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More voices beginning to question offensive

KIRYAT SHEMONA, Israel -- As Israel's offensive against Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon enters its third week, the government is coming under growing criticism at home.

Israel is sustaining heavy casualties -- nine soldiers were killed and at least 25 were wounded in southern Lebanon yesterday alone -- while the army has been unable to stop the rocket barrages on northern Israel that have killed 18 civilians in 15 days.

An Israeli airstrike that killed four UN peacekeepers in Lebanon and plans for a new 1.2-mile-deep buffer zone also have rekindled fears of a return to Israel's 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon, which ended in 2000 after the Israeli public grew exhausted with the mounting death toll there.

After Hezbollah guerrillas crossed the border July 12, killing three soldiers and capturing two others, there was nearly unanimous political consensus in Israel behind the government's decision to launch a large-scale offensive to crush the militant group.

But that consensus is beginning to crack, and critics are starting to say the government launched the offensive hastily, with no exit strategy. Many fear the country is again being dragged into a quagmire across its northern border.

``The war is leading us by the nose to sink deeper in the Lebanese mud. The Hezbollah wants to drag us into its territory. The moment the army will be in Lebanon for an extended period, it will be hell for us in there," said Ran Cohen, a dovish lawmaker and a colonel in the Israeli army reserves. ``The deeper we get drawn in, the worse it will be."

While Cohen called for a cease-fire, political hawks demanded a tougher military strategy, taking issue with Israel's decision to begin the offensive with airstrikes and artillery barrages and only later to send in ground troops.

``We should have begun moving troops on the ground right from the beginning, when the war started," said Moshe Arens, a former defense minister.

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