A well-planned Hizbullah ambush on the outskirts of the southern Lebanese village of Bint Jbail Wednesday devastated Battalion 51 of the Golani Brigade, leaving eight soldiers, including three officers, dead and 22 wounded.
Later, a paratrooper officer was killed and three of his men were wounded, two seriously, in a separate firefight on the outskirts of nearby Maroun al-Ras.
Dozens of Hizbullah gunmen armed with antitank missiles and machine guns and geared up in night-vision goggles and bulletproof vests set a trap for a force of Golani infantrymen led by Lt.-Col. Yaniv Asor, commander of Battalion 51. At 5 a.m. Wednesday, Asor and his men asked the Golani command center for permission to enter an area of the outskirts of Bint Jbail. Col. Tamir Yidai, commander of the brigade, gave the green light for the operation.
Asor and his men moved quickly through approximately 15 one-story homes. But as the troops moved through the narrow alleyways, a strong Hizbullah force sent a wave of gunfire and missiles at the force, killing and wounding several soldiers in the first moments of the fight. As Asor and his men fought to regain control of the situation, other Hizbullah cells outflanked them and opened fire on the force as well as other IDF positions in the town.
The battle lasted for several hours during which Asor and his men sustained heavy casualties and killed at least 40 Hizbullah guerrillas, some in gunbattles at point-blank range. Then the evacuation of the wounded began, which lasted six hours due to incessant enemy fire. Four IAF helicopter pilots risked their lives by landing in enemy territory.
Men from the Golani's elite reconnaissance unit and from Battalion 51 carried stretchers with their wounded comrades for three kilometers to the helicopters, which landed for just under one minute at a time beneath a cover of smoke grenades and massive artillery fire before taking off to evacuate the wounded to Israeli hospitals.
Meanwhile at the Golani Brigade's command center, emotions ran high as word came in of the fierce gunbattle and the heavy casualties. Soldiers ran back and forth with maps and officers screamed into encrypted cellular phones coordinating the evacuation of the wounded.
At one point, Brig.-Gen. Gal Hirsh, commander of Division 91, stepped out of the command center to update Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz. "We can't land the helicopters," he said. "The fighting is too intense."
On Tuesday, things in the town had looked entirely different. The IDF, senior officers announced matter-of-factly, had it surrounded and were in control of the town. "The town is in our control," Hirsh said Tuesday. "The work is almost completed and the terrorists are fleeing." Some terrorists, however, seem to have remained, with deadly results.
The Golani's fight didn't end the combat Bint Jbail. Wednesday evening, after the IDF had once again declared it had secured the town, a Paratrooper force nearby was hit by a Sagger antitank missile.
One officer was killed and three soldiers were wounded in the attack and in the gunfight that ensued.
A high-ranking source in the Northern Command told The Jerusalem Post Wednesday that Bint Jbail could not be attacked by air since there were still several hundred civilians there. The officer said that the fighting in the town would continue at least for a day or two.
OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Udi Adam said that the war in Lebanon would continue for several more weeks.
"There will unfortunately be more days like this," Adam told reporters. "We need to achieve our goal to completely overcome Hizbullah."
Meanwhile Wednesday, IAF warplanes destroyed the offices of Hizbullah's south Lebanon commander in Tyre, security officials and witnesses said. The building was empty but 12 people nearby were wounded. The two explosions in the center of the city raised a giant pall of smoke over the port city and electricity was knocked out in some areas. The target was a seven-story building housing the office of Sheikh Nabil Kaouk, the Hizbullah commander in south Lebanon.
The building was heavily damaged with the top floors collapsing on each other. Witnesses and doctors said it was believed to be empty at the time.
Hizbullah said through its Al-Manar TV station Wednesday that its guerrillas had ambushed an Israeli unit on Massoud hill in Bint Jbail, causing many casualties whom the Israelis were unable to rescue because of heavy fire.
A senior Hizbullah official, Mahmoud Komati, told The Associated Press Wednesday that IDF forces had managed to seize a few points inside Bint Jbail, but had not yet taken the town center. The IDF said several Hizbullah fighters had taken cover in a mosque.
Komati denied fighters were taking cover in a mosque and suggested the people involved may be civilians. "Fighters don't take shelter in mosques. They fight on the battlefield. If they can't, they retreat, but not to mosques," said.
Rahhal, a Hizbullah spokesman, angrily responded to a question about the mosque refuge. "What's the Israelis business that our fighters were in the mosque? Maybe they were praying at the time!" he said.
Dozens of soldiers filled the halls and the waiting room at Haifa's Rambam Hospital, which was treating 24 men who were wounded in Lebanon on Wednesday.
Two of the 24 were in serious condition and six were moderately wounded. The remainder were lightly wounded.
Soldiers sat on the floor with their backs against a ledge, or on a small wall near the emergency room.
One soldier who sat outside smoking said that many members of his unit were inside, injured.
Liore Sharabi was among those who was lightly wounded. He sat up in bed wearing a kippa and glasses as another wounded soldier lay asleep in the bed along side his.
A student at the Hesder Yeshiva in Sderot, Sharabi left a city that had suffered barrages of Kassam rockets to help stop Hizbullah from launching rockets into northern cities and towns.
He dismissed the Kassams with a smile. "I've gotten used to them," he said.
What was new for him was facing such heavy fire. He said his unit was sent to Bint Jbail to rescue wounded soldiers.
As gunfire raged around them, his unit moved the wounded into a house. Sharabi himself was wounded by shrapnel in his leg.
He made his way into the home and was later evacuated.
"I never thought I would be in that kind of a situation," said Sharabi, who lives in Adam near Jerusalem. He turns 21 in August and is due to be released from the army next month.
As he spoke, his mother watched the news on a television screen above his head. She moved to make way for a third injured soldier who was wheeled into the room along with his mother, Yaffa Golan of Ashkelon.
Knowing that her son, 21, was serving in Lebanon, Golan has been glued to the news, either television or radio, for the last two weeks.
When she first heard that soldiers had been wounded Wednesday, she tried to call her son, but to her dismay there was no answer.
Instead she received a call from Rambam Hospital informing her that he was among those lightly wounded.
While he lay in the hospital bed joking with his friends who were visiting, she stood nervously at the edge of his bed.
"I'm calmer now," the mother said.