JERUSALEM, AP -Israel’s Security Cabinet approved a wider ground offensive in Lebanon, a Cabinet minister said Wednesday. Meanwhile, Arab satellite TV Al-Jazeera reported that 11 Israeli soldiers were killed in heavy fighting with Hezbollah guerrillas near the border in south Lebanon.
More Hezbollah rockets were fired at northern Israeli towns Wednesday — including several medium-range missiles that landed near the West Bank town of Jenin and south of the Israeli city of Afula — bringing the total during the conflict to 3,333, police said.
By mid-afternoon, the guerrillas had fired 132 rockets, but no casualties were immediately reported, said police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld.
Five of the rockets landed near a Palestinian town in the West Bank on Wednesday, Palestinian security officials said. There were no casualties.
The rockets landed near the village of Arabani, on the Israel-West Bank frontier, the officials said. Clouds of smoke from the rockets could be seen 12 miles away in the town of Jenin, witnesses said.
The Israeli army declined to comment on reports about the 11 soldiers’ deaths but said earlier that 15 soldiers were wounded in overnight clashes.
A Security Cabinet decision to send troops deeper into Lebanon would be fraught with considerable risk. Israel would set itself up for new criticism that it is sabotaging diplomatic efforts, particularly after Lebanon offered to deploy its own troops in the border area.
Also, a wider ground offensive might do little to stop Hezbollah rocket fire on Israel, while sharply increasing the number of casualties among Israeli troops.
An Israeli security official told Cabinet members the offensive could mean 100 to 200 more military casualties, a participant said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about the closed-door meeting. So far, 67 Israeli soldiers have been killed.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in principle supports a wider offensive, but is hedging because of concern about rising Israeli casualties, his aides have said. However, stepping up the military campaign appeared to have strong support in the 12-member Security Cabinet.
The ministers met a day after the commander of Israeli forces in Lebanon was sidelined in an unusual mid-war shake-up — another sign of the growing dissatisfaction with the military, which has been unable to stop Hezbollah’s daily rocket barrages.
The army denied it was dissatisfied with Maj. Gen. Udi Adam, but military commentators said the commander was seen as too slow and cautious. The deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky, was appointed to oversee the Lebanon fighting.
Under the army’s proposal for a wider offensive, troops would push to and in some cases beyond Lebanon’s Litani River, about 18 miles from the Israel-Lebanon border. With Cabinet approval, troops could move forward immediately, defense officials said.
More than 10,000 Israeli soldiers have been fighting several hundred Hezbollah guerrillas in a four-mile stretch north of the border, but have faced fierce resistance.
Earlier this week, the Israeli military declared a no-drive zone south of the Litani and threatened to blast any moving vehicles as guerrilla targets. Country roads and highways were deserted throughout the area on Wednesday. In the Lebanese coastal city of Tyre, only pedestrians ventured into the streets.
In attacks Wednesday, Israel’s military struck Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, killing at least two people and wounding five. Lebanese and Palestinian officials said an Israeli gunship shelled the Ein el-Hilweh camp, but Israel’s military said the attack was an airstrike that targeted a house used by Hezbollah guerrillas.
The camp is home to about 75,000 Palestinian refugees and their descendants who were displaced by the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
Israeli airstrikes also leveled a building in the Bekaa Valley town of Mashghara, trapping seven people from the same family under the rubble. Five bodies were pulled out and the remaining two relatives were feared dead, officials said.
Also Wednesday, Israeli warplanes dropped leaflets over Tyre again, and over Beirut proper for the first time. The flyers criticized Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, saying he was “playing with fire” and that the Lebanese people were “paying the price.”
A Hezbollah statement said the group killed or wounded 10 Israeli soldiers Wednesday and destroyed a tank as it advanced toward the village of Qantara, north of the Israeli border. The Israeli army said 15 soldiers were wounded in overnight clashes.
On Tuesday, at least 19 Lebanese civilians were killed in Israeli airstrikes. Rescuers pulled 28 additional corpses from the wreckage of attacks the day before, raising the death toll to 77 Lebanese killed Monday, the highest since the war began.
Israel reported five soldiers killed Tuesday but no civilians.
Diplomatic efforts were moving slowly, and Israeli Cabinet ministers pushing for a wider offensive said there’s no guarantee a cease-fire deal would, in fact, neutralize Hezbollah. Israel is particularly skeptical of a Lebanese proposal to dispatch 15,000 soldiers to south Lebanon after a cease-fire and the withdrawal of Israeli forces.
“We will not agree to a situation in which the diplomatic solution will not promise us stability and quiet for many years,” Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz told visiting German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
Hezbollah has fired more than 3,100 rockets at Israeli towns in a month of fighting.
Even the most dovish member of the Security Cabinet, Ofir Pines-Paz, agreed with Peretz.
“The relentless firing (of rockets) has to be stopped, and we have to take military measures to do this, if the diplomatic efforts are not working,” he told Israel Army Radio before Wednesday’s meeting.
Diplomatic efforts to end the war have been stop-and-go, and Lebanon’s proposal to deploy troops on the border appeared to have taken Israel by surprise.
Israel has long demanded a deployment of Lebanese forces in the border area, but only coupled with a serious effort by the Lebanese government to disarm Hezbollah. Israel believes Lebanese forces are not strong or determined enough to do the job alone, and would like to see a multinational force in the area, as well.
Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora praised Hezbollah’s resistance, but said it was time for Lebanon to “impose its full control, authority and presence” nationwide — as directed in previous U.N. resolutions that also called for the government to disarm Hezbollah.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the proposal was significant, but President Bush warned against leaving a vacuum into which Hezbollah and its sponsors are able to move more weapons.
While Bush said a U.N. Security Council resolution was needed quickly, the council put off for at least one day voting on a U.S.-French cease-fire proposal. The delay was to allow three leading Arab officials to present arguments that the resolution was heavily tilted in favor of Israel and did not “take Lebanon’s interest and stability into account.”
Both the U.S. and French envoys to the U.N. indicated there might be room for limited compromise.
“Obviously we want to hear from the Arab League … and then we’ll decide where to go from there,” U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said.
French U.N. Ambassador Jean-Marc de La Sabliere promised to take Lebanon’s stance into account.
Since the fighting began, at least 700 people have died on the Lebanese side of the conflict.
The death toll in an Israeli airstrike on a Shiite neighborhood in south Beirut on Monday has risen to at least 41, with 61 wounded, Lebanese security officials said Wednesday.
The Chiah suburb, next to a Christian area, had been spared attacks that left vast swaths of other southern suburbs in rubble. Many Shiite residents of Dahiyah had moved to Chiah because of its relative safety.
One of the most tragic stories was that of Ali Rmeity. He was badly wounded and winced with pain in the Mount Lebanon hospital near Beirut. Three of his children were dead and his only surviving son was in intensive care. He hadn’t been told because doctors said they feared the 45-year-old could not stand the shock.
The Israeli toll stood at 103 killed — 36 civilians and 67 soldiers. Fifteen Israeli soldiers were wounded in fierce nighttime battles in south Lebanon, the army said. Ten of the soldiers were lightly hurt.