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Israeli Commanders Gloomily Assess Lebanese Campaign

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Israeli troops continue to battle Hezbollah guerillas in southern Lebanon today, but plans for a larger ground assault have been put on hold while diplomats work at the U.N. In the meantime, Hezbollah continues to fire rockets into northern Israel. A woman and her young child were killed in an Israeli Arab village today. A senior Israeli officer said the fighting could continue for some time.

NPR's Anne Garrels reports.

ANNE GARRELS reporting:

In the absence of a diplomatic solution, Israeli General Ido Nehushtan said today the fighting will not be a matter of days, but maybe weeks or even months. He acknowledged Israel has not yet been able to stop Hezbollah's shorter-range missiles, and he doesn't expect a complete end to the Hezbollah threat.

General IDO NEHUSHTAN (Israeli army): They need to finish enough victories at place. Nothing like a white flag will arise from the bunker of Nashrallah, because these are extremists. They are willing to go all the way. And residual casualty will probably be there.

GARRELS: He called Hezbollah a terrorist army that is well supplied by Syria and Iran.

General NEHUSHTAN: We come to the understanding in the last two weeks that we have been doing that, that the Hezbollah has built and planned and prepared for this operation or this kind of war that we have now, and very thoroughly.

GARRELS: He pointed to their high-tech weaponry, especially Russian anti-tank weapons, which he said have been refined by Iran. He calls them the best in the world. They've caused most of the Israeli casualties.

According to other Israeli briefers just back from Lebanon, Hezbollah fighters have proved elusive. A guerrilla will use a scooter to reach a pre-planted rocket, set it off with a timer, and get out of the area before it's launched. Israeli troops say they've also found rockets that can be set off remotely by computer.

(Soundbite of rocket fire)

GARRELS: Between landing rockets and outgoing Israeli artillery fire to cover the movement of Israeli troops, the noise is relentless.

(Soundbite of crowd)

GARRELS: In the shelters, the prospect of this going on for much longer is more than most can take. Despite pleas the government evacuate them, more than 5,000 are still stuck in Qiryat Shemona, a town that's been hit hardest. The mayor says he's been threatened by desparate residents, but he says despite earlier promises, the government has not provided enough funds for everyone to leave, even if only for a break.

Ms. LEE AZOHAYON(ph) (Israeli Shelter Resident): (Speaking foreign language)

GARRELS: After a month in the cramped, fetid shelter, 12-year-old Lee Azohayon calls the conditions disgusting, because there's a problem with the sewage system. Her sister can't come to the shelter because it aggravates her asthma. Her father has stopped sleeping here because of the smell.

52-year-old Dov Sinai(ph) is furious with the U.N. for doing nothing over the past six years as Hezbollah dug in and armed itself despite a U.N. resolution. He's also angry with the Israeli government for tolerating or ignoring the build-up. He says he's going to say in Qiryat Shemona just to stick it to Hezbollah.

Mr. DOV SINAI (Israeli Citizen, Qiryat Shemona): They really psychologically know how to (expletive) the people in this area, and I won't be (expletive), or at least I try not to be.

GARRELS: Nighttime's the safest. He races to his apartment, takes a quick shower, and then comes back to the shelter. Two thirds of the population in the north has fled, businesses are closed, and the prospect reservists will be on duty for some time more means big economic losses.

In the center kibbutz, 62-year-old David Harris has kept his toilet-paper factory open, but half his workers have either been called up or they've fled. He's paying those who stayed almost double their normal salary.

Mr. DAVID HARRIS (Factory Owner, Israel): But I would say we produce between 40 to 50 percent of the regular outcome, maybe even less.

GARRELS: Whatever compensation he gets from the Israeli government will not make up for the extra cost and his losses, and he's not sure an expanded ground war will be worth the cost in lives.

Mr. HARRIS: I don't think it will be much better than it is now, the outcome. Maybe we should settle for some agreement, knowing that this is not the end, but be better prepared for the next round. This time, it's not going well.

GARRELS: Anne Garrels, NPR News, northern Israel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anne Garrels