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Israel Downplayed Hezbollah's Arsenal

Israel's defense minister, his credentials already in question before the just-ended war in Lebanon, says the military downplayed the extent of the Hezbollah guerrilla group's missile threat when he took office, according to a newspaper report Thursday.

As public criticism of the war's handling mounted in Israel, the Haaretz daily quoted Defense Minister Amir Peretz as saying top military officers did not relay all relevant information about Hezbollah's arsenal after he took office in May.

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Hezbollah fired nearly 4,000 rockets at Israel during 34 days of fighting, including several medium-range missiles that for the first time hit Israel's third-largest city, Haifa. A truce Monday halted the violence that killed 39 civilians and 118 soldiers.

Security officials said the military command decided earlier this year, for budgetary reasons, to halt development of advanced systems that would have protected tanks against missiles. After Hezbollah's anti-tank missiles killed dozens of Israeli soldiers, the Defense Ministry and army have decided to develop and install the systems, the officials said.

They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the confidential nature of armaments development.

With the lull in fighting, the unity that held the Israeli public together during the war has shattered. Military commanders and armchair generals alike have begun questioning key decisions taken by Israel's wartime leaders.

Among the complaints are the terms of the truce, a heavy reliance on airstrikes in the early phase of the war and a massive ground offensive ordered as the cease-fire deal seemed imminent.

Peretz, head of the dovish Labor Party, has drawn more fire than Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and military chief Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz. Peretz is the only one of the three whom a majority of the public wants out, according to a poll earlier this week by the Dahaf Research Institute.

While some observers had welcomed the appointment of a civilian to head the Defense Ministry, others questioned the wisdom of choosing a former union boss who spent much of his brief and unremarkable military service fixing tanks.

"The appointment of Amir Peretz as defense minister was a crazy idea," political commentator Nahum Barnea wrote on the front page of the Yediot Ahronot newspaper Thursday, calling on him to resign.

Peretz, meanwhile, has appointed former military chief Amnon Lipkin-Shahak to review the handling of the war, but not his own conduct.

The Israeli army began handing over positions to the U.N. early Thursday, stepping up its withdrawal from southern Lebanon after the Lebanese government agreed to deploy troops near Israel's border for the first time in 40 years.

More than 50 percent of the areas Israel holds have been transferred already, the army said in a statement.

At the peak of the fighting earlier this week, some 30,000 Israeli troops had been in Lebanon.

U.N. vehicles crossed into Lebanon from Israel on Thursday as Israeli soldiers loaded tanks onto carriers for transport south. Enormous fields in northern Israel that had been full of tanks and artillery vehicles a day earlier were almost empty on Thursday.

Israel Humvees patrolled the northern border, while dozens of troops patrolled the northern town of Kiryat Shemona looking for unexploded Hezbollah rockets.

The U.N.-brokered truce authorizes up to 15,000 U.N. peacekeepers to help 15,000 Lebanese troops extend their authority throughout southern Lebanon, which Hezbollah had controlled before Israel invaded.

The aim is to create a buffer zone free of Hezbollah fighters between the Litani River, 18 miles north of Israel, and the U.N.-drawn border with Israel.

Following talks with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in New York on Wednesday, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Israel wanted the expanded U.N. force to help monitor the Lebanese border to prevent Iran and Syria from replenishing Hezbollah's weapons.

And in Washington, Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres said Israel had destroyed almost all of the militia's missiles, one-quarter of their short-range rockets and all the missile bases.

CountryWatch: Israel | Lebanon | Syria | Iran