JERUSALEM—Hezbollah on Sunday fired its largest missile barrage yet into northern Israel—156 Katyusha rockets.
The missiles damaged buildings, caused minor injuries and sparked panic. But their biggest impact was the message they sent: after nearly three weeks of fierce Israeli aerial bombardment, Hezbollah is still standing.
With pressure mounting for a cease-fire—and Israel agreeing to a 48-hour suspension of airstrikes—Israel appears poised to fall short of its original goal of routing the militant group and preventing it from rising again as a threat.
"Hezbollah looks like the big winner here," said Dick Leurdijk, a terrorism expert at Holland's prestigious Clingendael Institute. "They are clearly winning the war for world public opinion. From a public relations point of view, Israel is doing a very poor job."
Analysts say Israel's failure to make quick work of Hezbollah after Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers on July 12 is likely to have long-term ramifications, emboldening Israel's opponents and shattering the regional belief that Israel's military is all but unbeatable.
"Militarily it looks pretty much like a stand-off," said Robert Lowe, manager of English political research center Chatham House's Middle East program. "From a public relations perspective, it looks like a crushing defeat for Israel."
Israel's military campaign has been full of setbacks from the start.
Although Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah had been proudly boasting that he planned to capture Israeli soldiers, and Hezbollah had tried it only a few months before, Israel appeared caught off guard by the July 12 Hezbollah ambush that ended with eight soldiers dead and two in enemy hands.
The following day, Hezbollah used an advanced rocket to, for the first time, strike Haifa, Israel's third largest city on its northern coast, proving that it had beefed up its arsenal.
Two days into the clash, Hezbollah hit an Israeli ship off the coast of Lebanon with a type of rocket Israel didn't even know the militant group possessed. Four Israeli sailors were killed, in part because the ship wasn't using sensors that might have detected the attack.
Last Tuesday, Israeli tanks and soldiers were caught off guard by another Hezbollah ambush as they tried to clear the southern Lebanese town of Bint Jbail, described by Israel as the militant group's capital.
The attack exposed fatal gaps in Israel's highly regarded intelligence gathering. The brigade entering Bint Jbail went in with information that there were, at most, 50 Hezbollah fighters left in the Lebanese village.
Instead, they were ambushed by perhaps 150. Eight Israeli soldiers were killed in the military's worst setback of the young operation. Young soldiers emerging from the battle reported begrudging respect for Hezbollah militants who put up a fierce fight.
Then on Saturday, Israel pulled back from the town, claiming to have completed its mission.
Despite more than 3,000 airstrikes that have ravaged parts of Lebanon, the number of Katyusha rockets Hezbollah lobs daily over the mountainous border remains at about 100 a day.
By most estimates, Hezbollah began the confrontation with at least 10,000 rockets in its arsenal. The Israeli military claims it has hit about half of them.
But that still leave the militants with enough firepower to keep hitting Israel with daily barrages for weeks.
Beyond the Katyushas that have killed 19 Israeli civilians and injured about 400, Hezbollah is thought to have a small number of longer-range missiles capable of hitting Tel Aviv.
Within the Israeli government, there's strong disagreement over how much damage the military campaign has done to Hezbollah. But many Israeli experts reject the contention that Hezbollah can or will emerge from this battle as the victor.
Efraim Halevy, the former head of Israel's Mossad intelligence agency, said Israel can't afford to lose.
"If Hezbollah emerges from this operation without it being clear and apparent that it has suffered a strategic and visible and most serious blow to its capacity, then the object of the operation will not have been achieved," Halevy said.
Uri Dromi, director of international outreach for The Israel Democracy Institute, said Hezbollah must be soundly defeated for Israel to restore its image as the most powerful military in the Middle East.
"Right now, I believe our military actions are working," he said. "When the dust settles, people will know Israel has not gone soft, as Nasrallah is preaching. They will know that whoever messes with Israel will pay."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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