Immediately after the soldiers were abducted, grabbed from their vehicle as they patrolled the northern border inside Israel, the IDF used tank and artillery fire to try and thwart the kidnappers' escape and sent assault helicopters and fighter planes up into the skies over Lebanon. The prime minister, furious, declared that he held Hizbullah, the Lebanese government and the Syrians to blame, and vowed that Israel would not rest until the boys were safely home. Within hours of the attack, the Israeli army had massed a vast array of forces at the northern border, poised to strike.
And then nothing.
And that was the original sin.
Omar Sawayid, Benny Avraham and Adi Avitan were seized by Hizbullah gunmen on October 7, 2000, and the IDF did not go heavily in after them. The IAF did not pulverize Hizbullah targets in southern Lebanon, or bomb the roads used by the convoys bringing vast quantities of Iranian and Syrian weaponry into Lebanon for Hizbullah's arsenal.
It had been only five months since the government of Ehud Barak, elected in large part because of a pledge to bring the army back from south Lebanon, had made good on that promise. The last thing it wanted was to embroil itself again in the Lebanese quagmire. So it trumpeted its anger. It issued threats. But it held its fire.
And a little over two years later, the bodies of the three soldiers, who had evidently died in the course of the original attack or soon after, were returned to Israel for burial, along with captured "businessman" Elhanan Tennenbaum, in what had become one of Israel's trademark asymmetrical exchanges, the latest evidence of its readiness to do anything to get its soldiers back, dead or alive. The country that would not meet then-Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas's entreaties to release prisoners into his hands, and thus strengthen his professed anti-terror position, instead released 400 Palestinian prisoners into the hands of the proudly terrorizing Islamic extremists of Hizbullah.
Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbullah leader who was responsible for both the October 2000 attack and last week's very similar incursion at Moshav Zar'it, which saw eight soldiers killed and Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser whisked off into Lebanon, might reasonably have believed that a similar scenario would play out this time - Israel huffing, puffing and, ultimately, bluffing. He might never have dreamed that Israel's peacenik defense minister, Amir Peretz, would unshackle the IAF and permit it to fire into the homes in south Lebanon where locals had Nasrallah's missiles stored, and into the Dahiya neighborhood in southern Beirut where Hizbullah had built up a vast command and control center.
He might, as both Peretz and his chief of staff, Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz, are known to believe, have miscalculated and overplayed his hand.
But he certainly served the cause of his Iranian masters admirably - distracting all attention from Iran's relentless march to a nuclear capability when the G8 met earlier this week. And for all the unarguable superiority of Israel's military forces, much of his missile capability was still intact late this week, after a week's pounding by the IAF. Much, maybe most, of his fighting force was still alive. And, crucially, so was he.
Peretz and Halutz, like President George Bush when it comes to Osama bin Laden, have striven to avoid personalizing this war in the north. Killing Nasrallah, the word is, would be a heavy blow to Hizbullah. But just as Israel's killing of his predecessor, Abbas Moussawi, in 1992, didn't destroy the organization, neither, now, they would have us believe, would the permanent dispatching of Hassan Nasrallah. Except that, as even they would concede, the grey Moussawi cannot be compared to the charismatic Nasrallah. And for the sheikh and his followers, his crowing emergence from the bunkers - no matter how battered his organization - would constitute victory.
IN OCTOBER 2000, Halutz was just a few months into his job as head of the air force. Doubtless he had ideas of what the IAF could do to cut Hizbullah down to size and deter it from further military adventurism along the new, UN-guaranteed Israel-Lebanon border line. But any such suggestions, if they were made, were plainly discarded. The days and weeks passed, and that massed IDF presence at the border slowly filtered away.
Emboldened by Israel's inactivity, Nasrallah's men settled in on their side instead, building ever-more permanent positions right up against the fence year by year, under the unthreatening eye of UNIFIL and the constrained gaze of IDF soldiers spitting distance away. Colossal explosive devices - hundreds upon hundreds of kilos - were planted to deter IDF incursions that never came; one of them, detonated 70 meters inside Lebanese territory when an Israeli tank ploughed across the border in pursuit of last week's kidnappers, ripped the tank to shreds, spreading debris over hundreds of meters, killing the four-man tank crew instantly.
If Halutz, promoted to chief of staff in June of last year, ever toyed with the idea of initiating the kind of onslaught necessary to destroy those border emplacements and much more of Hizbullah besides, he would have told himself that he would be wasting his time in even suggesting it. Attack Hizbullah out of the clear blue sky? The world would never stand for it, every politician would have told him. He'd have been laughed out of the cabinet room.
