Israel, Hezbollah, and the War in Lebanon
By Amos Harel, Avi Issacharoff
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2008 Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff
All rights reserved.
Udi Goldwasser was 13 when his father, Shlomo, who worked for an international shipping company, moved his family to South Africa. From the beginning, young Goldwasser couldn't stand life in Durban, so his parents promised him that the family would return to Israel if he was still unhappy three months later. When the time came and Udi still wanted to go back, his parents tried to buy more time. The boy refused to let them renege on their promise. One Saturday, his mother, Micky, drove him to the weekly meeting of the Jewish youth movement, Habonim. When she went back to collect him, Udi had disappeared. Half the Jewish community of Durban turned out to help the family search for their missing son. After a fruitless three hours, by which time his frantic parents thought of involving the Israel Embassy, Udi emerged from his hiding place behind a bush very close to where his mother was standing. "Here I am," he said to her. "See, I fooled you. All this time, I've been watching you searching for me. If you don't let me go back to Israel, I'll disappear again."
Udi's parents gave in and allowed him to return to Israel on his own, where he stayed with relatives. Eighteen years later—again in Durban—when Shlomo informed Micky that Udi and another soldier, Eldad Regev, had been abducted by Hezbollah, she recalled that day in 1988 and was barely able to curb the urge to turn around again, expecting to see her son pop out from behind that same bush.
Ever since, she says, she can't stop thinking back to then, when Udi jumped up and said, "I fooled you."
HANNIBAL, SECOND TIME AROUND
It was 9:45 a.m. and Noam Schneider was only about 100 meters from the two burned-out Hummers when he saw the smoke, two large columns of fire rising to the skies on the road leading down the slope, crossing the wadi (valley) at the spot known over the field radio as 105 phase line. It took Schneider only a couple of minutes to understand that he and his men were too late. A count of the dead and wounded in and around the Hummers revealed that the patrol was two soldiers short. Hezbollah were nowhere to be seen. In the 45 minutes between the attack and the arrival of the first reinforcements, the abductors had had more than enough time to make a safe getaway from the Israeli side of the border and back into Lebanese territory. Hezbollah had carried out its plan perfectly: an effective attack on the patrol moving along the security fence that runs parallel to the border; a simultaneous decoy operation, consisting of heavy shelling along the border and a decommissioning of all the observation cameras that were set up near the border. Together, all these actions created the commotion necessary to provide time for a successful abduction. Schneider, the officer in charge of reserve battalion support company, looked helplessly at his commander, Lieutenant Colonel Benny Azran. All the officers in 91st Division, entrusted with guarding the Israel–Lebanon border, were told the same thing, either before taking up their positions or during their stint of reserve duty: Anything you don't get done during the first few moments after the enemy has conducted a successful abduction, you'll never get done. Next to the cut in the security fence, they found a bloodstained flak jacket belonging to one of the abducted soldiers. Nimer, 91st Division's scout, warned that the hole in the fence might be booby-trapped. There were eight officers and soldiers on the scene, clearly not a force capable of conducting a chase into Lebanon. At that point, Azran and Schneider decided that it would be no use trying to pursue the captured Israeli soldiers. From that moment on, it was a matter for the ranks above theirs.
Israel Defense Forces (IDF) slang has a term to describe the mood prevalent among the reservist soldiers in the Zar'it section—the area of the abduction—on the morning of July 12, 2006: they call it "end-of-term feeling." There is not a reservist in the IDF who doesn't know this feeling: On the last day of term after three and a half weeks of exhausting activity along the border, the main, if not only, topic of conversation during those final hours is the length of time it will take to get home. If the replacement battalion turns up on time and the quartermasters at base camp get the equipment issued quickly, there's a good chance to see the family or girlfriend before dark. The battalion's thoughts are elsewhere, and the replacements still have not acclimated to the terrain. The assumption in the army is that the enemy has identified this weak spot; by monitoring the field radios and keeping a close eye on the observation posts, it is easy enough to identify changeover days—and changeover days mean trouble.
C Company's final morning watch, set for 8:00 a.m., was delayed—not unusual for a reserve unit—by about 45 minutes. Thirty-one-year-old Sargeant Udi Goldwasser from Nahariya was the commander in charge of the patrol; his code name over the communications network was 4. Goldwasser, an amateur photographer and deep-sea-diving coach, had married Karnit the previous October and was enrolled at the Haifa Technion to begin working on his master's degree the following fall. He was seated in the commander's seat, to the right of the Hummer's driver, career soldier Razak Mu'adi. Eldad Regev and Tomer Weinberg sat in the back. The patrol left Zar'it and traveled eastward, together with another Hummer (4A) carrying three soldiers instead of the regular four: Wasim Naz'al, the driver; Shani Turgeman, the commander; and combat soldier Eyal Banin. The soldiers were not particularly tense as they drove off on their mission, although Goldwasser had heard First Lieutenant Nir Leon, the officer in charge of the patrol he was replacing, say that a "red touch" had been identified at 2:20 a.m.: Someone or something had touched the electric security fence. Leon's patrol observed the spot, in the region of report point (RP) 105, but identified nothing. "It was a very frightening night. I thought at least 20 Hezbollah people had passed through the fence," said Leon. Goldwasser promised to examine the spot. Since alert had been dropped two days previously, patrols were allowed to move freely around the "red areas" considered to be more potentially dangerous, including that part of the road known as RP 105.
