The soldiers slid down ropes from hovering helicopters and quickly took up positions as they began moving toward their target - a hospital in the Bekaa Valley deep inside Lebanon. As they drew closer to the hospital, believed to have been the place where kidnapped soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, were treated after they were abducted by Hizbullah last month, they encountered heavy gunfire from Hizbullah gunmen taking cover in surrounding buildings.
The battle lasted for several hours, following which the elite force of close to 200 soldiers, returned to Israel carrying loads of intelligence information and without any casualties. At least 10 Hizbullah gunmen were killed.
But while the operation, called "Sharp and Smooth," appeared to have been about collecting intelligence, Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz said its main goal was to deliver a message to Hizbullah that the IDF "can operate deep inside Lebanon and wherever else we want to."
The General Staff officer said the operation, which he claimed was meant to "make noise," had instilled a sense of fear within Hizbullah, which now fully understood the IDF's far-reaching capabilities.
The operation was directed by OC Air Force Maj.-Gen. Eliezer Shkedy and involved two elite units, one affiliated with the air force and the other with the General Staff. The units split up upon arrival in Baalbek, with one force assigned the Dar al-Hikma hospital - believed by Military Intelligence to be a base for Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The other unit, from the air force, swept through the Sheikh Havit neighborhood, some three kilometers from the hospital, where it found five apparent Hizbullah members, who were taken captive.
The IDF refused to reveal the identities of the five but said that some of them were known Hizbullah gunmen and ranged in age from 20 to 55.
The hospital in Baalbek is only one of a string of medical facilities set up by Hizbullah around Lebanon with Iranian funding, usually for the benefit of its Shi'ite constituency, as part of its policy of acting as an alternative to the Lebanese government. These hospitals have, in addition to regular hospital wings, underground bunkers used by the movement for its own purposes. Goldwasser and Regev were possibly treated in these bunkers before being moved elsewhere.
A member of the General Staff said Wednesday that the IDF had carried out 15 to 20 such raids since Operation Change of Direction was launched on July 12.
The hospital, the officer said, was not a medical facility in the classic sense but served more as a Hizbullah base of operations where guerrillas planned attacks together with Iranian instructors.
Planning for the operation, he said, began last week. The troops traveled the 200 km. to Baalbek by helicopters, which were refueled over the Mediterranean, and had air cover from attack helicopters and jet fighters. The troops were on the ground in Baalbek from 10:32 p.m. Tuesday until 3 a.m. Wednesday.
According to the Lebanese sources, the unit was searching for Muhammad Yazbek, one of the top 12 Hizbullah officials. The IDF officer, however, rejected the reports and said that there was no specific target.
Yazbek accompanied Elahanan Tannenbaum - an Israeli businessman held captive by Hizbullah until 2003 - from Iran to Beirut. He is believed to be a member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
Baalbek, which serves as Hizbullah's main command center where operatives train and test their UAVs and missiles, receives air protection from Syria, since it is near its border with Lebanon, Brig.-Gen. Yohanon Locker, head of the IAF Air Division, said.
Col. Nitzan Alon. commander of the force on the ground, said Wednesday night that the elite units discovered large weapons caches as well as much equipment, including computers that were brought back to Israel.
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