But Halutz evidently did seriously prepare for the day when Nasrallah would provide, not the pretext, but the trigger for action. The battle plan the IDF has been following for the past nine days was finalized four or five months ago, around the time the new government was taking shape.
And when Nasrallah murderously provided that trigger last Wednesday morning, Halutz found in Peretz an improbable ally. Told that the IAF would be largely incapable of tackling Hizbullah's short-range missile capability in south Lebanon unless it fired into the residential areas where the missiles and launchers were stored, but also told that the IAF had other, less sensitive targets in its plans that could be hit first, Peretz responded that while every effort should be made to limit civilian casualties, people who had rockets in their living rooms could not be considered non-combatants, and that the short-range missiles should be an early and prime focus.
The war Israel is fighting in the North is the consequence of a fundamental change in mind-set, both at the top of the army, and at the top of government, in the six years since Souad, Avraham and Avitan were abducted - a newly aggressive approach to fighting terrorism born of the bitter realization that Israel's enemies were laughing at an army perceived as impotent, not because it lacked strength but because its leaders were incapable of unleashing it. Its commitment to its soldiers, regarded in Israel as so central a component of the national ethos, was derided as weakness, as evidence of a nation gone soft. Grab a few soldiers, ran the thinking, and Israel, even under the loathed Ariel Sharon, would capitulate to any demand for their return.
In the Nasrallah conception, Israel was a spider's web, to be brushed away. Hit us hard enough and we'd break. The theory had worked in southern Lebanon. It emboldened Palestinian terrorists in the second intifada. It helped prompt the pullout from Gaza. So enthralled was Nasrallah himself by the notion that he may have missed the fact of the Israeli public's remarkable resilience in the ongoing second intifada/terror war. The population was weak, he believed. Fire missiles into the cities and the Israelis would be crying out for relief.
After Gilad Shalit was kidnapped on June 25, Arab cartoonists were drawing Israeli soldiers not as butchers but as geeks. The army's much-vaunted deterrent capability was diluting by the day.
The IDF and the government saw the critical imperative to change those perceptions. The approach is playing out not only in Lebanon but also in Gaza. What is still uncertain is quite how far the politicians, and the army, are prepared to go, and how much long-term significance they will achieve.
THREE OR four days into the IDF's offensive, Israeli commanders were assessing that perhaps 25 percent of Hizbullah's military capabilities had been destroyed. And Peretz was talking about needing another week to break Nasrallah's organization.
A week into the operation, the assessment was that 40-50% of the Hizbullah capability had been smashed. But tellingly, IDF chiefs were now suggesting that another week or two were still required before Israel should be contemplating accepting a cease-fire. Another week or two, at least. And they were also stressing how hard it was to assess how much damage they'd really caused, and that their evaluations were based in large part on such unreliable indicators as how many rockets had been fired in the previous 24 hours and from which areas.
An IDF with an air force man as its chief of staff is understandably confident in the capacity of the IAF to conclusively prevail in this conflict. Unarguably, furthermore, Israel's air force in recent years, of necessity, has become increasingly skilled in pinpointing key targets and hitting them with precision. With the narrow refugee camp alleys of the Gaza Strip a death trap for Israeli ground troops, the IAF is by far the most critical component of the IDF in waging war on Palestinian terror there.
But air power, however precise, has its limits. Hizbullah has a fighting force estimated at about 1,000 men and reserves of 7-10,000. How many of them have been killed in the relentless sorties being flown by Israel's combat planes in the last nine days? Nobody really knows. How many of Nasrallah's estimated 11,500 rockets - a quite staggering figure, simply unprecedented for a terror group - have been destroyed on the ground? Again, nobody really knows. Even the task of clearing a one-kilometer strip of territory all the way along the border fence, a job Halutz intends to have completed by Saturday, has been proving highly complex given the overwhelming reliance on air power.
In Gaza, using intelligence information and contacts built up over many years, the IAF has intermittent success in hitting alleged terror kingpins from the air; it is rare, even at the height of such activity, for more than a handful of such strikes to take place in the space of a week or two. In Lebanon, with no comparable intelligence structure, and no open-ended time frame, it may be unrealistic to expect the IAF to wipe out a significant proportion of Hizbullah's fighting force.
