The IDF entered Bint Jbail on Monday while calling it the "Hizbullah terror capital" in southern Lebanon and on Wednesday they experienced that terror from up close. Eight soldiers were killed and dozens of others were wounded in intense gunbattles that erupted in the town, once home to 20,000 Shiite Lebanese, most of whom had fled north in anticipation of the IDF incursion earlier in the week.
On Tuesday, a mere 24 hours after the IDF entered the village, senior officers starting with Brig.-Gen. Gal Hirsh, commander of Division 91, down to Brigade 7 Commander Col. Amnon Eshel Assulin announced with pride that the military was "in control of Bint Jbail."
On Wednesday however that proved to not be the case and Battalion 51 of the Golani Brigade was shattered after it was taken by surprise by a Hizbullah ambush inside the town. In the aftermath, senior officers backtracked from their declarations of victory on Tuesday and said that while the town was still in their control since they had it surrounded, they had never meant to insinuate that it had been cleared of terrorists.
So, if the Hizbullah still had a strong presence in the town, why were the senior officers so eager in the first place to declare that they were in control and had in other words conquered the place? On Wednesday, Operation Change of Direction entered its third week and the IDF still doesn't really have anything to show for it. The IDF says that it has hurt the Hizbullah, that the group has lost over 150 of its fighters and that the Dahiya neighborhood in Beirut no longer stands. But when it comes to showing the public what it has done, there is nothing tangible to put on display. The Hizbullah is still firing over 100 rockets a day at northern Israel, soldiers are still getting killed on the ground in southern Lebanon and Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah is still alive.
So with nothing else to show, the IDF jumped at the opportunity to finally declare a victory and following two weeks of fighting, the battle of Bint Jbail emerged. Officers told heroic tales of how soldiers sprinted three kilometers lugging stretchers carrying their wounded comrades and of officers risking their lives to save soldiers trapped under overturned tanks.
The IDF also believed that declaring a victory in Bint Jbail would have a ripple effect on the rest of the Hizbullah strongholds in southern Lebanon and would possibly bring about their surrender. The operation in Bint Jbail, a high-ranking officer in the Northern Command explained Wednesday, was not just about weeding out Hizbullah terrorists but was about destroying one of the Hizbullah's most important symbols - the place where Nasrallah delivered his victory speech six-years-ago following Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon after a bloody 18 year presence.
Nevertheless, the so-far failure at Bint Jbail raises questions about the IDF's overall strategy in this war on Lebanon. With US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice off in Rome discussing ways to rehabilitate Lebanon, Israel - Military Intelligence now believes - has up to 10 days left to deal Hizbullah the deadly blow this operation was initially intended to serve. The IDF had initially drawn up plans to send ground forces into Tyre in central Lebanon - the launching pad for the Katyusha rockets raining down on Haifa - but with Bint Jbial taking so long and Israel paying such a heavy price, those plans have been quickly filed away.
The pressure on the military is not just coming from the politicians, who are calling for larger-scale incursions involving two divisions, but also from within the IDF. The General Staff is not overly satisfied with the ongoing operation. While the generals want to see the Hizbullah suffering no matter what the cost, the brigade and battalion commanders are working with other considerations - not to lose additional soldiers.
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