Even before Wednesday’s bruising day on the battlefields of south Lebanon, Israel’s leaders had begun scaling back public expectations of a decisive -- or a quick -- victory over the guerrillas of Hezbollah.
Heading into the confrontation, senior Israeli officials had declared that the Shiite Muslim militia would be dealt a blow from which it could not recover. Its arsenal would be destroyed and its fighters driven out of south Lebanon, the officials said.
Some spoke openly of killing Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, who triggered the confrontation two weeks ago by sending guerrillas on a deadly cross-border raid that led to the capture of two Israeli soldiers.
“We intend to break this organization,” Defense Minister Amir Peretz said of Hezbollah during the conflict’s first days.
The army’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, declared that Israel wanted to make it clear to the Lebanese “that they’ve swallowed a cancer and have to vomit it up.”
With the fighting in its third week, however, Israelis are being told that Hezbollah can be weakened but not eradicated, that Israeli forces will not be able to police the border zone themselves, and that Hezbollah’s rockets continue to pose a threat to Israeli towns.
“The target is not to totally dismantle Hezbollah,” said Public Security Minister Avi Dichter, a former head of Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security service. “What we are doing now is to try to send a message to Hezbollah.”
Yaron Ezrahi, a political analyst at Hebrew University, said that “the rhetoric from the political establishment was extremely overheated in the early days” of the confrontation.
“Now they are trying to calibrate people’s expectations, bring them more in line with what might actually be achieved,” he said.
The difficulty of the fight Israel faces was obvious on Wednesday, when nine of its soldiers were killed in southern Lebanon.
Days into the campaign, there was already widespread acknowledgment among Israeli policymakers and commanders that Israel could not achieve its goals by air power alone.
On the ground, in their first major forays into the border zone, Israeli troops this week encountered tougher-than-expected resistance -- and suffered heavy casualties.
Elite forces discovered an elaborate maze of fortified caves and tunnels from which Hezbollah fighters, armed with sophisticated weapons, were able to strike at will.
Israeli military intelligence officials believe about 150 Hezbollah fighters have been killed in the offensive. Hezbollah has not acknowledged such losses, which would be a substantial number, considering that the force’s hard core is thought to consist of only several thousand fighters.
Yet Hezbollah has maintained its ability to fight. A week ago, Israeli officials confidently said that they had destroyed large numbers of Hezbollah missiles and noted that the number of rockets fired into northern Israel was declining.
Instead, after a brief lull, the number of rockets launched at Israeli towns rebounded and the attacks have continued unabated, virtually shutting down a swath of the country that is home to nearly 1 million people.
Nineteen Israeli civilians have been killed by rocket fire; the latest was a 15-year-old girl killed Tuesday. Thirty-three soldiers have died in the fighting -- Israel’s largest combat losses in years over such a short span.
The Israeli public still has bitter memories of a steady drumbeat of deaths during the nation’s occupation of southern Lebanon in the 1980s and ‘90s. Returning to ground combat there remains a notion that many dread.
Now, with the ground campaign going slowly, influential military analysts have begun to criticize the choice of tactics used by Israeli commanders, notably the decision to use a relatively small force to try to take the Hezbollah stronghold of Bint Jbeil, only two miles from Israel’s border.
In Tuesday’s editions of the Maariv newspaper, Amir Rappaport wrote of the “enormous gap between the military challenge posed by Hezbollah, a shadowy guerrilla organization equipped with the best Iranian and Syrian weaponry, and the relatively smaller number of troops” that took part in the incursion.
“In the end, the size of the operation that was decided on -- neither several armored divisions that would surge in, nor an aerial operation alone -- is liable to claim many casualties without bringing about any dramatic military accomplishment,” Rappaport wrote.
A similar critique came from another influential military correspondent, Alex Fishman of the Yediot Aharonot newspaper.
“The public does not quite understand the ground offensive and has the feeling that something about this machine is not working -- that it is too slow, too limited, too many accidents, that it should look different,” he wrote Tuesday.
So far, Israel’s leadership has maintained public support for its war efforts. But some analysts predict that a drawn-out conflict could produce a backlash, even if the outcome eventually brings some long-term strategic benefits to the Jewish state.
“The government still generally has the public’s support, but we are seeing the start of some slippage now,” said Tamar Hermann of Tel Aviv University, who tracks changes in public attitudes.
“The growing number of casualties, the longer time frame, the fact that everything is getting messier.... What it all adds up to is an erosion in confidence about information given to the public by the authorities,” she said.
Israeli analysts acknowledge that Israel’s definition of victory is different from Hezbollah’s. In order to present itself as victorious, Hezbollah need only survive.
The group appeared to reap a propaganda bonanza when Nasrallah surfaced unscathed after Israel dropped 23 tons of explosives on what it claimed was an underground bunker in south Beirut last week. It was unknown whether he was there at the time.
By contrast, for Israel, claiming victory will require concrete achievements.
Yuval Steinitz, a member of the parliamentary Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, argued this week that the offensive already had reaffirmed Israel’s capability to deter attacks, fostering a sense in the region that the Jewish state would respond with overwhelming force to any assault on its territory.
But other observers said that any perception that the Israeli military had been bloodied by Hezbollah could be extremely dangerous, because it would embolden the Shiite group’s patrons -- Iran and Syria -- and perhaps others.
“We have to come out of this in a situation where Hezbollah is not able to claim any significant achievement,” said Yossi Alpher, a former intelligence official who co-edits the website bitterlemons.org.
“We have to make sure that the perception is that they didn’t achieve anything and brought destruction down on their country.”