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Israel Encounters an Unexpectedly Different War

The military is not only battling a well-armed foe but also grappling with its own shortfalls.

August 13, 2006|Tracy Wilkinson and Henry Chu | Times Staff Writers

MISGAV AM, Israel — Whether Israel's war with Hezbollah ends this week or weeks from now, it has exposed serious deficiencies in the Jewish state's formidable fighting machine and the strategies that underpin it, unleashing repercussions that will shake the political establishment for a long time to come.

For a month, Israeli civilians here in the north have found themselves targeted by Hezbollah rockets that the mightiest army in the region could not stop; the image of desperate Israelis huddling in shelters for days on end is a haunting blow to a nation that prides itself on its strength and resolve.

Israeli commanders, after early vows to quickly wipe out Hezbollah, now acknowledge they may never be able to completely halt the rocket fire. One top military strategist spoke last week of redefining the word "victory."

"This may be the first war that Israel does not win," said military historian Michael Oren, a research fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 27, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
Israeli prime minister: An Aug. 13 article in Section A about Israel's conflict with the Hezbollah militia incorrectly said that Ehud Olmert was the first elected Israeli prime minister who had never been an important army commander. The office mostly has been filled by former senior army commanders only since 1992, when Yitzhak Rabin became prime minister.

From its independence in 1948 through the devastating Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars, Israel was accustomed to defeating the Arab armies that challenged it. But Hezbollah has presented Israel with a different enemy and a different war.

Neither the Israeli military's traditional skills as a modern armored force nor its ability to battle Palestinian militias has proved sufficient against the highly motivated, well-armed Hezbollah army.

Israel hopes its victory will come eventually in marshaling and sustaining international support for the isolation and containment of Hezbollah, and in establishing consensus that Iran and Syria must be held accountable for their patronage of the Shiite Muslim faction that has grown in Lebanon during the last quarter of a century.

Israel's military shortcomings, in the meantime, have proved acutely embarrassing.

The failure to make the desired progress on the battlefield can be attributed to several factors, including reluctant politicians, faulty intelligence, poorly trained and equipped reservists, terrain that is virtually impassable for heavy tanks, and rusty fighting tactics.

Ehud Olmert, the first elected prime minister who was never an important army commander, went into the offensive reluctant to incur Israeli casualties -- a hesitation, his critics say, that proved instrumental in the failure to strike a decisive blow against Hezbollah.

Public opinion has begun to turn against Olmert for his conduct of the war, and he will face new questioning today when he convenes his Cabinet to debate the United Nations resolution for ending the Lebanon conflict.

Already, the criticism among Israel's acerbic political commentators is unforgiving.

"You cannot lead an entire nation to war promising victory, produce humiliating defeat and remain in power," columnist Ari Shavit wrote in Friday's Haaretz newspaper. The day Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah "comes out of his bunker and declares victory to the whole world, Olmert must not be in the prime minister's office."

Israel's reservists, the backbone of its army, have suffered huge casualties. Oren, the historian, said the reserves were "not up to combat snuff" and had to undergo quick refresher courses before they were sent into battle. Some family members complain the courses were not enough.

In past wars, the reserves counted on a large component of kibbutzim men -- strapping, outdoorsy types. But a demographic and economic revolution in Israel in the last decade means that more and more reservists now being called up were sitting behind computers instead of working on farms.

Israeli military commanders acknowledge their surprise at the level of sophistication of Hezbollah's armament, notably its antitank missiles, capable of piercing armor. These have inflicted a large percentage of the Israeli deaths in this war.

Soldiers emerging from the battlefield have told stories of running out of food and water, a suggestion that resupply lines are weak or nonexistent. One Israeli journalist traveling with troops reported that several soldiers in his unit had to be evacuated because of dehydration.

And the soldiers describe an enemy that defied their expectations, one far more cunning and prepared than the Palestinian militants they have trained for and encountered in recent years.

"It's completely different," said 1st Sgt. Gil Hiram, 22, with the Golani Brigade's special forces. "We were kind of overwhelmed by how different it was. These were trained army men -- these weren't some two-cent terrorists given an AK-47. They know how to do camouflage almost as good as us."

Hiram spoke from a hospital in Haifa where he was recovering from bullet wounds received in fighting in a Lebanese village just across the border. A day before he was ordered to Lebanon, he was in the Gaza Strip.

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