Aug. 4, 2006. 05:30 AM

JERUSALEM—Is anything in this war-wracked region turning out the way it should?

Not if you ask some Israelis.

Yesterday, for example, a day after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared the enemy largely disarmed, Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon killed four Israeli soldiers and eight civilians — among their deadliest one-day outings in the war so far.

All of the civilian fatalities on the Israeli side yesterday resulted from Hezbollah rocket attacks, the same kind of attacks that helped trigger the fighting more than three weeks ago, and that days and nights of nearly relentless Israeli aerial and ground assaults have so far failed to reduce, never mind prevent.

"Hezbollah want to show that they still can," Herb Keinor, diplomatic correspondent for The Jerusalem Post said in an interview yesterday.

Five Israelis died when a Hezbollah rocket crashed near their car in the town of Akko, north of Haifa, and three others were killed in a rocket attack in Ein Yaakov, near the northern town of Ma'alot. It was the deadliest day of the war for Israel in 23 days of fighting.

"I expect to see a huge revenge," said Arnon Soffer, head of geostrategy at the University of Haifa. "We are going to win the war, and we will see the result in the next 24 hours."

But it's the last 24 hours, not to mention the last three weeks, that are weighing on Israelis now — a sobering time for the six million people of this small, almost permanently embattled land.

As the war grinds into its fourth week, many Israelis are growing frustrated at the painfully slow progress of a military operation that most expected would largely be finished long before now.

Some are also starting to question the proposed solution — a so far undefined buffer zone in southern Lebanon, to be patrolled by an international peacekeeping force of so far uncertain origin and with a still undefined mandate.

"I don't trust any international forces," said Ron Nachman, mayor of Ariel, the largest Jewish community in the West Bank. "What can an international force do?"

With the largest, best-equipped military in the region, Israel might have been expected to make short work of an improvised guerrilla outfit such as Hezbollah, but the Arab militants have proven themselves to be stubborn, fiercely determined adversaries, while Israeli forces have been hamstrung — in the view of many people here — by a reluctance to inflict any more civilian casualties upon Lebanon than necessary.

Otherwise, said Nachman, Israel's forces could have obliterated Hezbollah in three days at most. But international outrage would have been deafening, he said. "Everyone would be screaming at us. Canada would be screaming at us."

As it is, hundreds of Lebanese civilians have lost their lives in the fighting so far.

Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese people have fled the border region to escape daily Israeli aerial bombardment, almost constant shelling, and now the advance of more than 8,000 Israeli ground troops, whose main objectives are to disarm or kill Hezbollah fighters and destroy their military infrastructure.

And still the Hezbollah rockets keep whistling into Israel. More than 230 landed on Israeli soil on Wednesday, a one-day record in the fighting so far. Yesterday, more flurries of projectiles rained down upon the north of Israel, with an even deadlier result.

In the past, Hezbollah has mostly fired unsophisticated 122mm Katyusha rockets that have a range of only 25 kilometres or so. But now they are launching modified Katyushas that can fly considerably farther, as well as more advanced weapons with even longer ranges — 100 kilometres or more.

`If Israel would stop firing, Hezbollah would stop firing'

Herb Keinor, Jerusalem Post


The Israel Defence Forces estimate that Hezbollah possesses about 10,000 Katyushas and several thousand of the longer-range projectiles.

Hezbollah's enhanced firepower, and its dogged ability to keep launching the weapons despite the Israeli military's best efforts to prevent it, have caused some Israelis to wonder just what difference a security zone inside southern Lebanon is likely to make.

Won't Hezbollah's truck-mounted artillery batteries simply retreat farther north and fire their rockets over the heads of the international force? Who will put a stop to that?

"Their rockets are becoming more and more sophisticated," said David Newman, professor of politics and government at Ben-Gurion University and an expert on Middle Eastern border issues. "No 10- or 12-kilometre security zone is going to keep this stuff out."

The avowed purpose of the Israeli military offensive in Lebanon has been to wreak physical havoc upon Hezbollah but also to give the organization's leaders a lesson in military doctrine, Israeli-style.

Simply put: Hit us, and we will hit you back, very, very hard.

Israeli leaders want to ensure that Hezbollah thinks long and hard in future before it kidnaps any more Israeli soldiers, as it did last month, or lobs any more rockets into Israeli territory.

So far, the lesson does not seem to be sinking in, because Hezbollah just keeps unleashing barrage after barrage of Katyushas, seemingly no matter what Israel does.

Keinon at The Jerusalem Post believes the daily salvos of rockets soaring out of southern Lebanon will quickly end once Israeli forces stop their current offensive.

"If Israel would stop firing, Hezbollah would stop firing," he said.

"You go from whether Hezbollah can fire a missile to whether they will fire a missile."

In future, he predicted, "they'll think twice."

But neither Keinon nor just about anyone else in this country believes the conclusion of the current war — whenever or however it is achieved — will spell real security for Israel, much less peace for the Middle East.

"I don't think anyone deludes themselves that it's perfect," said Keinon, referring to the Lebanese buffer zone and international peacekeeping force that have been proposed as a solution to the fighting.

"It's not."

Many here question whether the international force will have the necessary muscle and scale to prevent arms shipments that Israel believes are flowing from Syria to Hezbollah.

Meanwhile, as long as Israel remains embroiled in its apparently intractable conflict with Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, few here see any chance of accommodation either with Hezbollah or with Syria or Iran, whose leaders remain committed to the eradication of the Jewish state, as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reiterated in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur yesterday.

"I don't see that peace can ever prevail in this region," said Soffer at the University of Haifa. "Talk to me about `conflict management.' Don't talk to me about peace."