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Israel Begins to Mobilize Reservists

Times Staff Writers

Israel said Thursday that it was calling up at least 15,000 reservists, as a senior official asserted that the lack of an international consensus on a cease-fire in Lebanon amounted to “permission from the world” for Israel’s campaign against Hezbollah.

But the Israeli government decided, at least for now, against widening the offensive in Lebanon, even though the decision on reservists suggested that the option was still on the table.

Israeli warplanes hit targets throughout Lebanon, including an army base and a radio relay station, and Hezbollah again fired dozens of rockets into towns along Israel’s northern border. No serious injuries were reported.

And Israeli ground forces continued battling for control of a strategic Hezbollah stronghold about 2 1/2 miles inside Lebanon, where nine Israeli soldiers died a day earlier.

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The large-scale Israeli troop call-up came the day after a meeting of high-level diplomats failed to bring about a demand for an immediate cease-fire, an outcome Israel interpreted as a green light to continue its offensive, Israeli officials said.

The meeting in Rome ended inconclusively, with the United States and Britain willing to give Israel more time to pursue Hezbollah while most European leaders urged an immediate cease-fire.

“We received yesterday at the Rome conference permission from the world ... to continue this operation, this war, until Hezbollah isn’t present in Lebanon, and until it is disarmed,” Justice Minister Haim Ramon told Israel’s Army Radio. “Everyone understands that a victory for Hezbollah is a victory for world terror.”

At the White House, President Bush was asked whether he agreed with Ramon’s comments.

“I believe this. I believe that ... the Middle East is littered with agreements that just didn’t work. And now is the time to address the root cause of the problem. And the root cause of the problem is terrorist groups trying to stop the advance of democracies.”

Bush spoke on the same day that Al Qaeda’s second in command, Ayman Zawahiri, vowed that his network would attack Israel and U.S. targets to avenge the offensives in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.

He also called for Sunni and Shiite Muslims to put aside their sectarian animosities and liberate “the whole of Palestine.”

“We cannot watch these rockets raining down fire on our brothers in Gaza and Lebanon and remain inactive and submissive,” Zawahiri said in a videotape aired Thursday on the satellite TV channel Al Jazeera.

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The call for Muslims to unite came on the day that Hezbollah’s strongest backers, Syria and Iran, were holding meetings in Damascus, though it was unclear whether the talks in the Syrian capital were intended to rein in the militia or encourage it to intensify the fight against Israel. Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah also arrived in Damascus on Thursday, the Kuwaiti newspaper Al Seyassah reported, quoting Syrian official sources.

The newspaper said Nasrallah was wearing plain clothes, rather than his normal clerical vestments, and was escorted to an expected meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad in a car belonging to the Syrian intelligence services.

Israeli commentators said that in holding off on a large-scale ground offensive, Israel might be trying to avoid entangling Syria in the conflict. The Syrian government has clearly signaled that it would regard such an offensive, particularly involving troop movements close to its own borders, as a threat.

In Israel, participants at a meeting Thursday of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s “security Cabinet” said that the government authorized the call-up of three reserve divisions, which at full strength could consist of as many as 15,000 troops each.

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But the army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, later said about 15,000 reservists from the three divisions would be called up, indicating that not all were at full troop strength. He described the step as meant to “prepare us for all options.”

Although the call-up was already beginning, any deployment of the mobilized reservists would require Cabinet approval.

At times of crisis, Israel relies on its reserves to bolster the standing army, which is thought to number about 100,000 regular troops. The reserves number about five times that; men are eligible for call-ups until about age 40.

Since the start of the offensive, the army has mobilized as many as 18,000 reservists, according to Israeli media reports; the army does not release the precise numbers.

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In the meeting of Olmert’s top advisors on military and national security, the prime minister insisted that Israel was attaining its war goals, participants said. But there was heated debate about whether Israel’s air and ground onslaught was working, and the advisors did not authorize a broader offensive.

Options, military experts said, would include even more intense firepower from the air, which already has claimed hundreds of civilian lives. Or Israel could mount a major ground offensive from one or more points along the country’s 50-mile northern border with Lebanon. A third option would be to press ahead with relatively limited, localized ground forays, even though such operations have proved difficult and costly in terms of casualties.

Amir Rappaport, military affairs correspondent for the mass-circulation Maariv newspaper, wrote of the “increasing criticism inside the IDF [military] about the political echelon’s decision to perform the operation inside Lebanese territory with limited forces.”

“Either enter with large-scale, division-level forces and crush Hezbollah, even at a higher toll of casualties, or do not enter at all,” Rappaport wrote.

