Security and Defense: The story of 'Changing Direction 11'

What actually went on behind the scenes during the final fateful hours of the Second Lebanon War?

idf tank lebanon 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
idf tank lebanon 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
'Changing Direction 11" is the nickname given by the IDF to the ground offensive undertaken during the final 60 hours of the Second Lebanon War. The "11" corresponds to the number of updates that were made to the plan for that offensive between the start of the war on July 12, 2006 - following Hizbullah's abduction of reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser - and the eventual implementation, almost a full month later, on Friday evening, August 11. Some have called Changing Direction 11 the biggest mistake of the war. Others have hailed it as instrumental in swaying the UN Security Council into passing the war-ending Resolution 1701, which was favorable to Israel. The IDF embarked on Changing Direction 11 in a last-ditch effort to gain ground ahead of the UN-brokered cease-fire. During the operation, which began just hours before 1701 was passed, 33 soldiers lost their lives and dozens were wounded. Three days later, when the cease-fire went into effect, the troops began withdrawing. Those final 60 hours of warfare will feature prominently in the Winograd Committee's final report which, it was announced this week, will be released on January 30. The report is expected to be particularly damaging to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who ordered the IDF to launch this final operation even though he knew that a cease-fire was almost certainly just hours away. This is the story of the operation. At 10 a.m. on August 9, the cabinet convened in Jerusalem for a decisive meeting about the continuation of the war, which had already been going on for close to a month. The meeting lasted six hours. It opened with a briefing by Maj.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, then head of the IDF Operations Directorate, who reported on the IDF's current operational status and on the details of Changing Direction 11. "The first stage - during which the forces will reach their positions - will take four days; the second stage of fighting and bringing results will take three to four weeks; and the third stage is the week it will take to withdraw the troops," he reportedly told the ministers. Chief of General Staff at the time, Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz, then explained that it was time for a large-scale ground operation, the only move the IDF had left in its attempts to minimize the Katyusha rocket fire. The meeting grew tense after Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz suggested a different plan - that the IDF immediately take up positions along the Litani River and skip going through the villages on the way which, according to the IDF's plan, would take over two months. "This can be done in 48 hours and will put us in a totally different reality with complete control over the entire southern Lebanon," Mofaz argued. Feeling his authority was being undermined, defense minister Amir Peretz began attacking Mofaz - his predecessor - asking: "Where have you been for the past six years? Why didn't you destroy the Hizbullah positions? Why did you let all of this happen?" Determined not to lose control of the cabinet, Olmert succeeded in calming down his ministers, and after another hour of debate, Changing Direction 11 was approved. THE PLAN called for the use of four divisions, a force larger than the one that fought on the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War. Brig.-Gen. Gal Hirsch's Division 91 was supposed to sweep through the eastern sector of southern Lebanon; Division 162 - commanded by Brig.-Gen. Guy Zur - was supposed to take up positions throughout the western sector; Brig.-Gen. Erez Zuckerman's reserve division was ordered to push back Hizbullah positions north of Metula. Brig.-Gen. Eyal Isenberg's Fire Division was already deployed along the Litani River, after being airlifted there several days earlier. A day after the operation was approved, the units were sent into battle. At the same time, consultations in the Security Council began picking up speed in an effort to broker a cease-fire that would bring an end to the conflict. The initial draft of the resolution was not to Israel's liking - there was no mention of the kidnapped reservists or of Hizbullah's disarmament. It was also not clear that the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) would deploy south of the Litani. When Olmert finally gave the IDF the green light for the operation it was Friday, August 11 at around 4:30 p.m. Several hours later, the Security Council passed a draft of the resolution that was favorable to Israel and even mentioned the kidnapped soldiers in the preamble. According to the resolution, a cease-fire would go into effect on Monday, August 14; UNIFIL would be reinforced from 2,000 soldiers to almost 15,000; and the LAF would deploy in southern Lebanon. Despite the UN vote, on the ground the situation did not change. Late Friday night, just hours before the resolution was passed, Armored Brigade 401 began moving its tanks across the Litani - facing fierce Hizbullah resistance - in what has become known as the "Battle of the Saluki." Crossing the Saluki required that the troops and tanks climb a steep hill overlooked by mountains in every direction. Understanding the risk at which he would be putting his tanks, Brig.-Gen. Zur deployed the Nahal Brigade on the outskirts of the villages of Andouriya and Farun to take up positions on the high ground and to provide cover for the armored column moving below. Under the command of Col. Moti Kidor, then commander of Brigade 401, the Merkava tanks had been waiting for the push to the Litani for close to a week. They had received orders to begin rolling twice. When they began to move, however, they were immediately ordered to stop. But on Friday, August 11, at close to 5 p.m., the orders came again, and by 8 p.m. the tanks began rolling. Hizbullah had meanwhile made its preparations. Kidor's men had been in the field on standby for almost a week and Hizbullah knew that the only passage West was through the Saluki. At least 100 guerrillas took up positions with the most advanced anti-tank missile - the Russian-made Cornet - and waited. By early Sunday morning, just 24 hours before the cease-fire went into effect, Kidor had finally succeeded in crossing the wadi and climbing the hill - albeit after paying a heavy price. Twelve soldiers were killed - eight in tanks and four infantry - and 44 were wounded. In other battles over the weekend, an additional 19 soldiers were killed. But then came the orders to stop the advance and to begin returning. Kidor and his men were left wondering what they had been sent out to achieve in the first place. Why were they dispatched to cross the Saluki when it was clear that the cease-fire would pass? What did these 33 soldiers die for? THE BATTLE of the Saluki is a microcosm of possibly all of the mishaps that occurred during the war. For a week, soldiers were like sitting ducks waiting for orders that were received and twice cancelled, signifying a total lack of clarity and confidence on the part of the diplomatic echelon in general, and particularly its head - Olmert. When the orders finally came, they made no sense. Why push to the Litani hours before the UN was set to approve a cease-fire? What was the point of the brief and very bloody operation, especially considering that two days after crossing the Saluki, they crossed it again - this time heading home? In his testimony before the Winograd Committee, Olmert argued that Operation Changing Direction 11 was instrumental in pressuring the Security Council into passing a resolution in Israel's favor. Halutz made this argument in a meeting he held several days after the war with the senior commanders of Division 162, including Kidor, who had lost 12 soldiers during the push to the Litani. The end result was that Changing Direction 11 did not achieve its goal. In the last 24 hours of the war, Hizbullah succeeded in firing 250 Katyusha rockets, the most fired in one day throughout the 34 days of fighting. Olmert's attempt to end the war with a victory had failed.