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Israel Approves Wider Offensive in Lebanon

Israel's 12-member Security Cabinet has voted Wednesday to expand Israel's ground operations in Lebanon. The decision comes as Israel replaced its top commander responsible for the current Lebanon offensive.

After a six-hour meeting, nine Cabinet ministers voted to approve a wider offensive, and three abstained from the vote. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert now has the authority to send Israeli troops as far north as the Litani River, about 20 to 30 kilometers inside Lebanon. At one point during Wednesday's meeting, Mr. Olmert left to hold a half-hour telephone consultation with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. There was no immediate comment on the subject of the talks.

Following Wednesday's cabinet session, Industry and Trade Minister Eli Yishai says the Lebanon operation could last as long as 30 days.

Yishai says that, if needed, the offensive could take longer, and that the immediate priority will be to stop the threat of Katyusha rocket attacks against Israel.

Currently there are about 10,000 Israeli troops deployed in the fight against Hezbollah militants. Israeli troops have so far penetrated about six kilometers inside Lebanon, although Israeli officials say they are not interested in holding territory, but rather are focusing on destroying Hezbollah's infrastructure.

For the first time since the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Israel has replaced a top general during ongoing offensive operations. The commander of the Israeli Defense Forces, Air Force General Dan Halutz has appointed his deputy, Major General Moshe Kaplinsky, to lead ground operations in Lebanon. He replaces the head of the Northern Command, Major General Udi Adam, who has been criticized in the Israeli media for poor deployment of ground troops.

In recent days Israeli troops have appeared to be increasingly bogged down in Lebanon, where Hezbollah militants have made effective use of sophisticated anti-tank missiles to inflict growing casualties on the Israelis.

Brigadier General Yossi Kupperwasser, who until last month was director of analysis for Israeli military intelligence says beating Hezbollah will not be easy.

"Crushing Hezbollah is not like ordering a pizza. It takes time," he said. "What we face is like an infantry division (approx. 10,000 troops) with state-of-the-art weaponry, including nightvision equipped rifles. It is like a well equipped infantry division made up of several brigades deployed along our border and totally guided with planning from Iranian revolutionary guards who are inside Lebanon."

Hezbollah militants continued their rocket fire into Israel on Wednesday. Israeli officials say since fighting began one month ago, Hezbollah has fired more than 3,000 rockets into Israel. More than 700 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in Lebanon, and more than 100 Israelis have been killed, including at least 36 civilians.