The attack began shortly after 9:00 a.m. Hezbollah waited patiently until the two Hummers appeared from around a bend in the road and were completely exposed. As the second Hummer passed the highest point and began descending, it was attacked by heavy machine gun and antitank fire. Hezbollah's holding link, which had positioned and hidden itself among thick undergrowth on the opposite bank (on the Lebanese side of the fence), disabled the Hummer so that its crew could not come to the aid of the first vehicle, which was moving down the slope about 110 meters ahead of it. Naz'al, the driver, was killed inside the truck. Turgeman and Banin were shot to death as they climbed out. But Hezbollah focused mainly on the first Hummer. A small force that had crossed the border into Israel during the night shot two RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) rockets at short range at the Hummer, which took most of the flak on the right side. Weinberg, badly wounded, and Mu'adi, slightly wounded, managed to haul themselves out of the left-hand side of the burning vehicle and hide in the bushes. "I had already said all my good-byes," Weinberg related later. "Just a few more steps and they could have come and taken me, too." Since the two wounded soldiers were not in a position where they could see the abduction, the rest of the reconstruction is based on findings in the field. Hezbollah, it appears, went up to the Hummer and pulled out the two wounded Israelis, Goldwasser and Regev, a 26-yearold Bar-Ilan University student from Kiryat Motzkin. With the two captured soldiers, the abductors boarded the civilian jeeps awaiting them across the border and headed north to the nearby village of Ita a-Sha'ab.
Immediately after the attack on the Hummers, an artillery attack began on the border settlement Moshav Zar'it and surrounding military positions. Several civilians and soldiers were slightly wounded. At the same time, Hezbollah sharpshooters disabled all IDF observation cameras in the area. Battalion commander Azran heard the explosions from his office in the Zar'it camp. "Already, as I was walking from my office to the command and communications room I knew we'd had it. I entered the room and there were so many reports from so many places.... I didn't know where to turn my attention to first." The first one to really understand what was happening was Ze'ev, the sergeant major of the support company, who had heard a report over the communications network: "4, 4A, collision." Ze'ev phoned his company commander, Noam Schneider, who did not know the location of the patrol under attack. Knowing that 105 was an obvious weak spot, he decided to set out in that direction from headquarters in Zar'it. Schneider chose to take a hidden route, via a wadi that joined the road from the south rather than from the west, along the high road. Because the entire area was under fire, it took some time for communications to be checked, as some commanders were unable to immediately respond to their radios. But it was quite clear even before the check was completed that two Hummers, 4 and 4A, were not responding. Schneider had joined Azran, who announced over the network that they were in a "Hannibal" situation—suspected abduction of soldiers.
The gate into the wadi was locked. After the scout who had come with Azran shot the lock open, the small force advanced toward the burning Hummers and soon encountered the driver, Mu'adi, who jumped out from behind some bushes. Mu'adi had just managed to report the attack on his cell phone to another driver in the adjacent zone. Azran and Schneider tried to question Mu'adi, but he was too shocked to say much, and they continued to make their way toward the Hummers. Two bodies lay alongside the second Hummer and a third body could be seen inside. A quick count of the dead and wounded verified the original fear: It was an abduction—two Israeli soldiers had been taken by Hezbollah.
The videotape captured by Maglan (a prime paratroop unit) at Mount Dov—also known as Sha'aba Farms—close to Mount Hermon in late June 2005, left little room for speculation: Hezbollah was planning further abductions of Israeli soldiers in the region of the Sha'aba Farms, around the border between Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. Three Hezbollah special force members were identified in Wadi M'rar, in Israeli territory, an area where no fence separates Israel and Lebanon. The IDF chased them for a whole day. At the end, a Hezbollah commander was killed at a range of several dozen meters in a clash with the Maglan force, but his two colleagues managed to escape back into Lebanon. In order to cover the group's escape, Hezbollah began a heavy bombardment of the IDF positions on Mount Dov. A soldier from the Golani Brigade was killed by a mortar shell. Signs in the wadi where Maglan had come across the Hezbollah section indicated that the men were professionals. The position in the undergrowth where the three Hezbollah fighters were lying in wait had been expertly prepared and perfectly hidden by camouflage nets. The location had been chosen after a thorough analysis of field conditions and maximum control of the surrounding area. The section penetrated Israeli territory under cover of darkness and used state-of-the-art night-vision equipment.
