Israel is now planning a significant expansion of its proposed security zone in southern Lebanon. After a late-night cabinet meeting, Israeli officials announced their intention to send troops as far north as the Latani River, nearly twenty miles inside Lebanese territory. Previously, Israeli government spokesman indicated that the security zone might be only two miles wide, covering a narrow strip along the border between Israel and Lebanon.
Does this represent a change in Israeli intentions and planning? Yes and no. When the conflict with Hizballah began about thre weeks ago, Israeli planners talked in terms of an extended security zone--stretching from the border to the Latani River. However, those plans were apparently curtailed when IDF troops encountered stiff resistance in cross-border raids against terrorist positions. As recently as last weekend, at least one Israeli spokesman spoke of a down-sized security border, prompting more than a few western analysts to scratch their heads. With Hizballah now using longer-ranged rockets against Israeli targets, a two-mile boundary seemed hardly worth the effort. There were even whispers that the IDF was "losing the war."
But such assessments were premature, for a variety of reasons. First, Israeli reserves were not available in sufficient quantities to expand operations across the border. Now, with more reservists available for duty, the IDF has the necessary force to expand its operations in Lebanon, deploying the division-size force required to push towards the Latani River. Secondly, many armchair analysts confused immediate objectives with longer-term goals; that two-mile security zone was a short-term goal, aimed at keeping Hizballah away from the immediate border region, slightly reducing the number of rocket attacks, and making it easier for IDF units to marshal on the Israeli side.
Additionally, the initial assessments failed to account for potential Israeli disinformation and perception shaping efforts. Facing an entrenched enemy in south Lebanon, the IDF high command realized that rooting out Hizballah would require an extended fight, over a period of weeks, even months. There would not be a quick victory in southern Lebanon, so it became necessary to recalibrate the Israeli public expectations for a longer conflict. On the other side, concerns about "stiff resistance" may have been intended (in part) to embolden Hizballah, enticing them to launch increased attacks and expose more of their fighters--particularly, their rocket launch crews--to Israeli counter-strikes. There has been a dramatic decrease in terrorist rocket attacks against Israel in the past 24 hours, suggesting that IDF strikes are having an impact, or (at the least) Hizballah is signalling its willingness for some sort of deal.
Finally, the Israelis are displaying the sort of operational flexibility needed to fight--and win a modern military campaign. As conditions on the ground improve (and more IDF units move into Lebanon), Israel is prepared to capitalize on the situation, and extend their security zone well past its northern border. That was probably the plan all along, but the Israelis understand that war is a fluid business. Sometimes, it's necessary to temporarily adjust operational goals, and create a little fog on the battlefield to boot. In the days to come, it will be interesting to see if Hizballah took the Israeli "bait," committing much of its forces to the border battles, and leaving insufficient force to deal with deeper Israeli thrusts. We'll soon discover if Hizballah is acquianted with the concept of "defense in depth."