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Israeli generals angry at Olmert's restraint

Harry de Quetteville / London Telegraph | Aug 1 2006

Ehud Olmert awoke yesterday to criticism from his own generals for agreeing to a 48-hour suspension of air strikes in Lebanon without their knowledge.

The Israeli prime minister ordered the halt to the air campaign after Sunday's bombing of a house in the Lebanese town of Qana which killed more than 50 civilians including dozens of children.

His directive came after a meeting with US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, who was forced to cancel the Lebanese leg of her tour after the bombing enraged leaders in Beirut.

But Mr Olmert's decision appeared less than co-ordinated with his senior officers who fear they are battling against the diplomatic clock to crush Hizbollah.

On Sunday night, many of them were insisting the air campaign would continue, even as the State Department announced in Washington that it would temporarily end.

The air force chief, Brig Gen Amir Eshel, vowed after the Qana bombing that he had no intention of ending sorties. Indeed, Israeli warplanes were still in the sky until minutes before the ceasefire, delivering their last payloads at 1.35 am yesterday before the 2am deadline.

Senior officers in the northern command were reported to have been taken by "complete surprise" by the ceasefire decision, with some learning of it through journalists.

Mr Olmert's concession to Miss Rice, and the breakdown of communication with his top brass, led to stern reprimands from the country's media. Many newspaper editorials also raged at international condemnation of Israel for the attack on Qana, and warned of the dangers if such criticism leads to a halt in the fighting.

"If Israel fails in this war, it will be impossible to continue to live in the Middle East," wrote the top-selling newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth. The mass circulation Maariv devoted its front page to a suggested speech for Mr Olmert to deliver to world leaders.

"What is it about us, the Jews, the few and persecuted, that arouses all these instincts of cosmic justice in you?" it read. "We are not hesitating, apologising or relenting.

"Gentlemen, it is time for you to understand: The Jewish state will no longer be trampled underfoot... I serve as a mouth today for six million bombed Israeli citizens, who serve as a mouth for six million annihilated Jews, who were burnt to dust by savages in Europe... And you, just as you did not take the matter seriously at the time, you are ignoring it now."

Yesterday Mr Olmert however let it be known that "we won't finish this war until it's clear that Hizbollah has no more abilities to attack Israel". With that in mind, Amir Peretz, the defence minister, announced that while air activity would be curbed, the ground offensive would be expanded. He said: "Under no circumstance will there be an unconditional and immediate ceasefire."

Ground operations have moved north-eastwards from the site of Israel's initial incursion, but still remain close to the border. According to military sources, Israel is hoping to have cleared a 1.5 mile-wide strip along its northern border of Hizbollah fighters and infrastructure by Thursday.

Privately, generals in the north are keen to increase dramatically the number of ground troops.

So far, Israel has concentrated its ground incursions on one area at a time. But three reserve divisions, totalling 15,000 men, were called up last week and are now completing refresher training. Mr Olmert refused to deploy them in a widespread ground offensive, as his generals had asked.

Under domestic pressure both from his generals and from the public to deliver a crushing blow to Hizbollah, and against the clock ticking in Washington, he appeared unlikely to refuse again.

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