Israel has ordered an expansion of its ground offensive in Lebanon aiming to strike harder at Hezbollah and curb its cross-border rocket attacks.
The decision was announced on Wednesday by the office of the prime minister, Ehud Olmert, after the cabinet voted to send soldiers deeper into Lebanon, possibly as far as the Litani river, up to 20km north of the border.
“The security cabinet approved the recommendations of the defence establishment for the continuation of operations in Lebanon,” the statement said.
The defence minister, Amir Peretz, had recommended a deeper thrust into Lebanon despite what media reports said were Olmert’s fears of heavy Israeli casualties in such a large-scale operation. Nine ministers approved the decision. Three abstained.
Israel already has about 10,000 troops in southern Lebanon, and it was not immediately clear how many more would be deployed in the widened military campaign. Olmert’s office said further details would be released in a separate statement.
Also on Wednesday, Aljazeera reported that 11 Israeli soldiers were killed by Hezbollah guerrillas.
The Israeli army declined comment on the reports that said the soldiers were killed near the Israel-Lebanon border.
But it had said earlier on Wednesday that 15 soldiers were wounded in overnight clashes, without specifying, on Tuesday or Wednesday.
So far over 70 Israeli soldiers have been killed.
Also on Tuesday, in a surprise step, on Tuesday, the army’s chief of staff appointed Major-General Moshe Kaplinsky “to co-ordinate operations in Lebanon”.
The move more or less sidelines Major-General Udi Adam, who has been the top commander of the Lebanon front and could come as a blow to the morale of Israeli forces.
Israeli media linked the appointment of Kaplinsky to mounting public criticism of the army’s handling of the battle against Hezbollah.
The naming of a fellow general to oversee the campaign was described in a headline in Israel’s Maariv daily as “an effective dismissal”.
Meanwhile Israeli fighter jets continued to hit targets in the north, east and centre of Lebanon before dawn on Wednesday, striking roads, bridges, fuel tankers and homes, police said.
Five children and their mother are believed to have died after an Israeli air strike hit a building in the town of Mashgara in the Bekaa Valley, Aljazeera’s correspondent in Lebanon said.
The dead were family members of a Hezbollah politician who was seriously wounded in the attack.
Earlier, at least one person was killed and more than 15 wounded after Israeli bombed a Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon.
Lebanese and Palestinian officials said an Israeli gunboat shelled the Ein el-Hilweh camp, but Israeli soldiers said the attack was an air strike.
Many of those injured were children, hospital sources said.