But the most interesting find was the recording, which the three Lebanese had made several hours before the attack, while they were still in Israeli territory. Apart from providing a detailed account of the area, the three had also found time to fool around. One of them filmed his two friends taking a rest, dressed in camouflage fatigues and helmets. All three had beards and appeared completely relaxed. Their commander, who was later killed, was chewing gum. "Can you see the flies?" he asked the photographer and pointed to the sky, probably at Israeli mini-RPVs (remotely piloted vehicles). "Take a picture of the RPVs." "What's up?" the photographer tested his prowess as an interviewer. "Great," the commander replied. "What could be better than this? We'll take it walking."
The recording, like the large amounts of intelligence equipment the three carried, reflects the exaggerated self-confidence of people who obviously had already spent time in Israeli territory without getting caught. Findings in the field where the three were located showed that Hezbollah had dispatched sections, experienced in spending time behind enemy lines, to collect intelligence and then assigned a team to prepare for the kidnapping operation on Mount Dov. It was unusual for the IDF to encounter a Hezbollah section at such short range, now that Israel had withdrawn from Lebanon. The Hezbollah's 30-year-old section commander—who was killed—was a veteran fighter in the special force and son of a south Lebanon Hezbollah leader. The encounter reinforced Israel's conviction that Hezbollah was determined to kidnap Israeli soldiers. The only possible change in plan would involve the choice of location.
Over the next 12 months, Hezbollah waged several rocket and mortar attacks on IDF positions on Mount Dov. On several occasions Hezbollah, Lebanese, and Palestinian subgroups also shot a few short-range Katyusha rockets in the direction of Israeli towns and villages along the northern border. At the same time, Hezbollah planned three further attempts to abduct Israeli soldiers, all of which were thwarted. Intelligence at the disposal of the Northern Command of the IDF, which was responsible for the area of the border with Lebanon, was partial and limited but with proper deployment and tactical orientation in the field, the IDF managed to foil Hezbollah plans.
The most ambitious kidnapping attempt took place at Kafr Rajar on November 21, 2005, when dozens of Hezbollah special forces crossed the border into Israel on foot and in all-terrain vehicles and tried to attack an IDF paratroop position. But, relying only on a general intelligence warning, the Israeli paratroop commander in the village adopted a devious tactic. The IDF force changed location in time so that Hezbollah stormed an empty post and were attacked in an ambush. A young sharpshooter, Corporal David Markowitz, killed three Hezbollah fighters. Even then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was impressed. "You have saved the country from a tricky strategic situation," he wrote in his letter of congratulations to Head of Northern Command Udi Adam and intelligence branch chief Aharon Ze'evi. But Corporal Markowitz's courage overshadowed the fact that the IDF had enjoyed a great deal of luck in thwarting the attack and that Hezbollah fighters, deployed along the border, were able to make further attempts at abducting Israeli soldiers whenever they chose.
More significant repercussions to the Rajar incident provided disturbing warnings for the future. Three days before the attack, the Northern Command observation points noticed Hezbollah antitank sections deploying near the border. Chief of Staff Dan Halutz refused Udi Adam's request for permission to launch a preemptive strike. Lacking any other way to thwart a Hezbollah attack, the Northern Command decided to turn to the media. Following this previously successful tactic, information was passed on to the Israeli press regarding the special IDF deployment along the northern border in response to abduction warnings. The Northern Command reckoned that, as before, Hezbollah would understand that its intentions had been exposed and cancel the operation. But this time, Hezbollah continued as usual. In Israel, the conclusion was that Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's secretary general, was under sufficient pressure to undertake the risk.
During the abduction attempt in Rajar, Hezbollah managed to hit a number of IDF tanks with, as was later discovered, improved Russian-made RPG rockets, sold to Syria shortly beforehand. Israel went public with these facts in an attempt to dissuade Russia from transferring its state-of-the-art weapons to Damascus, from which point they went to Hezbollah. But Moscow remained unmoved, and advanced antitank rockets continued to follow the same route: final destination, Lebanon.
Late May 2006 saw a further escalation, which began with a mysterious explosion of a kind that is commonplace in Lebanon. In a bomb explosion in Sidon, Mahmoud Maj'dov, commander of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Lebanon, was eliminated. This set off a chain of focused reactions, with each side slightly raising the level of its activity. Hezbollah, suspecting that Israel was behind the assassination, reacted to the killing by launching an accurate Katyusha rocket attack on the Israel Air Force (IAF) base on Mount Meron, the southernmost point to be attacked in recent years. The IDF closed the round of blows with extensive rocket and artillery fire across the zone close to the border, in the course of which dozens of Hezbollah positions were targeted from the air and on land. At least three Hezbollah members were killed, and the organization abandoned its forward positions. Israel agreed to stop the attack after Hezbollah appealed to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) via the Lebanese government. However, the IDF's proposal forbidding Hezbollah from returning to their border positions after the firing had subsided was not taken up. (Continues...)
Excerpted from 34 Days by Amos Harel, Avi Issacharoff. Copyright © 2008 Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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