The day Israel realised that this was a real war
When a bloody ambush in a Lebanese village ripped apart a squad of Israeli troops last week, the full reality of the fighting reached homes in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for the first time. But calls for a major offensive have reawakened painful memories of old defeats, and old losses, across the troubled border
Ian Black in Jerusalem, Inigo Gilmore in Nahariya and Mitchell Prothero in Beirut
Sunday July 30, 2006
It was five in the morning and the lead Golani Brigade squad was moving carefully through the outskirts of Bint Jbeil when a burst of automatic fire rang out. Hizbollah fighters engaged the Israeli patrol at close range with machine-guns and rocket-propelled grenades, from alleys, windows and rooftops. Two men died in the first moments; six more were killed over the coming hours. It was, one survivor said later, an 'ambush from hell'.
Sergeant Evyatar Dahan, shot through the shoulder, managed to kick away a live grenade seconds before it exploded but watched as his company commander was killed. 'It was terrible: the shooting went on and on and there was screaming from all directions,' the young infantryman recalled afterwards. 'We were like sitting ducks,' said another soldier.
After the initial shock, reinforcements arrived and air strikes were called in from across the border - just two kilometres south - to pin down the Lebanese Shia guerrillas. But it was seven hours before the wounded could be evacuated by helicopter, and only then under heavy fire. Hizbollah said its men could hear the Israelis screaming.
The men of C Company fortified a house and guarded their dead, to ensure they were not snatched as part of a macabre strategy of trading prisoners, alive, dead or dismembered. They eventually dragged eight corpses down a steep hillside under cover of darkness. 'We did everything we could to stop them getting to the bodies,' Sergeant Ohad Shalom told reporters, 'because we knew that, for them, that's the big prize. '
Two weeks into the fighting between Israel and Hizbollah, Wednesday's battle - 'the longest day', one newspaper called it - may have marked a bloody turning point. Indeed last night Israel announced it was pulling its ground troops out of Bint Jbeil, saying it had accomplished its objectives there and dealt a heavy blow to the militant group, but admitting it had paid a heavy price with the lives of Israeli soldiers. Heavy indeed, as it was a withdrawal, not a victory. Hizbollah fighters still hold Bint Jbeil.
The strangest war in Israel's history began almost by accident. In the safety of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, out of range of the rockets, it has had an air of bizarre unreality. Now it has become desperately real - a grim swirl of military funerals and interviews with grieving families.
Before Wednesday, Hizbollah rockets had killed 19 civilians, and 24 servicemen had died in earlier fighting, including the eight killed on 12 July, when two soldiers were also abducted in a signature Hizbollah operation. But the ordeal of Golani Battalion 51 has the makings of a myth - like the notoriously costly attack on Syrian positions on the Golan Heights in the 1967 war. Heroic it may have been, but it was painful too: 'like sticking a finger into boiling soup,' one commander complained. And it looks like triggering a more unpredictable war.
Even before Wednesday there was unease in Israel about the conduct of the fighting. Military experts called for larger ground forces, for more and bigger bombing raids on Hizbollah's rocket launchers, especially around Tyre, and for razing villages or hitting strategic targets further north.
But Ehud Olmert, like other Israeli politicians and generals, remembers only too well what happened in 1982, the last time young conscripts died for Bint Jbeil and scores of other Lebanese towns and villages. Twenty-four years on, the ghosts of Ariel Sharon's disastrous 'Peace for Galilee' operation have never been laid. Thus calls for a wider ground offensive were resisted at Thursday's cabinet meeting, where there were angry exchanges between ministers and generals. Still, orders for a large stand-by mobilisation of reserves suggests it will come - and probably sooner rather than later. The army is only using a tiny proportion of its strength, chief of staff Major General Dan Halutz, told the paper Yedioth Ahronoth on Friday.
Caution is certainly called for. Hizbollah spent the six years after Israel's withdrawal in 2000 building bunkers and tunnels and stockpiling rockets supplied from Iran and Syria - itself raising troubling questions about Israel's much-vaunted intelligence services as well as the judgment of the country's political leaders. 'Even if we did know what was going on, the withdrawal from Lebanon was more important that the Hizbollah build-up,' said one Israeli diplomat.
