Israeli Army Tries to Roust Hezbollah in Villages

There are now more than 3,000 Israeli soldiers on the ground fighting in southern Lebanon, soldiers here say, and they've pushed out from Maraun ar-Ras, a small Lebanese village just 11/2 miles from the Israeli border village of Avivim.

"Maroun al Ras is ours," says Israeli Army Capt. Siman Tov. "We're controlling it and preventing them from firing rockets to Israel and they're still firing at us. They're still resisting us."

Tov, 26, is a deputy commander of a mechanized infantry brigade. He and his soldiers have been moving their tanks and armored personnel carriers into the hilly terrain of southern Lebanon, on the outskirts of Bint Jbaill just a mile from Maroun ar-Ras. The Israeli artillery fire is incessant. Incoming fire seems random. Just down a small hill from where Tov is standing, a plume of white smoke curls skyward. It's the site of a Katusha rocket strike.

"Their firing is random. They're firing from everywhere they can," Tov says. "They don't have the power, they can't get outside to stand and shoot at us directly."

"We can see them firing from inside civilian areas in Bint Jbail," he says.

Tov says that the Israeli army is now in de facto control of the Bint Jbail area. But the fighting continues there, just inside the Lebanese border. And Hezbollah is proving to be a well-organized, savvy and tough enemy. Tov says his men have taken fire from Iranian-made laser-guide anti-tank rockets launched from 3 kilometers away and from shorter-ranged, armor-piercing rocket-propelled grenades.

" All across the borders they have snipers. Snipers that are shooting at us," Tov says. "We had two tank commanders shot down from snipers in the last two days."

Those tank soldiers were wounded but survived. Using high-tech unmanned aerial spotters as well as visual monitoring from the ground, the Israeli army is trying to destroy rocket launchers and kill the guerillas who are firing rockets daily into cities across northern Israel.

"Every time we go inside" Tov says, "they are moving, going deeper, and it's harder for them to launch."

But Tov concedes that unyielding air and artillery fire into the south has hardly eliminated the rocket threat. Hezbollah guerillas fired about 90 rockets into Israel today, more than 2,000 since fighting began nearly two weeks ago. Officials say that the Israeli Army has fired more than 20,000 artillery rounds in return.

But Tov says that many of the Hezbollah guerrillas slip away in underground passageways.

"The artillery is very good for missiles and rocket launchers in order to prevent them from shooting. In order to kill, them it helps," he says. "But we know a lot of them are going underground."

Analysts say that getting to those bunkers may take more airstrikes or more soldiers on the ground. But the Jewish state is reluctant to launch a major ground offensive, given Israel's long and bloody occupation of south Lebanon. But, Capt.Tov says, "we'll do everything we can, even if it costs us our lives, to protect our citizens."

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