In a War It Cannot Win, Israel Tries New Tactics
Last month's big loss of soldiers in Lebanon highlights shift toward guerrilla warfare.
INSARIYEH, SOUTHERN LEBANON — When it came, the Israeli commando raid deep into southern Lebanon was no surprise to local villagers.
They had been tipped off early: Unmanned Israeli planes had buzzed overhead for days, casing the area; and Israeli jet fighters, helicopters, and offshore patrol boats had focused too much attention here.
So when 16 naval commandos - members of Israel's elite Flotilla 13 unit wearing dark scuba suits and black raiding gear - crept ashore after midnight Sept. 5, they stumbled headlong into disaster.
Israel has increasingly used unorthodox, go-get-'em tactics against Lebanese Islamic guerrillas of Hizbullah and Amal, essentially trying to regain the upper hand in southern Lebanon by countering the guerrillas with guerrilla warfare.
As the last "hot" front line in the Arab-Israeli conflict, violence here has the potential to disrupt the entire Mideast peace process.
But despite some Israeli successes - and more reliance on risky deep-penetration raids and roadside bombs - Israel has been unable to reverse its fortunes. That point was made most clearly here last month, and again yesterday when two Israeli soldiers were injured in a bomb attack.
Even in the annals of this long-running conflict, the botched Israeli raid that ended in the deaths of 12 commandos at Insariyeh holds a significant place. For Israelis, it has sharpened a long-running debate about whether their troops in Lebanon - deployed to create a nine-mile-wide buffer to protect northern Israel - attract more attacks than they deflect, and should be withdrawn.
Several events led to the failure. The Israeli target was a meeting of high-level Amal militia chiefs, several miles north of Israel's occupation zone, deep inside sovereign Lebanese territory.
Security was tight, local sources say, and the commando squad was apparently slowed by a gate set up earlier in the day.
They were also surprised by the headlights of a passing car, and killed the driver with rifle fire.
Then one land mine carried by the raiders went off unexpectedly, triggering at least nine others, killing many in the team and sounding the alarm.
Reports also surfaced in Israel of an intelligence leak that led to a well-planned ambush laid for the Israelis.
The result was Israel's biggest loss in Lebanon in more than a decade. Israeli troops, says one Western military analyst, could only "slump further into their chin straps."
Though the battle site is picked clean of "souvenirs," curious Lebanese often stop by to see where the Jewish state was dealt a rare defeat.
So far this year, Israel has lost more than 35 troops in combat, and another 73 were killed when their helicopters collided en route to the battle zone in February.
"Nobody likes to be on the defensive all the time," the Western analyst says. "It's really a no-win situation for them, and only a matter of time before Israeli morale gives out altogether."
For Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the chief of Hizbullah, the failed raid was an example of popular support: "During the Insariyeh attack, the citizens came down the streets brandishing their weapons ready to fight the enemy," he said in a speech afterward.
"Do you remember the time when people used to bury their weapons and escape to Beirut when Israeli forces attacked?" he asked. "We are getting stronger."
Still, Israel says its aggressive tactics are paying off, and point to a "successful" raid in August in which commandos used roadside bombs - believed triggered by a drone flying overhead - to kill five guerrillas, including two senior Hizbullah officers.
Israel notes that Hizbullah carried out 104 operations in July, more than any other single month for years, according to Jane's Intelligence Review in London. But "only four were close-quarter ambushes, with the rest being [safer] long-range missile or mortar attacks," the Review says. Maj. Gen. Matan Vilnai, Israel's deputy chief of staff, was quoted in the journal describing Israel's problem: "We have no illusion," he says. "You won't defeat Hizbullah, you won't exterminate them, they won't start loving you. They'll continue to be there, living their miserable lives. Our mission is to stave off their attacks, which we do."
The fundamentalist Hizbullah, or Party of God, is supported and funded by Iran, and allowed to operate with Syria's blessing. The increasingly active Amal militia is controlled by Syria.
Israel's own guerrilla tactics stem from the command of Maj. Gen. Aviram Levine, who is an expert on special operations. He has transformed the Israeli presence in southern Lebanon into an anti-guerrilla force and divulged the existence of an elite special unit called Egoz because of "its record of significant achievements in the fight against Hizbullah," he says.
Just inside its border in recent months, Israel has set up an anti-terrorist training school. Still, unorthodox measures have had mixed success and have had some dangerous consequences, UN and other Western sources say.
Current Israeli tactics, for example, have drawn Lebanese Army units into the fighting.
Israel berated the Lebanese Army for taking part in the Insariyeh battle when the Israeli commando raid went wrong, and within a few days - for the first time - Israel directly fired upon a Lebanese armored vehicle, killing six soldiers.
The Lebanese Army does not participate in ground attacks on Israeli forces, leaving that to Islamic militias, but it does fire on Israeli helicopters and planes that violate Lebanese airspace.
Shortly after the Lebanese soldiers were killed, Hizbullah "dedicated" a wide-ranging revenge attack to their memory: The occupation zone erupted from end to end at 7 a.m. one morning with 17 simultaneous attacks on Israeli positions, among 25 launched that day.
The degree of logistical ability and command-and-control expertise required for such a display - for a group that counts only 500 combat members - was "extraordinary," says a Western analyst.
Another significant change has been Israel's treatment of its 2,500-strong proxy militia, known as the South Lebanon Army (SLA). Paid and trained by Israel, it was designed to man front-line positions. But now the roles have reversed.
"The SLA doesn't count anymore," says one observer. "They were supposed to protect the Israelis, but now the Israelis must protect them."
Once 90 percent Christian in the 1980s, the SLA today is more than 70 percent Shiite Muslim, like their Hizbullah and Amal enemies. After a series of close calls last year along the border - in which Israeli officers were targeted by roadside bombs because of intelligence leaks, Israel no longer shares its travel plans with SLA officers.
"Hizbullah has no problem penetrating the SLA these days," says Timur Goksel, the senior political adviser to the UN Interim Force in Lebanon. "Collecting intelligence in the occupation zone is the easiest thing in the world."
"Militarily, it's time for the Israelis to be careful here," Mr. Goksel adds. "Once you start getting into problems like this, soldiers become more demoralized, and it is very risky."
That view is shared, more and more, on both sides of the border. Writing in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz after the bungled raid, commentator Yoel Marcus describes the Israeli dilemma:
"The fact is that we are involved in a war in southern Lebanon that we cannot win," he says. "We are not cut out for guerrilla warfare. They know the territory, every nook and cranny, every path and hiding place, like the back of their hand."