Security and Defense: Running out of time?

Assessments that renewed warfare with Hizbullah may be just around the bend have the IDF preparing.

IDf operation 298 (photo credit: AP [file])
IDf operation 298
(photo credit: AP [file])
Incessant bursts of machine-gun fire, the rumbling of armored personnel carriers and the shouts and screams of soldiers have become the daily noises heard at the IDF's Elyakim guerrilla warfare training base in the Lower Galilee. The base, which for years trained soldiers for operations in the security zone in Lebanon, has returned to life since the second Lebanon war and has become an obligatory stop for all IDF units on their way to deployment along the Lebanese border. The base, just west of Yokne'am, is built on rocky and brushy hills similar to the terrain in southern Lebanon and the villages that were the scenes of fierce fighting between the IDF and Hizbullah last summer. This week, soldiers from Battalion 603 of the 7th Armored Brigade were training in preparation for their upcoming mission - patrolling the border with Lebanon near Avivim, just a stone's throw from Bint Jbail, where more than a dozen soldiers lost their lives during the war. Inside the base is an exact replica of an IDF border outpost, like those on Mt. Dov currently manned by the Golani Brigade. A thick concrete structure, the outpost is a labyrinth of underground passageways that lead to various observation points overlooking "enemy" territory. Inside the outpost, where soldiers ran about on Wednesday searching for a "Hizbullah infiltrator," is a sign with a picture of a deer - the IDF Northern Command's symbol - and the words: "The goal: to defend the northern border of the State of Israel." Engineering Corps Battalion 603 fought throughout southern Lebanon during the war. The soldiers saw combat in Kafr Kila, north of Metula; in Ayta a-Shayeb, near Shetula in the central sector; and in Aynata, just northeast of Bint Jbail. One soldier - Sgt. Or Shahar - was killed and six others were wounded, including three seriously enough to warrant their release from military service. ON WEDNESDAY, the battalion's three companies were adjusting the scopes on their M-16 assault rifles and clearing jams in their weapons. Some of the soldiers were dashing up hilltops, firing bursts while engaging imaginary Hizbullah guerrillas in the distance. During the week of training, the soldiers also learned how to use camouflage equipment and how to set up ambushes and fight in the rocky terrain. With predictions that another round with Hizbullah could be just around the corner, these skills are not only an operational necessity, explained deputy battalion commander Maj. Yigal Averson, but "crucial for our success." For three years before the war, Averson and his men were stationed in the Gaza Strip, combating Palestinian terrorists and preventing infiltrations into the dismantled Gush Katif settlement bloc. Like many other IDF units, the soldiers were preoccupied with the intense daily operations and, as a result, training was neglected. Recalling his first years in the military, Averson said that his unit used to train four months and then take up a post for four months. "That was the formula then," he explained. "Today, you are lucky if your unit gets two months out of the year to train." During the 33-day war, Hizbullah guerrillas exacted a heavy toll from the IDF, killing 119 soldiers in well-planned ambushes, mortar and rocket attacks and while using advanced anti-tank missiles against armored vehicles and military positions in Lebanese villages. According to Lt.-Col. Yair Lipshitz, commander of the Elyakim training base, lack of proper training was certainly a key factor in the military's shortcomings and failures during the war. The past six years - since the IDF's withdrawal from Lebanon - of operations in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, made infantry brigades "rusty" when it came not only to guerrilla warfare skills, but also to using long-range weapons, like rocket launchers and mortars, Lipshitz said. The units, he claimed, were also not used to moving in large groups like they had to in Lebanon. "In the West Bank, soldiers moved in small squads, and suddenly in Lebanon entire brigades were moving together but without knowing how, since they never trained," he said. But now, Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz has made getting the IDF back in shape his first priority, and as a result Elyakim is full with units training around the clock. "The training will get us back in shape and ready for future challenges," Averson explained. FOLLOWING A Tuesday briefing for military reporters on at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, Halutz left the podium, walked swiftly back to his adjacent office, lit up a cigarette and let out a long sigh of relief. Tuesday marked the end of the long and difficult post-war process, during which over 50 internal commissions of inquiry investigated every branch of the IDF. Halutz completed the investigation process and presented his work plan to the IDF's several hundred officers with the rank of colonel and higher and to the reporters. The key elements include major investments in training for infantry and armored units, reinforcing Military Intelligence and rewriting the operational codes for future wars with Hizbullah and Syria. At the IDF's helm for 18 months, Halutz, following the war, came under nonstop fire from politicians, journalists and even members of his General Staff who called on him to step aside and allow someone else to rehabilitate the IDF. Halutz refused, explaining Tuesday night that only those who appointed him could fire him. In addition, as he listed the failures of the war, he said he was taking responsibility not by running away but by staying put and rebuilding the IDF. In addition to retraining, rebuilding and rewriting the IDF's battle doctrine, Halutz will have another challenge no less difficult - reclaiming his authority and getting his generals back in line behind him, not bad-mouthing him to the press as some have been doing since the end of the war. To remain in the IDF is one thing; to reclaim the throne and receive the respect his position deserves is another. Without his generals' support, he will not be able to do his job. Halutz has said in closed forums that he will not take the fall for the rest of the country's leadership - Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz. "If I need to go," he has been quoted as saying, "then they should also be held responsible." Halutz, Peretz and Olmert have become something like the Three Musketeers with their motto "all for one and one for all." All three know that their destinies are intertwined. If one falls, he has the potential to bring down the others. If one wants to stay, he needs the others to back him. When Halutz said he would only resign if his superiors told him to, he was completely serious. But he also knew that the day Olmert and Peretz decide to cut him loose is the day they begin to gamble with their own political careers.•