Security and Defense: Extended standstill

"If we stay put, we are basically inviting the enemy to be the side with the upper hand."

IDF soldier lebanon 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
IDF soldier lebanon 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The first 34 minutes of this war were dazzling. IAF fighter jets swept across Lebanon and in just over half-an-hour wiped out most of the guerrilla group's long-range missiles and launchers. In total, more than 94 targets were hit - strikes made possible by precise intelligence and perfect execution by well-trained IAF pilots. Those first 34 minutes were indeed mesmerizing, but that was a month ago. As the IDF entered its second month of war with the Hizbullah this week, it was hard to recall that opening scene of Operation Change of Direction - launched on July 12 - especially when 15 reservists were killed during clashes in southern Lebanon in a single day. Ask senior officers about Israel's achievements in this war, and you will get an answer that usually includes the words "restored deterrence." For six years - these officers will explain - Israel allowed Hizbullah to build up a formidable force on the other side of the border. The quiet along the north - they will assert - was deceptive; it was Israel that was scared of Hizbullah - not the other way around, not the way it used to be following Israel's wars of the past. Now all of that is meant to change. This past month of fighting is meant to restore Israel's damaged deterrence, and once again demonstrate that it will not sit by idly as soldiers are kidnapped and cities are bombarded by rockets. "The Arab world is watching us to see if we falter," one high-ranking member of the General Staff said this week. Since the beginning of the operation, Israel has scored some impressive successes. In addition to the long-range rockets that have been wiped out, the IDF has also destroyed Hizbullah's elite units, and killed close to 500 other gunmen. The operations of Sayeret Matkal (General Staff Reconnaissance Unit) in Baalbek, and of Shayetet 13 (Navy Commandos) in Tyre, were also impressive, demonstrating the IDF's long-arm capabilities. But alongside the success, the high-ranking officer admitted, it was difficult to ignore the difficulty Israel was having in defeating Hizbullah on the ground inside southern Lebanon. As of Thursday morning, 82 soldiers had been killed since the beginning of the operation. It was also difficult, he said, to ignore Israel's overall failure to stop the Katyusha rocket attacks, still close to 200 a day. THIS IS where the new ground offensive up to the Litani River comes in. According to Military Intelligence, close to 70 percent of the rockets raining down on Israel are fired from areas just south of, and just north of, the Litani River. It is in these parts of Lebanon that the Hizbullah's Nasser Unit is waiting with thousands of troops and functioning command and control centers in underground bunkers. The guerrillas are spread out in some 130 villages, laying mines, preparing ambushes and sitting and waiting for the Israeli tanks to come rolling in. The IDF spent this entire week waiting to head up to the Litani. Last Thursday, Defense Minister Amir Peretz ordered the military to begin preparing for the operation. On Wednesday, everything was ready: The forces were in place; the commanders had their orders; and the Security Cabinet approved the plan. The blitz was ready to be launched. But then came the Americans, who close to midnight Wednesday, began applying pressure. They succeeded in convincing Peretz - for the time being, at least - to call off the expansion of Israel's ground incursion. This was to the utter dismay of senior officers on the ground in Lebanon and in the command center at the Northern Command in Safed. The IDF is currently operating in a 6-kilometer deep security zone it has carved out in southern Lebanon. It is in this zone that the army is sustaining heavy casualties in villages like Ayta al-Shab and Bint Jbail. Soldiers have been operating inside these two villages for three weeks now with limited success. Brigade and battalion commanders explained this week that Israel's reluctance to press forward in its operations was the main reason for the large number of casualties. Sitting inside the villages without moving, they said, meant the force was shifting to a defensive stance and losing the edge of being on the offensive. That appears to be what happened this week. Commanders told stories of how they would be sitting in their tanks and a Hizbullah guerrilla armed with an anti-tank rocket would appear down the street and attack. "In war, an army always wants to be pressing forward, while staying on the offensive," a tank brigade commander explained this week. "If we stay put, we are basically inviting the enemy to fortify its positions and to be the side with the upper hand." Not only would the expansion of the ground incursion to the Litani satisfy the brigade commanders, senior officers claimed, it could obtain a victory for Israel. It would stop the rocket attacks and, more importantly, clear out the area of Hizbullah presence, making it easier for countries to express interest in participating in a multinational force in southern Lebanon. ISRAEL MAY have no choice. It if wants a quality military presence in Lebanon, it will have to do the dirty work and clear out the area before that force arrives. The alternative would be the Lebanese army, which Prime Minister Fuad Saniora has said he would order down south once Israel withdrew its forces. The IDF is skeptical about the mostly-Shiite force's ability to prevent Hizbullah attacks, but is beginning to warm up to the idea. It could be the military's only ticket out of Lebanon. Then there is Syria. After a month of fighting, officers are naturally beginning to think about the "day after," and one of the more pressing questions is what to do about Syria. According to Military Intelligence, President Bashar Assad has been directly involved in attempts to smuggle weapons to Hizbullah on almost a daily basis since the fighting began. The assessment is that he is under pressure from Iran to do so. In spite of this clear act of war on Syria's part, however, Israel has made a collective decision to stay away from Syria, opting instead only to target the weapon convoys once they enter Lebanon. An attack on a convoy in Syria would definitely set the Golan Heights on fire, and Israel would find itself fighting on another front. Israel and Syria have not been taking any chances. Both countries have beefed up their military presence along the border, and as one officer said this week: "The situation is tense and flammable." One false move could change everything. AS FOR the Northern Command in Safed, Deputy Chief of Staff Maj.-Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky settled into his new quarters on Wednesday under the vague title of Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz's "personal representative in the North." What does this mean? No one really knows. The IDF Spokesperson's office, led by Brig.-Gen. Miri Regev, tried to cover up any possible rift between Halutz and OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Udi Adam, claiming that because the war was expanding, the chief of staff felt he needed his deputy up there to help out. On Wednesday, two female officers were busy moving chairs around in the underground command center at Northern Command in Safed. The officers were Adam's and Kaplinsky's bureau chiefs, and they were trying to find a new arrangement for how the officers sit around the main table in the center of the command center. Until now, there has been only one chair for a major general at the table - Adam's. But with the arrival of Kaplinsky, room needed to be made for another chair. So, while the chair fiasco was eventually settled, a more pressing question remained up in the air: Who is in charge of the war - Adam or Kaplinsky? At the moment, Adam is still running the show, sources in the Northern Command said Thursday, but he has begun to feel Kaplinsky's presence. Adam, close associates of his declared this week, would emerge victorious - not just from the war in Lebanon but also from the war over his reputation. Halutz and Peretz, the associates charged, were setting up Adam as their scapegoat for the day after the war, when the real questions begin to be asked. Adam, the associates claimed, was being lined up to take the fall. There is no doubt that mistakes have been made right from the beginning of this war. But not all of them should be attributed to Adam. All you had to do was watch Ilana Dayan's television interview with Halutz last Saturday night, during which he confessed to having called a hotel in the North to make reservations for a family vacation the day before war erupted, to realize this. The key, senior officers said this week, is never to be taken by surprise again.