After Maroun al-Ras battle, Bint-Jbail looms as next challenge

Main signs of the fiercest ground battle in this conflict were the roads plowed up by tank tracks.

War in Lebanon 88 (photo credit: AP)
War in Lebanon 88
(photo credit: AP)
The commander of the Engineering Corps battalion was very clear over the wireless. "When you're operating north of Maroun Al-Ras," he ordered the commander of one of his advance units Sunday afternoon, "if you see a terrorist, don't risk yourselves to get him, call up the artillery and stay behind. I don't want any soldiers endangered." Most of Sunday around Maroun Al-Ras was relatively quiet. In the morning there was an artillery barrage launched against Bint-Jbail, the main Hizbullah stronghold to the north of the village, and occasionally there were sirens warning of another Katyusha attack. The main signs of the fiercest ground battle in this conflict were the roads that had been plowed up by tank tracks and fields burned by falling shells. The battle for Maroun Al-Ras might have already been over, and the underground complex of Hizbullah destroyed by the IDF, at the cost of seven soldiers, but the officers in command of the various forces there were still worried about additional losses. The battle for the village and the extensive Hizbullah bunkers had raged for almost four days, and it was possible to hear varying judgments of its success from officers and soldiers. The first clash had been Tuesday night, when soldiers of the elite Maglan unit entered the village to clear it of Hizbullah fighters and destroy the positions used to shell villages and towns in Upper Galilee. The opposition was fierce and two Maglan soldiers were killed in the exchange of fire on Wednesday morning. The IDF began pouring in more forces, tanks from three different brigades - 7, 188 and 401 - the elite "Egoz" of the Golani Brigade, an Engineering Corps battalion and the reconnaissance unit and Battalion 101 of the Paratrooper Brigade. On Thursday five Egoz soldiers were killed by an anti-tank missile in the village. The fighting was fierce, often at very short-range with the soldiers advancing from bunker to bunker. Some of these were blown up with the Hizbullah fighters inside. A sign of the difficulty of the battle was the fact that one soldier's body disappeared for two days, a fact that the IDF, concerned that Hizbullah would try and capture it, forbid the media to report. It was recovered only on Saturday by his comrades. Meanwhile, over the weekend the paratroopers and Engineering Corps units destroyed houses used by Hizbullah in the village and finished off the remaining fighters. Criticism has been heard in the army on the hurried way that some of the forces were sent into the village. The Egoz force was sent in daylight by a route that exposed them to Hizbullah, and some of the tanks operating in the area weren't properly protected. On Sunday a makeshift workshop had been set up on the old border road next to Moshav Avivim, where technical teams were attaching huge steel plates underneath Merkava tanks to protect them from explosive devices like the one that had killed four soldiers during the first hours of the kidnapping that began the conflict 12 days ago. "That's the way it works, you learn from mistakes" said the chief of one of the technical crews. Not only ground devices worried the tank crews. A tank driver from Brigade 7 resting at the side of the road after his tank had left Lebanon said that "many of our tanks took hits, mainly from Sagger rockets; none of the tanks were destroyed but quite a few of our friends were wounded." OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Udi Adam said at a briefing at Northern Command on Sunday that "the force in Maroun Al-Ras came across opposition that necessitated additional back-up and a paratrooper force professionally took control of the village." Adam deflected the criticism of the operation and said that "each commander in the field uses his own consideration on how to move his force." The official account of the battle numbered 13 dead Hizbullah fighters, but Adam said that there more. However he had ordered his soldiers not to endanger themselves to bring back dead enemy bodies. One of the officers involved in the fighting estimated the Hizbullah dead at at least 30. IDF commanders seemed torn between respect and disdain for their adversary. "We weren't surprised that they hadn't run away," said Adam, "they are fighters like we are, only we're better and they still act like a terror organization because they hide behind women and children." "Our soldiers showed bravery, and when contact was made, we were victorious," he added. An officer who participated in the battle reacted angrily to the criticism in the media from high-ranking officers. "We fought like lions," he said. "This isn't the PLO or Hamas; Hizbullah is a fighting military organization and they don't run away. We fought a war and in a war you have to be prepared for every eventuality. We were prepared and we won." But Maroun Al-Ras might just be a foretaste of things to come. Bint-Jbail, the Shi'ite town down the road, is a major Hizbullah stronghold. Adam wasn't willing to say when and if the IDF would advance on the town, but a paratrooper resting from the weekend's fighting said: "We've been shown UAV footage from Bint-Jbail and it's full of them."