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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Israel Expands Offensive in Lebanon

JERUSALEM -- Israel's Security Cabinet decided Wednesday to vastly expand its ground offensive and send troops deeper into Lebanon in an attempt to deal more blows to Hezbollah and score quick battlefield victories before a Middle East cease-fire is imposed.

However, the decision -- approved 9-0, with three abstentions -- was fraught with considerable risk. Israel could 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.

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. The decision to broaden the offensive could also hasten a cease-fire resolution by the UN Security Council.

In the six-hour meeting, Cabinet ministers were told a new offensive could mean 100 to 200 more military casualties, a participant said on condition of anonymity.

So far, more than 70 Israeli soldiers have been killed.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's main concern in approving the new offensive was the growing casualty count, officials said.

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. On Wednesday, as the Security Cabinet met, Hezbollah fired more than 130 rockets, bringing the war's total to more than 3,300.

The army denied it was dissatisfied with Major General Udi Adam, but military commentators said the commander was seen as too slow and cautious to score a decisive victory against the guerrillas. The deputy chief of staff, Major General Moshe Kaplinsky, was appointed to replace Adam.

Under the army's proposal for a wider offensive, troops would reach beyond Lebanon's Litani River, about 29 kilometers 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 7-kilometer 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 two people.

Israeli airstrikes leveled a two-story building in Mashghara early Wednesday, trapping seven people from the same family under debris, security officials said. The family's sole survivor was the 80-year-old father, Ahmed Ibrahim Sader, who suffered serious wounds, they said.

Also Wednesday, Israeli warplanes dropped leaflets over the southern port city of Tyre again, and over Beirut proper for the first time. The identical flyers criticized Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, saying he was "playing with fire" and that the Lebanese people were "paying the price."