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Israelis Support Military Action in Lebanon

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Israel's military leaders say that the air attacks of the past six days have destroyed about a third of the estimated 12,000 missiles held by Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

It appears that Israel's leaders do not want to stop the attacks until nearly all of those missiles are destroyed.

NPR's Mike Shuster reports from Jerusalem, that it seems the Israeli's have had a plan ready for years, to do just that, but they've been waiting for the right circumstances.

MIKE SHUSTER reporting:

Israel withdrew its troops from southern Lebanon six years ago, and since that time, Israeli intelligence has been watching, as Hezbollah accumulated more and more missiles from Syria and Iran.

The Israelis drew up plans to destroy them years ago, but haven't had an opportunity to put those plans into action, until now, says retired Major General Eitan Ben-Eliyahu, a former air force commander.

General EITAN BEN-ELIYAHU (Israeli Air Force, retired): We were ready to act and we knew that one day, sooner or later, it's going to happen, because we knew about the transfer of these missiles from Iran to the Hezbollah in Lebanon. We should have done it before, but you know, we did not have the right circumstances to do it. And right now, they did what they did, they initiate this crime against our soldiers, and now we are acting.

SHUSTER: Even so, Israel was surprised when Hezbollah began to hit Haifa, 18 miles from the border, and towns even deeper into Israel.

Now there is a fear that some of the more advanced missiles that Iran sent to Lebanon may be able to reach as far as Tel Aviv. That makes Israel's determination to end the threat even greater, says General Eliyahu.

Gen. ELIYAHU: We have assumed that they have, also in their arsenal, they have rockets for longer range, and this is how we have to prepare ourself, and this is how we have to behave.

SHUSTER: Some of Israel's more than 2000 air sorties have gone beyond strictly Hezbollah targets, to hit infrastructure that affects all of Lebanon, with many civilian casualties.

The Israeli leadership believes their action is justified, because the Lebanese government has not acted to control Hezbollah.

What seems to be missing from the Israeli understanding, is just how weak and incapable the Lebanese government has become, in dealing with Hezbollah.

But Robby Sable(ph), a law professor at Hebrew University, argues, as many Israelis do, that this is the responsibility of the Lebanese government.

Prof. ROBBY SABLE (Law Professor, Hebrew University): International law reflects common sense. And in this case, the law is clear common sense law, that a state is responsible for military activities that come - emanate from its territory.

It could be either because it can't prevent it, or it doesn't want to. I think in the case of Lebanon, we have a bit of both.

SHUSTER: At the same time, some analysts acknowledge that this attack began, not just because two Israeli soldiers were abducted and others killed last week.

Gerald Steinberg, a well-known political analyst from Bar Ilan University, says that Israel was eager to send a strong signal to Iran.

Mr. GERALD STEINBERG (Political Analyst, Bar Ilan University): That these are the Israeli red lions, and Israel is not the kind of paper tiger that, at least Iranian decision makers talk about and seem to believe in. That it is a very, very dangerous game to be engaging in a conflict with Israel, and with nuclear weapons, it will become even much more dangerous for Iran.

SHUSTER: Many here believe that Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon six years ago and from Gaza last year, were viewed across the Middle East as weakness. Further, because Ariel Sharon was Israel's leader for most of the past five years, he was constrained from hitting Hezbollah in Lebanon because of his responsibility for Israel's disastrous invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

In the view of many Israelis, the government tolerated the threat from Hezbollah and its supporters in Syria and Iran, for too long. That is why, Gerald Steinberg believes, the current action, is for the moment, quite popular.

Mr. STEINBERG: The realization, not just the killing of the eight Israeli soldiers and the kidnapping of two at the beginning of the Hezbollah attack, but the understanding of the threat posed by the Hezbollah - Syria - Iranian combination, is felt throughout Israeli society. There's a realism there that this has to be done, regardless of who the political leadership is.

SHUSTER: This suggests Israel is not likely to respond positively to any pressure for a cease-fire, until most of Hezbollah's missiles have been destroyed, or unless Hezbollah unexpectedly decides to pull back from Israel's border.

Mike Shuster, NPR News. Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mike Shuster is an award-winning diplomatic correspondent and roving foreign correspondent for NPR News. He is based at NPR West, in Culver City, CA. When not traveling outside the U.S., Shuster covers issues of nuclear non-proliferation and weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and the Pacific Rim.