aims at sealing south Lebanon off to outside incursions from the east
The Western Sector: This force entered Lebanon near Zarit (where the Hizballah raid which sparked the war took place on July 12). After cleansing Yarin and Alama Chaab, this unit will head west to Naqoura on the Mediterranean coast to occupy a pocket no more than 2-4 km from the Israeli border.
Five points stand out from these military movements:
1. The IDF aims to carve out and control three enclaves along the Lebanese-Israel border in an area not yet cleansed of Hizballah fighters in nearly three weeks of combat.
2. The operation to push Hizballah out of the south past the Litani River is proceeding very slowly and is still in its early stages.
3. The IDF will need another 3 to 4 days just for the initial stage and the attainment of a strip no broader than 3-5 km from the Israeli border. Another 20 km of hostile territory remain to be traversed and neutralized before the Litani is reached. Therefore, the talk of winding this operation up by the end of the week, as some Israeli officials have suggested is totally unrealistic. While the 48-hour qualified halt in Israeli attacks induced a euphoric sense in some parts of Israel including the war was over, there is still a long way to go.
A more realistic estimate is up to 14 days. This fits with the time-scale Israeli defense minister Amir Peretz offered the US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice before she left the Middle East Monday, July 31.
4. Even if one of the three forces reaches the Litani, Hizballah concentrations will remain behind, the largest around the Mediterranean town of Tyre and its satellite Palestinian refugee camps. It is hard to imagine Israeli forces going in for a large-scale clean-out of this densely population enclave. Israeli commanders will prefer encirclement and siege. A decision will also have to be taken about the small town of Tebnine and the entire Jebel Amel mountain region of central Lebanon. Here too, Israeli tacticians may settle for artillery and aerial control over Hizballah’s ability to fire rockets from this stronghold.
5. The operation to control territory up to the Litani River is beset by a number of difficulties:
One: Hizballah has halted its rocket assault on northern Israel as part of the fog of war to keep Israeli guessing about its next steps. The Israeli air force was forced against its will by the policy-makers in government to release figures showing war gains that have degraded Hizballah’s war machine, such as two-thirds of its long-range Zelzal-2 missiles destroyed. But the fact remains that after three weeks of warfare, air force intelligence and AMAN cannot say for sure how many rockets, launchers and operators remain to Hizballah arsenal and where they are cached.
Two:> The IDF has not so far plumbed the full extent of Hizballah’s bunker network across Lebanon.
Three: After sustaining heavy losses, Hizballah still retains enough manpower to mount counter-attacks on Israeli tanks and armored infantry units as they advance. They will save themselves casualties by avoiding frontal attacks and rather harassing the advancing forces from the flanks and rear.
Four: Hassan Nasrallah and his Iranian sponsors are believed to still hold surprises up their sleeve, most likely preparing to land them in the small hours of Wednesday, August 2, when Israel’s limited suspension of air strikes expires.
Olmert did in fact make a point of warning that there is still some hard going ahead before the war is over and Israel has not seen the end of Hizballah’s rockets. The conditions for a multinational stabilization force to take over southern Litani are still very much up in the air. Until then, even after Israeli forces reach the Litani, the territory will remain volatile. More combat lies ahead to defend the pockets they have occupied.