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WARFARE IN THE MIDDLE EAST

Israeli Soldiers Expected Lesser Foe

On a break from battle, some express frustration about the campaign in Lebanon and surprise over the effectiveness of the Hezbollah force.

August 06, 2006|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

TIBERIAS, Israel — From his position in a Lebanese village, Israeli infantryman Alon Gelnik could hear the Hezbollah missiles exploding closer and closer, until one slammed into the ground just yards from him.

There was a flash and a jolt that threw him to the ground. Trembling, he crawled to safety, shouting every curse he could think of. He was unhurt but so shaken that the words came out in sputters.

"I was really freaked out," Gelnik recalled. A nearby soldier who was traumatized by the blast now hears whistling noises that aren't there; he won't be returning to Lebanon.

Gelnik, 20, is one of thousands of Israeli soldiers who have spent the last six days seizing villages in southern Lebanon. Exhausted, their equipment caked in dirt and sweat, several hundred with the Nahal brigade marched back into Israel on Saturday for a respite. Most are expected to return to Lebanon within a day or so.

With Israel's offensive dragging into its fourth week, many of these soldiers say they are encountering in Hezbollah an enemy more formidable than any they have fought in recent years.

And to hear some of them describe it, the ground war is not going quite as they expected. It is a slow, tough slog that has failed to stop Hezbollah rocket fire from scorching northern Israel.

They expressed frustration that Hezbollah fighters mingled with the civilian population, making them harder to find and root out.

Several Israelis also complained of weak supply lines that left their platoons low on food and without water in their last hours in Lebanon. One medic told of testing local water for poison because their own supply was gone.

Gelnik's unit walked all night to reach the village of Adessa, just a few miles over the border, and found a virtual ghost town. Street by street, they moved into position, taking over several old stone houses and girding for the Hezbollah attacks that would come.

"In the distance, you see the red lights and white flashes," said Ron Evan, 21. "Then you hear the rockets, phooofff, phooofff. I was thinking 'Oh my God.' Then you feel the air waves, like a big shock."

Hezbollah, the soldiers said, mostly attacked from a distance, using rockets and sniper fire.

The soldiers said they found weapons stockpiled in some of the homes they seized. Overall, they said, they found Hezbollah to be a much more effective fighting force than the Palestinian militants they were more accustomed to confronting.

With the Palestinians, the fight is usually more of a policing operation in familiar territory, involving occupation and arrests with the occasional airstrike, the soldiers said, not the wholesale armored offensive required against Hezbollah.

"I realized we were fighting a real organized army," Gelnik said at a hotel near Tiberias, just off the Sea of Galilee, where he and his platoon were resting, reuniting with friends and relatives and taking showers. "These are people who know what they are doing."

The soldiers expressed great frustration that Hezbollah made use of civilian locations from which to strike, regroup and resupply.

"The lines are very blurred," said infantryman Jason Reich, 24.

Gabe Avner, 21, recalled seeing an elderly Lebanese woman carrying a sack of food from one house to another. He suspected she might have been helping a Hezbollah fighter. But he could not know for sure.

"Obviously I can't shoot her and have that on my conscience," he said.

Shmuel O'Neil, originally of Irvine, Calif., said the Lebanese house where he was positioned very nearly took a direct Hezbollah hit. With the sound of fighting all around, he hunkered down in his post, helmet on, weapon at the ready.

"The house is shaking as the noise of the explosions is getting closer and closer," he recalled. "You don't know how close it will get. They get really close. Will it do big damage or just scare the bejesus out of you?"

O'Neil, 20, and several other soldiers at the Tiberias hotel are part of a program that brings Americans to Israel specifically to join the army to fulfill their concept of a Zionist mission.

Hundreds of young Americans have taken part. They come without their families. Some are placed in a kibbutz or similar situation, and all end up in the military. After a three-year tour of duty, many stay as residents and Israel gives them financial aid with school tuition and housing.

O'Neil, who said one of his first acts Saturday after marching out of Lebanon was to call his mother in California, said he never imagined that he would be fighting in Lebanon when he joined the Israeli army two years ago.

"It was always something we joked about," said O'Neil, who comes from a military family and believes fighting for Israel is a duty to his faith. "That would be the big war! And now, damn. It's totally weird."

Brian Waxman, a member of the program from Queens, N.Y., said he was stunned by how entrenched and concealed the enemy was.

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