But the chief of staff emphatically does not want to send in the ground forces. The fate of that tank crew last Wednesday is probably giving him nightmares. That and all those other colossal explosive devices his troops have unearthed as they've been dismantling the Hizbullah border outposts this week. The other day, a D9 tractor rolled over one of those bombs, detonating it. Immensely robust, the D9 survived the blast; not many other vehicles would have.
Hidden explosives apart, IDF ground forces would, of course, be fighting in Hizbullah territory, against gunmen intimately familiar with the terrain, gunmen who have been salivating at the prospect of the Israelis coming at them.
Halutz is fully aware of the terrible price Israel's citizens have been paying in this conflict. The North at times resembles the eerily quiet set of one of those alien invasion movies, where the traffic lights still change but all the people have disappeared. The death toll is mounting. And Halutz knows that it's the men and women in uniform, not the civilians, who are charged with bearing the brunt of military conflict.
Reserve generals like Doron Almog have this week been urging that he send in the troops, all the way to the Litani River, as the only way to truly clear out Hizbullah from the south. But the palpable sense around Halutz is that he fears he would be sending too many of his troops to their deaths, that an increased use of ground forces would turn this into a blood-soaked conflict.
And when it was all over, would it have been worth those lost lives?
Or put another way, no matter how many weeks the international community gives Israel before it shuts the "window" of military opportunity, will the IDF truly be able to prevent the reconstitution of Hizbullah anyway?
OUR DIVIDED Israel has been all-but unified behind the IDF's fighters and the government that sent them into action. The sheer numbers and lethal impact of Hizbullah's rockets and missiles left few Israelis unconvinced that here was a threat that had to be defused. Ehud Olmert's "moment of national truth" speech in the Knesset on Tuesday unfolded to a sound no prime minister has heard when making an address of genuine import for years: respectful silence. With the Saudis, Egyptians and Jordanians leading the way, even much of the international community internalized the need for action and understood the nature of Israel's military campaign (though not, of course, much of the European media or, needless to say, the French).
Such disunity as there has been at home, indeed, has come from critics, left and right, who question the focus and declared goals of the conflict, and specifically the decision to grant immunity to Damascus. (On the left the question is also being raised as to whether a more energetic pursuit of perceived possibilities for peace with Syria in recent years might have crippled Hizbullah more effectively than any military offensive can today.)
Syria both supplies Hizbullah with its own missiles, and ferries Iran's missiles to Nasrallah via Damascus airport. A limited attack on Syrian army positions might pull Damascus into a conflict Israel could reasonably expect to win, or signal to Bashar Assad that worse would await him if he chose to refurbish the Hizbullah supply lines when this conflict is over. But the IDF has thus far spared him the choice, and thus done nothing to deter him from picking up where he left off before hostilities began.
Halutz is adamant that fighting in Gaza, thwarting terror in and from the West Bank, and tackling Hizbullah is enough of a stretch. Iran, in his view, is a problem for the international community to tackle. For now, at least. And far from seeking to draw in the Syrians, his concern has been that a desperate Nasrallah might try to do so, perhaps even by firing on Syrian positions in the hope that jumpy Assad might blame Israel and leap into the fray.
The chief of staff has also been careful to limit the declared aims even of the conflict with Hizbullah. After Sunday's Katyusha attack on Haifa, in which eight Israelis were killed, Peretz vowed to "break" it. Halutz doesn't use that kind of language. He remembers what the Syrians did to the Moslem Brotherhood in Hama in 1982, when Hafez Assad sent his troops to crush the growing threat of Moslem extremism by killing 10,000, perhaps 20,000 people. He looks at the Egyptians' eight decades of battles with the fundamentalists. Ideological groups cannot be broken, he argues. There will always be 10 or 20, or 100 or 200 adherents to keep the flame alive.
In fact Halutz believes that it might be a mistake to try and force an abject Hizbullah surrender. It will never raise the white flag. Persuade the Lebanese public that Hizbullah is bad for them, and simultaneously drastically reduce its capability - the twin aims of the Israeli offensive - and it will have to bend and concede, he believes. Publicly humiliate it, and it will determinedly reconstitute itself.
It's a strangely forgiving attitude to a ruthless terror group. But it will be vindicated if, as Halutz promises, when this conflict is ultimately resolved, around a table, Hizbullah has no seat. It will be vindicated if, once this war in the North is over, Regev and Goldwasser come safely home, Hizbullah is prevented from again bringing murder to the border, from regaining its missile capabilities, from reconstituting itself as a military threat.
For what, otherwise, will Israel have gained?