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In his radio comments, Ramon, the justice minister, also offered a larger glimpse of Israeli thinking on the question of how to avoid military casualties on a scale of those suffered Wednesday in fighting in the town of Bint Jbeil and the adjacent village of Maroun el Ras.

Asked about the intense aerial bombardment of villages and the endangering of their civilian populations before a possible movement of troops into the area, Ramon replied, “These places are not villages. They are military bases from which Hezbollah people are hiding, and from which they are operating.”

A senior military officer also appeared to cast at least some of the blame on those civilians who were unable or unwilling to take to the perilous roads leading out of their villages.

“Those who stay have apparently decided to take the risk, or are being held by Hezbollah, which has accepted the risk on their behalf,” said Brig. Gen. Alon Friedman, deputy head of the army’s northern command headquarters. “We have no intention of hitting innocent civilians and will do all possible to avoid harming them, but the fighting has a price.”

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Israel has ordered people in a swath of southern Lebanon extending up to the Litani River -- about 20 miles from the border -- to leave their homes, but many are trapped, and many have found themselves caught in airstrikes when they obey the directive and try to flee.

In Israel, more than 80 Hezbollah rockets fell across the country’s northern tier, leaving 19 people with minor injuries. One strike set a factory on fire in the border town of Kiryat Shemona, sending leaping flames and choking smoke skyward. No one was inside at the time.

For the fourth day, Israeli ground forces battled for control of Bint Jbeil, a key regional center of Hezbollah support that the army says is used for launching Katyusha rockets into northern Israel.

In a briefing for reporters in the northern Israeli town of Safat, Brig. Gen. Shuki Shihrur said the army also was operating in four other villages along the border as part of Israel’s move to push Hezbollah guerrillas from a 1.2-mile-wide strip along the border.

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He said the purpose of the Bint Jbeil battle was to control the town, not to occupy it.

“We didn’t want to conquer Bint Jbeil. We did not intend to conquer Bint Jbeil,” Shihrur said.

“The mission was to control the town from outside.”

In other matters, Shihrur said the airstrike Tuesday that killed four U.N. observers at their outpost in Khiam came after an Israeli commander mistakenly approved the position as a target.

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“It was a mistake when somebody in the chain of command didn’t identify the target” as a U.N. facility, he said. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan accused Israel of hitting the post deliberately, and the U.N. Security Council issued a statement Thursday saying it was “deeply shocked” by the bombing.

An army spokesman said the incident was under investigation.

Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said “intensive efforts” were underway to free an Israeli soldier whose capture June 25 prompted Israel to launch its monthlong offensive in Gaza.

Israeli strikes Thursday killed three Palestinians there, bringing the two-day death toll to 26, as a European Union envoy offered her organization as a potential mediator to end the violence.

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“We are ready to play the role of the go-between,” the EU commissioner for foreign relations, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, said during a visit to Gaza City.

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King reported from Jerusalem and Kennedy from Beirut. Times staff writers Ken Ellingwood in Safat, Ashraf Khalil in Gaza City, Kim Murphy in Damascus and Walter Hamilton at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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Begin text of infobox

No wider war ... for now

Israel will not enter Lebanon with a larger force, at least for the moment, but has authorized the call-up of more reserves. Fighting rolled on for a 16th day in Lebanon and Israel, with airstrikes and rocket attacks continuing.

Lebanon

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Israel continued to press its assault, hitting targets around the country, including in Tyre, at a Lebanese army base north of Beirut, in the eastern city of Rayak and north of Nabatiyeh -- where Hezbollah reportedly has bases. Fighting continued for a fourth day in Bint Jbeil, a key regional center of Hezbollah support and a reported launch base for Katyusha rockets fired into Israel.

Israel

The government opted not to mount a full-scale invasion of Lebanon, at least for now; but Israel’s army chief of staff said 15,000 more reservists could be called to duty. Attacks continued, with more than 80 rockets falling in the northern portion of the country, including on the town of Kiryat Shemona.

Gaza Strip

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Israeli attacks killed three people. The European Union offered to serve as a mediator between the Palestinians and Israel. Israeli tanks and bulldozers remained in Gaza, where they have been working to clear orchards and other spots militants are accused of using as cover to launch rockets.

Diplomacy

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in Malaysia for a regional security meeting, said she was ready to return to the Middle East when convinced that she could effect a lasting peace. President Bush said he wanted to end the fighting as soon as possible but not at the cost of a “fake peace.”

Death Toll

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Lebanon: At least 437 dead: 382 civilians, 20 Lebanese soldiers and 35 Hezbollah fighters

Israel: 52 dead: 33 military personnel and 19 civilians

Others: Four U.N. observers, a U.N. civilian employee and his wife

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Sources: The Associated Press, Reuters, BBC, Times reporting

Los Angeles Times


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