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Behind Israel’s New Battle Plan

4 minute read
Tim McGirk/Jerusalem

In Hebrew, the word “merkava” means chariot, and the Israeli tank known as Merkava 4 is a mighty, steel-plated chariot of war. But in the stony hills of southern Lebanon, in battles where stealth is more valued than firepower, the chariot is reduced to being an ambulance, ferrying wounded commandos back across the border. And even then, the tank is proving to be less than invincible.

On Monday, two tanks were dispatched to pick up Israeli soldiers wounded in the siege of Bint Jbeil, a town used by Hizballah Islamic militants to spray the northern corners of Israel with rocket fire. The town also has symbolic value to Hizballah; it was here in 2000 that Hizballah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah proclaimed victory after Israeli troops withdrew from Lebanon. The sheikh’ s jeering remarks had riled the Israeli generals, so they didn’t need any extra motivation this week when Bint Jbeil, its tunnels and caves stocked with rockets and over 100 Hizballah fighters, turned into a major target of the theirs.

As the two tanks came rumbling back with their wounded cargo, they came under fire. A missile blasted one of the Merkav 4s, killing a soldier and injuring a battalion commander. The second ran over a large explosive device planted by Hizballah that is identical to those used to such devastating effect against U.S. armored forces in Iraq. The force of the blast flipped over the 65-ton tank, killing the vehicle’s commander and injuring three other crew. Earlier in the 12-day ground offensive, the Israelis had lost another tank to a hidden mine, killing four men.

Israel may have a technological superiority over Hizballah, but in the hide-and-seek dynamic of a guerrilla war, tanks and air strikes aren’ t always enough. Some Israeli military officers are worried that the war is being waged the way the guerrillas want, dragging the Israeli Defense Forces into prolonged and messy battles on alien turf. Early on, the Israeli plan was to launch swift punches on the militants’ rocket-launching positions and then to withdraw. But Hizballah began to play the game by their rules, drawing the Israeli troops into lengthy ambushes in places where their vaunted 21st-century war machine was of little or no use. Not only were the guerrillas masters of the terrain, but they were equipped with top-of-the line anti-tank missiles. The first hard lesson was dealt to the Israelis in a hilltop village known as Maroun al Ras, just 500 meters from the Israeli border. What was intended as a lightning blow by the Israelis turned into a three-day slugfest.

Early on, the Israelis were reluctant to send lots of troops into the fray; Prime Minister Ehud Olmert wanted to keep down casualties and reassure the international community that Israel had no intention of grabbing real estate in Lebanon. And, according to military sources, the Israelis also lacked on-the ground intelligence, so they underestimated Hizballah’ s strength and its determination to punch it out. Despite the Israeli offensive, Hizballah still managed to sling over 2,000 rockets onto Israel.

But after the toll rose to 23 dead and 80 wounded, the IDF had learned their lesson. When it came to a ground offensive, big was better. No longer would they rely on small bands of commandos to flush Hizballah out of their trenches and underground hideouts. By Tuesday, the third day of the offensive, over 5,000 troops were called in to lay siege to Bint Jbeil, most of whose 30,000 Shi’ite inhabitants had long since fled. Facing that kind of full-scale onslaught, Hizballah’s fighters have no choice but to flee by night or fight it out. “There is still fighting going on,” an army spokesman told journalists on Tuesday. “I can’t say we are in total control of the village yet.”

With its large army and its overwhelming firepower, Israel will eventually pry the Hizballah militants off the Lebanese border. The problem is it could take weeks, or longer. In recent days, a note of caution has crept into the soundbites of various Israeli military officers. Gone are the boasts that Hizballah will be hammered into oblivion. Instead, they’re urging diplomacy and calling for the presence of a robust international peace-keeping force along the border to halt Hizballah’s rocketmen. Meanwhile, as casualties rise, many of Israel’ s formidable chariots of war are being pressed into ambulance service.

—With reporting by Aaron. J Klein/Jerusalem

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