merkava tanks 298.88.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
"It was a small hit; we thought they were only mortar shells," recalled Sec.-Lt. Yotam. His Merkava 4 tank had been directly hit by two anti-tank missiles. The four crew members evacuated to another tank, unscathed.
Their tank was dragged back to the Israeli side of the border, south of Metulla, and technical crews clambered over it, astonished at the way it had withstood the attack. Among them were members of the Defense Ministry's Merkava Project Directorate, some with a 20-year record in the development of Israel's main indigenous weapon system. The look of satisfaction on the face of Lt.-Col. Baruch Mazliah, head of the armor department in the Merkava Project, said it all.
"It did the job it was supposed to do," he said, patting the tank's side.
But the success of the latest version of the Merkava did little to hide the frustration of the soldiers at the fact that despite their efforts, Hizbullah anti-tank teams were still acting, hidden in positions so near the border, within mortar range of Israel's northernmost town.
The tank crews of Brigade 401 spent 36 hours in Lebanon over the weekend, cooped up in their tanks, taking "Stopit" tablets to control their bodily functions, and hunting for Hizbullah fighters in the villages of Kilah, Adisah and A-Taibe. Despite the success of the tanks and soldiers of the Nahal infantry brigade in killing about 20 Hizbullah members in and around the villages, they were still unable to eradicate their presence, as was proved by the anti-tank missile firings at the tanks returning on Monday morning.
"We saw a missile flying over the border road behind us," said a tank commander. Two tanks that were hit and an engineering corps Puma AFV that had overturned just within the fences had to be dragged out by other tanks, while the artillery supplied covering fire on the hills opposite Metulla. Smoke bombs were also fired to hide the force from Hizbullah gun-sights. Altogether nine soldiers were lightly wounded in the fighting.
The consensus was that with less well-armored tanks, the toll would have been much higher.
"Actually most of the time it was a bit boring," complained Yotam. "My tank barely did any shooting. It was very hard to see them from inside the tank."
The company commander said that he had done quite a bit of shooting. "Now we're waiting to go back in again. It wasn't easy sitting in the tank for 36 hours, but that's what we're trained to do and what the tanks are built for. We'll go back in for as long as it takes," he said.
The continuing presence of Hizbullah around the border villages caused the IDF to spread a wide security perimeter around Metulla. Squads of reserve soldiers, called up 10 days ago, were stationed next to the border. This is one of the first operational tasks to be carried out by the reserve units, who haven't yet taken part in battles across the border.
The fighting around Metulla hasn't allowed the local farmers to pick the apples, most still hanging ripe on the trees, some already rotting on the ground. Only the reservists have been enjoying them.
On Monday night, the government was expected to authorize the use of these soldiers in wider ground operations planned to take place over the next few days within Lebanese villages.