Security and Defense: Marching backward?

With time running out for victory in Lebanon, the IDF is anxious to stress its successes.

IDF fire 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
IDF fire 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
July 12, late afternoon. IDF Operations Directorate head Maj.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot convenes a meeting in his office with most of the General Staff. There he presents a slide show of possible IDF responses to the abduction of two soldiers hours earlier in a cross-border Hizbullah surprise attack. On one of the slides, Eizenkot recalled this week, he had a map of southern Lebanon showing seven infantry and armored brigades in position outside villages known as Hizbullah strongholds. The map showed the Golani Brigade taking up positions in Bint Jbail and the Paratroopers in Aita a-Shab. The idea was to launch a massive ground incursion into southern Lebanon, to push the Hizbullah north to the Litani River and to recreate the infamous security zone Israel maintained in the territory for 18 years, until 2000. That plan, however, was initially discarded in place of a massive air campaign which the military and political echelons believed at the time could achieve the goal they had set for themselves: the weakening of Hizbullah's ability to launch attacks against northern Israel. But following a week of incessant airstrikes, the IDF began to realize that its plan wasn't working. Then, military commanders called for pinpoint raids on villages like Bint Jbail, where troops from the Golani Brigade spent five days last week fighting to take control. When that didn't work - and the political echelon began to complain about the slow pace of Operation Change of Direction - the IDF went back to the cabinet and asked for an escalation in the form of a massive ground offensive into southern Lebanon. All Eizenkot needed to do was dust off the slide show. This is exactly where Israel is today. Ten thousand troops and reservists are deep inside Lebanon, reestablishing the security zone and taking up positions outside more than 10 key villages in advance of a massive sweep through the area to destroy Hizbullah infrastructure and push the guerrilla group to the north. While there are already calls from within and without the defense establishment for an inquiry into the way this campaign was directed, the fact of the matter is that the IDF is where it wants to be - albeit a little later than it had hoped. Military officials said this week that they were well aware that time was running out for the operation, and that all they could hope for was a few more days of fighting. IDF officers are beginning to come to terms with the fact that they may walk away from this war without a major victory. "Prepare for the possibility that we may not win," was how one senior officer put it this week. In a desperate search for some sort of victory it can present to the public and say: "See, it was worth sitting in bomb shelters for a month" - the government is grasping at any and all military achievements. Which is why the IDF played up the covert Sayeret Matkal (General Staff Reconnaissance Unit) and Shaldag operations in Baalbek during Tuesday night. But, with Hizbullah still firing more than 200 rockets a day, and known to have at least 10,000 more in its arsenal, it appears that Israel is still far from achieving its much-needed feat. NEVERTHELESS, EIZENKOT tries hard to sound optimistic. He also sincerely believes that Hizbullah can be destroyed, and refers to his previous job as commander of the IDF Judea and Samaria Division, during which he succeeded in drastically reducing the number of terror attacks originating in the Palestinian territories. Now, as Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz's point man in this war, Eizenkot dismisses claims that the IDF has not hurt Hizbullah. Behind closed doors, he presents a different test to measure Israel's success based on the assumption of Military Intelligence that Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah knows he made a huge mistake in kidnapping the two soldiers, and would do almost anything to turn the clock back to an hour before the fateful July 12 attack. "It is true that we can't ignore that Hizbullah is still firing rockets at Israel," said one high-ranking member of the General Staff this week. But, he stressed, the Hizbullah has suffered several severe blows. Its stronghold in the Dahiya neighborhood of Beirut has been destroyed, he said, and the once untouchable Nasrallah is now running for his life. The Hizbullah's financial infrastructure has also been destroyed, he added, also claiming that the guerrilla group had already lost close to 400 fighters in battles with the IDF. WITH DIPLOMATIC pressure escalating, and predictions that by the beginning of next week the US and the UN will force Israel into accepting a ceasefire, the question now is how to get the 10,000 troops currently inside Lebanon back to Israel. The IDF, said the high-ranking officer, will not agree to pull out its troops until a multinational force or the Lebanese army deploys in its place. That could take months, however, and the IDF - while determined not to allow Nasrallah to launch attacks in the future - is still traumatized by its last 18-year experience in Lebanon and does not want to find itself once again stuck in the mud on the shores of the Litani. Thus, Israel is preparing itself for a wide range of scenarios. As Deputy Chief of Staff Maj.-Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky told The Jerusalem Post this week, the IDF would be prepared to remain in southern Lebanon for several months or as long as it takes for the multinational force to deploy. The IDF has also come up with two alternatives: controlling the area by massive amounts of fire from the air and ground (an option that could become unviable if the IDF repeats the Kafr tragedy), or withdrawing the thousands of soldiers, while using smaller forces to carry out pinpoint raids throughout Lebanon. Retaining a ground presence is not the preferred option among the top military brass, who want to avoid a replay of Israel's previous presence in Lebanon. Otherwise, the only question left will be why it left in the first place?