Reports out of South Lebanon indicate fierce fighting between Hizballah and Israeli forces in the town of Bint Jbeil, 2.5 km from the Lebanese border. By various accounts, between eight and 13 Israeli soldiers have died in combat over the past 24 hours, and more than 30 have been wounded. Some of the fighting has occurred at extremely close quarters, with Hizballah terrorists blowing themselves up as they engage Israeli troops in combat.
It should be noted that none of these casualty totals are official. One terrorist spokesman claimed that 20 Israeli soldiers were "burned alive in their tanks on our soil." Such claims are dubious; even with a significant arsenal of anti-armor weapons, it is doubtful that Hizballah destroyed enough tanks or APCs to inflict that many casualties. Additionally, many of these reports are coming from media outlets (such as Dubai TV) that are vehemently anti-Israel, and will print or publish terrorist claims without blinking. Readers will also note that none of these dispatches mention Hizballah casualties. At least one media report indicates that the organization's #2 commander has been killed by Israeli forces, suggesting that Hizballah is also suffering significant losses.
Sadly, the IDF will lose more of its heroes in the day to come. Hizballah has had years to prepare the battlefield of southern Lebanon, creating scores of ambush sites and booby traps that must be neutralized as Israeli troops advance. Eventually, the IDF will overwhelm the terrorists--and Hizballah understands that. The question is: how high a price is Israel willing to pay to recapture the land between its northern border and the Latani River.
And, quite frankly, that's what the terrorists are counting on. By Hizballah's calculations, Israel remains psychologically scarred by its 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon, and (like the U.S) remains sensitive to combat losses. Inflict enough casualties, the logic goes, and Israel will eventually agree to some sort of cease-fire that allows Hizballah to retain a presence in Lebanon, rearm, and live to fight again.
It's a daring gambit, but only time will tell if Hizballah has calculated correctly, or grossly overplayed its hand. Late today, a senior Israeli general indicated that the incursion into south Lebanon will continue for at least several weeks, indicating that Tel Aviv is more than willing to press its attack, and suffer the losses that will inevitably occur. Yet, on the other hand, PM Olmert suggested today that Israel would accept some sort of settlement that would create a two-kilometer security zone beyond its northern border. Creation of that zone would, according to Olmert, prevent terrorists from launching rockets into northern Israel and contacting IDF patrols in the border region.
The size of that security zone seems rather small, given Hizballah's recent acquisition of longer-ranged rockets, and the inability of existing peace keeping forces to keep terrorists away from the border. Of course, the Israeli calculus may be predicated on the eradication of Hizballah, and the eventual deployment of a capable, NATO-led security force. But those events are still weeks (perhaps months) away. Until then, Israel faces a tough slog through Bint Jbeil and other terrorist strongholds. We should only hope that Israel's latest test by fire hardens their resolve, and makes them more determined to finish the job, whatever the cost.