What happened at the 'house of death'?

A soldier's account of one of the Lebanon war's most devastating failures.

November 1, 2006 00:33
What happened at the 'house of death'?

idf soldier lebanon 298 . (photo credit: AP)


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"They should not have died, not like that. It didn't need to happen," said Ran, 24, his voice trembling as he described the bright blue morning a second Russian-made Kornet missile streaked over his head and slammed into a house 400-meters from his position. His fellow reservists were evacuating the casualties from a first missile strike on two-story villa they had commandeered when the missile struck the house and set off explosives inside. Nine soldiers from a reservist paratrooper demolition regiment were killed and another 31 injured in an incident in the village of Debel southern Lebanon that has been dubbed "the house of death" and has come to symbolize all that was bad in the IDF during the recent war. After the initial shock of losing so many of their buddies in the small village during fighting with Hizbullah on August 9th, Ran said the reserve paratroopers turned on their commanders and demanded: "How could you pack so many guys into one structure despite intelligence that Hizbullah was targeting IDF-commandeered homes with advanced anti-tank missiles?" Regardless of the punishments Halutz is certain to dish out to officers in the division for the debacle in Debel, Ran, a staff sergeant from the elite Maglan battalion who asked that his last name not be published, told The Jerusalem Post that he would never forgive the IDF brass for their "incompetence and stupidity," which, he said, characterized his eight days in southern Lebanon. Ran said he and some 200 reservists from an infantry division under the command of Brig.-Gen. Eyal Eisenberg had crossed the border under a bright, full moon later than expected on August 8, and for reasons unknown to Ran, officers stopped the march midway, and the troops sat for two hours and watched the Israeli artillery shells and F-16s fly overhead. Near dawn, the soldiers continued marching and after a rugged 3 km. hike, they arrived at the outskirts of Debel as the sun was beginning to rise. The soldiers hurried toward the ten houses on the village's outskirts specified by aerial photographs during briefing before the mission. Ran said the soldiers from the demolition regiment arrived at their designated house to find it was occupied by other soldiers. Though they were under strict orders to operate only at night, commanders ordered them to enter the ill-fated house that was isolated from the other structures as the sun was well over the eastern horizon, according to Ran. "It went against everything we had been taught in our regular army service," Ran said. "Before we left on the mission, officers from Golani that had been in Bint Jbail warned us that Hizbullah was shooting RPG's and Sagger missiles into buildings," Ran said. "And the homes they chose just looked vulnerable because they were out there in the open." According to the trendily dressed, athletic young man who now works as a bodyguard and studies in Tel Aviv, an officer from a combat engineering battalion working with the reservists refused to enter the homes for fear that the buildings were exposed on three sides to guerrillas believed to be in the vicinity. The officer also feared that the troops' movements were detectable by guerrillas in the daylight, Ran said. Last week, Yediot Aharonot also reported that the company's commander Maj. Gal Green was wary to enter the home, which was low and vulnerable, and instead asked to take cover in brush on the hillsides outside the village. Yediot also reported that military intelligence regarding an imminent attack against the reservists was even more precise than had been originally thought, but failed to reach soldiers in the doomed house in time. According to the report, an intelligence unit obtained information about a Hizbullah cell preparing to launch missiles at the exact home soldiers had seized hours earlier. The report stated that the information was relayed to the northern command, but officials there said they did not receive the warning until after the first missile had been fired into the house, and it was thus deemed irrelevant. Commanders from the reservist division who were in the field denied they received the tip in time to act, the report said. The report in Yediot said 110 soldiers entered one house - a number Ran said sounded large too him, though he did confirm the ten homes commandeered were crowded, with over 50 soldiers in each. "We were told to stay out of the windows and to be inside rooms that did not have exterior walls, but there just wasn't enough room - there were too many people." Ran was sitting on the bathroom floor of his commandeered villa eating combat rations with four other soldiers when he heard the first explosion. "I knew immediately there were dozens of casualties," Ran said shaking his head, his voice void of expression. As commanders organized an evacuation, Ran watched the survivors of the initial strike carrying out the wounded. On the radio he heard an officer inside the damaged home call frantically for a helicopter and additional medics, when suddenly a second "ball of fire" flew over his head. Explosives carried in by the demolition unit were set off by the second missile and the house collapsed, killing the officer and eight others. Four reservists were severely wounded and seven were moderately wounded. Ran was sure his best friend had been killed. "I cried like a little girl for hours," Ran said. "Days later when we emerged from the homes and marched out of Debel, he came up to me all happy-go-lucky and said 'what's up?' He hadn't been in the house, as I had thought. I was overwhelmed and fell to my knees with gratitude as he looked at me with confused grin on his face," Ran said, nearly in tears. Ran blamed the loss on his higher commanders above the company level, and he said after the initial confusion and sadness, reservists in the brigade increasingly voiced their exasperation with their commanders. "We were not so much angry with our platoon and company commanders beside us in the homes because we could see the frustration on their faces with the constantly changing, nonsensical orders given to them," he said. "It was the people higher up - our mobile headquarters were useless." The mobile headquarters of infantry troops in Lebanon consisted of the senior officers in the field, a team of radio operators with better communications equipment, and a protection force. The mobile commands received orders and intelligence from commanders inside of Israel. Ran said the troops nearly became mutinous with exasperation with their superiors when the evacuation of the dead and wounded back into Israel was further delayed for four hours because of what the soldiers perceived as indecision. Officers mulled an armored evacuation, and then helicopter airlifts, before finally ordering troops to carry the casualties out on stretchers, back to the border. "We felt as if we had to take it upon ourselves to survive," said Ran, "You expect your commanders to put you in a position to fight back. "In Debel, those nine guys never even had a chance to shoot a single bullet."

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