(AP) - Israel's Security Cabinet convened Wednesday to likely approve a broader ground offensive in Lebanon, with key ministers arguing that the military must deal more blows to Hezbollah and score quick battlefield victories before a Mideast cease-fire is imposed.
However, a decision to send troops deeper into Lebanon is 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, reports Trend.
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 Kaplinski, 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 one person and wounding three others. 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. Security officials said all were feared dead.
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 689 people have died on the Lebanese side of the conflict.
The total number of Lebanese civilian deaths rose by 47 Tuesday as rescue workers pulled 14 more bodies from the wreckage of two buildings in south Beirut that were hit by Israeli missiles the night before. The toll in that attack now stands at 30.
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.