merkava tanks 298.88.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
The booms of Katyusha rockets continued; another day of what has become routine in the North. But the IDF was holding position, waiting for orders that did not come. After 30 days of fighting, the war with Hizbullah seemed to be nearing its conclusion Thursday.
Just a day earlier, the situation had looked drastically different. The security cabinet had approved the army's request to send thousands of troops up to the Litani River and beyond in an effort to destroy Hizbullah's infrastructure and to stop the Katyusha attacks. After the cabinet meeting, one division actually began moving north from Metulla. Its goal - to clear out al-Khiam and Marjayoun and to reach the Litani.
But then, under pressure from the US, Defense Minister Amir Peretz made a frantic call to Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz and ordered him to stop the division in its tracks. "We need to give the diplomatic process one last chance," Peretz told Halutz. The orders trickled down the chain of command and by the time they reached 366, it had already reached Marjayoun, a stone's throw from the Litani.
With the UN Security Council on the verge of passing a cease-fire resolution, the IDF understood on Thursday that Operation Change of Direction was ending, for better or for worse.
The IDF was disappointed. Senior officers said they had been looking forward to the fight. Reaching the Litani and eliminating Hizbullah from the villages on the way could have provided, senior officers believe, the victory that Israel has been trying to obtain since July 12. By Thursday night, the chance of that happening was drifting away.
The only way to hurt Hizbullah, a high-ranking officer in the Northern Command said, was to use the military. "Diplomatic processes will not achieve the right effect," he said, acknowledging that the incursion up to the Litani was not to be. "The key is the military operation. That is the only way to stop Hizbullah."
But the political echelon thinks differently, and from the first day of this war the politicians, senior officers said, held the IDF back from escalating its offensive and hitting Hizbullah hard. First it was the massive air campaign. Then came the limited, pinpoint ground raids. Only when all that failed did Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his cabinet approve a large-scale incursion into Lebanon and the re-creation of the security zone.
This wishy-washy decision-making process cost the IDF lives, according to one senior officer. "A military force always needs to be on the offensive, pushing forward and keeping the enemy on its toes," he said. "When you sit still for too long, you turn into a target and you begin to get hit again and again."
That is what has been happening. Over the past 30 days of fighting Hizbullah, the army has lost 83 soldiers, 35 of them this week. "That is what happens when you sit still and don't move," the officer said. "The enemy fortifies its positions and gains the upper hand."
The results of sitting in place can also be seen in the way most of the soldiers who died this week were killed. Hundreds of anti-tank missiles have been fired at troops in southern Lebanon. When a force sits still it becomes an easy target, officers said. One said he thought that the number of casualties from "just sitting and waiting for orders" could turn out to be the same as the IDF would have lost had it been allowed to make the push to the Litani.
"My mission was to prevent Israeli armored reinforcements from chasing after the kidnappers," said Hussein Ali Suleiman, a captured commander of a Hizbullah anti-tank cell, in a video released by the IDF this week.. He participated in the kidnapping of two IDF reservists on July 12.
Suleiman is just one of hundreds of Hizbullah gunmen who have been trained as anti-tank missile operators. On Thursday, one soldier was killed when his tank was hit by a missile. The tank that came to rescue him was also struck and several soldiers were wounded. On Wednesday, four soldiers were killed when their tank was struck. Nine others were killed in a building that collapsed when it too was hit by anti-tank missiles.
The IDF has been at a loss to stop the mostly old and primitive rockets. Hizbullah has been preparing for this war for the past six years and, alongside the 13,000 short-range Katyusha rockets, it has amassed thousands of anti-tank missiles..
Hizbullah has thousands of Soviet-built Sagger, Cornet and Fagot anti-tank missiles, as well as the French Milan and the US-built TOW, all supplied by Iran and Syria. These missiles are usually fired by a two- or three-man team.
There are many lessons the IDF needs to learn from the fighting about anti-tank missiles and the way to deal with the threat, a high-ranking officer said. But the most important lesson the top brass has to internalize is that it needs to bring clear plans to the political echelon and to always be on the offensive.