Security and Defense: Mapping out the next move

Senior officers feel that Operation Change of Direction's opening round has exhausted itself.

idf back from lebanon AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
idf back from lebanon AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The road leading to Moshav Avivim has never been busier. Soldiers banged away at spread out tank treads in the middle of the road while other tanks thundered by midweek, setting missing pins in place. Other crewmen were busy reinforcing the tank's belly with extra metal sheeting to protect it from Hizbullah-planted mines in Lebanon. North of the road, outside the once tranquil and pastoral community, emerges the Lebanese village of Maroun al-Ras, on the ridge of a looming mountain. However, the road to Avivim no longer ends at its northern fence along the Lebanese border, but now continues northward deep into southern Lebanon - Hizbullah's breeding ground. As the tank crews took a break, however, their commanders awaited word on just where they might be going next, even as the news of the losses at Bint Jbail sank in. Reports of the clashes there surfaced quickly. SMS text messages floated throughout the country, with concerned relatives hungry for any piece of information about the fate of their loved ones fighting in Lebanon. But while the news of the dead soldiers might have been taken as a defeat by some back home, at the Golani Command center along the Lebanese border, officers mourning their eight lost comrades knew one thing for certain: the fighting must continue. That's why after almost three weeks of fighting - and still relatively little to show for it -- the IDF is looking to up the stakes, and was seeking permission from the political echelon and Defense Minister Amir Peretz to expand the ground operations in southern Lebanon, something the security cabinet on Thursday ruled out for now. The IDF wants to call up reserve units with vast combat experience from service in Lebanon and the West Bank. The feeling among senior officers is that Operation Change of Direction's opening round has simply exhausted itself. What started as a massive air strike is no longer relevant, and what then turned into limited ground incursions short distances from the Israeli border has also so far proven ineffective. This, they believe, leaves one alternative for a military which desperately wants a victory - a larger scale invasion. Such an incursion into southern Lebanon could see troops moving north towards the Litani River and clearing out the area of Katyusha rocket and their launchers. Other possibilities focus on Tyre, the launching pad for the Katyushas that have been raining down on Haifa. Earlier this week, senior officers dismissed the possibility that the IDF would reach these places due to the expected diplomatic pressure and the slow pace of the ongoing operation. But if the security cabinet eventually changes its mind and the IDF gets its way, we could see Israeli troops once again hiking the hills in central Lebanon. The battle at Bint Jbail has created an interesting dynamic at the Golani command center itself, with past commanders also arriving for duty. One such officer was Col. Ofek Buhris, who donned his uniform and headed up north to be with his former brigade in its time of need. Buhris, who was slated to become Brigade 300 commander in the coming weeks along the northern border, postponed his appointment and instead was serving as Division 91's coordinator for special operations in Lebanon. Buhris was once commander of Golani's Battalion 51, which was caught in Wednesday's Hizbullah ambush and lost eight men. Back in 2002, as battalion commander, he himself was seriously wounded during clashes in Nablus and became the first officer to receive the citation for valor during Operation Defensive Shield. Indeed, many Golani commanders this week compared the current operation in Lebanon with Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank. Both operations, they said, were launched following unbearable attacks - Defensive Shield following the Park Hotel bombing that killed 29 Israelis, and Change of Direction following on the heels of the kidnapping of two soldiers and the slaying of eight others. But they have much more in common. Both were launched with the declared goal of weeding out terror as well as changing a reality Israeli determined to be intolerable: Defensive Shield - the unstoppable suicide bomber; Change of Direction - Hizbullah's presence in southern Lebanon. Senior officers are aware of how the deaths at Bint Jbail are impacting on the country, but are determined to press on. OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Udi Adam said Wednesday that while the IDF sustained heavy casualties in that fighting, it would not deter its operation against Nasrallah's guerrillas. "We need several more weeks to defeat Hizbullah," Adam said. "Wednesday's loss of life was unfortunate but there will most probably be more days like that to come." While looking ahead to possible new targets, first completing the taking of Bint Jbail was seen as paramount. Deemed Hizbullah's terror capital in southern Lebanon, senior officers stressed the town was more than just another hideout for terrorists, and a total victory there would have a dual purpose. First, it would clearly tip the scales in Israel's favor for the first time in the conflict. More importantly, however, a victory where Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah delivered his victory speech following Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 could, the officer said, have a ripple effect, especially in those Hizbullah strongholds the commanders had been circling on their maps as they awaited the next stage of the battle. The Bint Jbail fighting also should yield some important lessons when IDF units go after additional Hizbullah targets. Already the IDF has created a formula for its operations involving the utilization of heavy artillery fire and air cover provided by attack helicopters for the ground troops. The idea is to minimize Israeli casualties by taking out as many targets as possible without the need for close combat. That, however, has not been working as well as planned, as was demonstrated on Wednesday when Battalion 51 was taken completely by surprise by the Hizbullah ambush in Bint Jbail. Despite having unmanned aerial vehicles hovering over the town, the IDF was too late in noticing the Hizbullah death trap. Part of the reason for the slow movement through the town also had to do with the IDF's moral code. A high-ranking Northern Command officer, asked this week by reporters why the military didn't just level the village, explained simply: "We don't work that way." Indeed, that is also what Peretz explained to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during her visit here earlier this week. The defense minister said the IDF works according to a system called the "Post Office Theory," according to which Israel looks for the right address to respond to before opening fire. Despite the enemy's tactics, he told Rice, the IDF was still operating as a moral and ethical army. Hizbullah, he told her, fired at Israel from within mosques and homes, using civilians as shields. "We called up one home and told the residents that we were going to attack, and that they needed to evacuate," Peretz told Rice. "They fled the home and only then did we level the building. A home whose occupants didn't answer the phone, he added, was not targeted. At the beginning of the week, on the eve of Rice's visit to Israel, IDF Military Intelligence predicted that the army had perhaps 10 days left for the operation. "Rice will pressure us into stopping the war," a high-ranking officer said Monday, just hours before she landed in Tel Aviv. But that didn't happen, leading the commanders to go back to their maps. Defense Ministry sources said this week that Rice did not pressure Israel into stopping its operations in Lebanon. Indeed it is understood that the US would not seek to prevent Israel from attacking Syria, to punish it for hosting and supporting Hizbullah and global terrorism - a move that for now Israeli officials have repeated is not only not on the agenda, but far from getting there. Just exactly what kind of orders the tank crews near Avivim might soon get was hinted at when Peretz resurrected a term from Israel's last experience with Lebanon for the first time this week - "security zone" - claiming that until a multinational forces takes over southern Lebanon, Israel would not be so quick to leave. Judging by the cacophony in Rome, the deployment of such foreign troops could take longer than initially expected. That is also why the IDF was asking to escalate the offensive now, since without diplomatic pressure from abroad, Buhris and his men believe they have an opportunity to deal Hizbullah a blow that could prevent the IDF from having to go even further up the busy road from Avivim, returning to the forts and outposts it evacuated a mere six years ago.