Halutz and other senior officers rebuff suggestions that the Israel Defence Forces have gone soft, lost their fighting edge or falling asleep on the job. 'There is nothing we didn't know,' the chief of staff insisted. 'It's not fair and its not right to attack our intelligence. We knew a lot.'
Hizbollah is said to have mined approach roads from Israel, honing techniques tried with devastating effect on American forces in Iraq. Their fighters, local men, have the advantage of familiarity with difficult terrain. Three regional commands have operational autonomy from Beirut. The IDF has a healthy respect for their weapons - including laser-guided anti-tank missiles capable of penetrating the armour of Israel's Merkava tank.
General Udi Adam, head of Israel's northern command, made a revealing slip of the tongue when he referred in a briefing to Hizbollah 'soldiers', quickly correcting himself to say 'fighters' instead. Israelis who sneer at rag-tag Palestinian 'terrorists' armed with little more than Kalashnikovs compare the Lebanese group to Iranian special forces that have studied their enemy's tactics and battle doctrine. 'This isn't like the war we fight in the territories [the West Bank and Gaza],' said another senior officer. 'This is a real war.'
So a large-scale invasion could play to Hizbollah's advantages. 'They don't want to take on Israel's military might head-on near the border, but to draw them in, extend their supply lines and then start hitting them,' suggested Timur Goksel, a Turk who served with UN peacekeepers in Lebanon for 20 years and watched Hizbollah win its spurs as the 'Islamic resistance' against Israeli occupation.
Israel claims to have killed 200 Hizbollah fighters so far, including several senior commanders. But the group is keeping quiet, aware of the power of misinformation and psychological warfare in a conflict like this. Its operational secrecy is formidable - vital to prevent the penetration by Israeli agents that has proved so fatal to Palestinian groups. 'After almost 20 years covering them, I have exactly one source in the Hizbollah military wing,' complained a Lebanese Shia journalist, 'and he tells me nothing.' Fighters have to meet stringent social, religious and aptitudinal requirements. Recruits often come from the same family or tribe to ensure loyalty.
Still, Israel is clearly far from being completely 'blind'. It reportedly intercepted a message from Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbollah leader, admitting he was taken aback by the scale of Israel's response. It knows enough to be able to bomb trucks bringing in supplies from Syria and Iran - but worries about exposing intelligence by trumpeting its successes. Some surprisingly detailed information about Hizbollah capabilities has certainly reached Israeli military correspondents. The most alarming concerns the Iranian Zelzal rocket, with a range of 150 to 210 km, capable of reaching Tel Aviv; Nasrallah's ominous threat to hit targets south of Haifa was assumed to be a reference to that.
The Israeli military clearly has its own agenda. But one independent expert believes Hizbollah is in trouble, though still capable of doing serious damage. 'To fire missiles at Israel you don't need a well-oiled chain of command,' said Professor Eyal Zisser of Tel Aviv University. 'One of the advantages of a guerrilla organisation is it doesn't need a complex system of command and control.'
Shocked by its losses, Israel is displaying a new determination to see this through, though nobody can say exactly what that means. 'What's our endgame?' said one senior government official. 'We're working on it now.' But before the end there looks like being a lot more bloodshed - cheered on by the public and media. 'Before any international agreement, Israel must sound the last chord, launching a massive air and ground offensive that will end this mortifying war, not with a whimper but with a thunderous roar,' urged the influential Haaretz columnist Yoel Marcus.
And the soldiers are showing no sign of weakness, boasting that Hizbollah's fighters may be the toast of the Arab world but can still be beaten. 'For us it's like rain,' said Colonel Ofek Bukhris after the men of Battalion 51 were buried. 'We got wet, but they got wetter. We were really smashed up. But they were smashed up worse. It wasn't a failure and it wasn't a black day. It was a fight between us and them. That's war.'