Eighteen days into the stalemate in Gaza, and this morning (not to anyone's surprise, and as I predicted in my June 29 post) we have heard from Hizbollah on Israel's northern border. In another blow to IDF operational efficiency, 3 Israeli soldiers were killed and two soldiers were abducted from their armored Hummers during a massive morning Hizbollah mortar attack, 4 more soldiers killed in the immediate effort to free the abductees, and now the state of Israel faces its worst military scenario since April 2002. Today was not only a day of death for the Israeli army: the death toll on the Palestinian side in Gaza's "Summer Rains" operation has probably reached 100, and a significant number of innocent civilians are amongst the casualties (today a mother and her 5 children were among the 23 killed by Israeli missile fire).
So along with the Gaza standoff, the sense that the neophyte Israeli political leadership is completely out of its depth, and that the IDF is vulnerable to humiliating attacks, is compounded by Hizbollah joining the fray. All domestic civil flights to northern Israel have been suspended and northern residents have been ordered into shelters. The Israeli air force has this morning flown 17 sorties into south Lebanon, blowing up infrastructure as far north as the Litani and Awali rivers.
Israeli news web sites are reporting that the IDF's Chief-of-staff Dan Halutz is recommending a reserve call-up, for now Israel is confronting a two-front guerilla war - abductions in the south and in the north, Qassams from the south and Katyushas from the north. The IDF has moved most of its standing army to cordon off Gaza; any significant ground action into Lebanon will require reservists. Be certain of this: given the severe economic impact that a reserve call-up places on the Israeli workforce and economy, expect to see action sooner rather than later.
HAMAS spokesmen have congratulated their counterparts to the north. Short of reoccupying both Gaza and southern Lebanon, PM Ehud Olmert has only one viable option (which he is unlikely to choose, but which I would recommend): arrange as quickly as possible a massive prisoner release, now doubled to include not only HAMAS detainees, but also Hizbollah detainees. Israel has certainly gone this humiliating route before...it is time to do so again. The other unpalatable option involves the likely envelopment of Syria (which provides moral and operational support to both HAMAS and Hizbollah - hence the threatening flyover of the Syrian presidential summer palace 2 weeks ago) into the quagmire. It is impossible to know what is going on in Damascus, and it is also possible that today's development transpired without direct Syrian intervention, but more and more it will appear to Israeli analysts that the Syrians are using surrogates to challenge the bumbling Israeli leadership. And precisely because it is new and untested, and clearly fumbling under the pressure, expect the Israeli leadership to opt for a show of muscle. After all, Olmert is no Sharon, and he will feel compelled to demonstrate he can't be kicked around early in his tenure as PM; the IDF staff, humiliated a second time in less than 3 weeks, is itching for a chance to display its lethality. The potential here for full-scale state-to-state warfare has increased this morning dramatically.