Recoiling From Punishing Incursion, Israel Warns All South Lebanon

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JERUSALEM — Everyone remaining in south Lebanon will be regarded as a terrorist, Israel’s justice minister said yesterday as the military prepared to employ “huge firepower” from the air in its campaign to crush Hezbollah.

The warning came as the Israeli government decided against expanding ground operations following the death of nine soldiers in fighting on Wednesday.

“What we should do in southern Lebanon is employ huge firepower before a ground force goes in,” the justice minister, Haim Ramon, said at a specially convened security Cabinet meeting headed by Prime Minister Olmert.

“Everyone in southern Lebanon is a terrorist and is connected to Hezbollah. Our great advantage vis-a-vis Hezbollah is our firepower, not in face-to-face combat,” Mr. Ramon said.

Mr. Olmert said, “The army will continue toward the established goals.”

Mr. Ramon’s comments suggested that civilian casualties in Lebanon, which already stand at about 600 after 16 days of bombardment, could rise yet higher.

The government’s unrelenting line has the backing of the Israeli press, which is demanding a harsh response to an ambush, in the Hezbollah stronghold of Bint Jbeil, in which eight soldiers died. The country’s biggest selling paper, Yediot Achronot, said the Israeli army has raised the threshold of response to Katyusha rockets: “In other words: A village from which rockets are fired at Israel will simply be destroyed by fire. This decision should have been made and executed after the first Katyusha. But better late than never.”

Three divisions of reserve soldiers, up to 15,000 men, are to be called up.

Almost 50 Hezbollah missiles landed in northern Israel yesterday, wounding four and bringing the total number of rockets fired into the country to about 1,400.

[Israel’s government authorized the army to call up 30,000 reserve soldiers in case the fighting intensifies, the Associated Press reported.]

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