Israel needs to brace itself for increasing casualties in southern Lebanon, as the IDF faces one of its toughest battles fighting professional jihadists who are dug into one of the most difficult terrains in the world, a prominent military historian told The Jerusalem Post Thursday.
"They are not a ragtag guerrilla force, or individual terrorists, but a terrorist army, trained and armed to the teeth by Iran," said Michael Oren, senior fellow at Jerusalem's Shalem Center and author of the best-selling history of the 1967 war, Six Days of War.
Speaking from the frontline town of Avivim, where he is serving as an IDF spokesman on emergency reserve duty, Oren denied that military officials underestimated the enemy's resolve and capacity to resist the IDF's bid to destroy Hizbullah's command structures, communication lines and Katyusha rocket caches in southern Lebanon.
"No one is underestimating their preparedness to fight, or their willingness to become martyrs. Hizbullah is very much in the martyr making business," he said.
Besides confronting a highly motivated and well-equipped enemy, Oren said, Israeli troops would need to adjust the tactics learned in combatting Palestinian terror in the territories, where they work with precise intelligence information and raid homes to root out terrorists. Now, he said, there is a need to capture territory, which involves charging up hilltops and laying siege to Hizbullah strongholds.
After making aliya in 1979, Oren became intimately familiar with the problematic nature of southern Lebanon's mountainous topography when he fought Hizbullah cells as an elite Paratrooper reconnaissance soldier from 1982-90. He estimates a year of that time was spent in Bint Jbail.
"The terrain is extremely, extremely difficult; very hilly, very rocky and wooded, and in the built-up areas you have very narrow alleys that make it difficult to operate tanks and other armor," he said.
Indeed, soldiers' accounts of Wednesday's bitter fighting described gunfights at point-blank range in Bint Jbail's narrow alleyways.
Compounding difficulties, Oren continued, was the IDF's desire to minimize civilian casualties, especially with Hizbullah working to keep residents of Bint Jbail from fleeing the area. According to Oren, Hizbullah operatives have set up roadblocks and fire into the air to discourage civilians who attempt to leave by car. The resulting presence of non-combatants in close proximity to Hizbullah fighters is intended to dissuade Israeli air and artillery strikes from targeting them.