July 26, 2006
From Stephen Farrell in the Meron Mountains
THE full extent of Hezbollah’s resistance to Israeli ground troops in Lebanon emerged yesterday as returning soldiers and senior commanders admitted they were taken by surprise by the Shia group’s ferocity.
At the same time, a Hezbollah leader has made the startling admission that the group had underestimated Israel’s response to the kidnapping of its two soldiers. “The truth is we didn’t expect this response . . . that (Israel) would exploit this operation for this big war against us,” said Mahmoud Komati, the deputy chief of the Hezbollah politburo.
As palls of black smoke continued to rise from Israeli shelling of villages just inside the border, it became apparent that Israeli troops had not secured Bint Jbeil, the Hezbollah stronghold 4km (2.5 miles) inside Lebanon, which some officials had claimed earlier was taken.
Despite two weeks of relentless Israeli bombardment, Hezbollah managed to fire 111 rockets at northern Israel on Monday, and more than 80 yesterday, killing a 15-year-old Arab Israeli girl and wounding several others. To date, 24 Israeli soldiers have been killed and 75 wounded.
Hanging over the operation is the spectre of 1982, when the Israeli troops invaded Lebanon to crush the threat from Yassir Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organisation — only to become mired in an 18-year occupation that ended in a humiliating withdrawal as losses mounted and domestic support evaporated.
This time, domestic support remains strong, but the first cracks have appeared, with media commentators accusing the army of providing an “insulting level of intelligence” about Hezbollah’s defences.
As they munched watermelon yesterday, sweating Israeli soldiers were visibly shocked by the stiff opposition they had encountered, describing their Hezbollah opponents as a “guerrilla army” with landmines and anti-tank missiles capable of crippling a Merkavah battle tank.
“It was really scary. Most of our armoured personnel carriers have holes,” a paramedic told The Times after recovering three wounded tank soldiers. “It’s a very hard situation. We were in Lebanon before but it wasn’t like this for a long time.” A tank commander said: “It’s a real war.”
In the Galilee town of Safed, Brigadier-General Shuki Shachar, deputy commander of the northern forces, conceded that the foe was not an easy one. “Hezbollah is a fanatical organisation. It is highly motivated to fight. I don’t want to give grades to the enemy, but they are fighting. They are not escaping,” he said. He insisted, however, that Israel was “changing the balance” after a belated recognition that the Shia group was dug in deeper than expected.
“After a few days we realised that Hezbollah prepared itself over the last six years with thousands of rockets, with hundreds of shelters, bunkers, with hundreds of rockets hid in houses of civilians inside south Lebanon,” he said.
His forces had never intended to “conquer every square inch” of Bint Jbeil but had now achieved their objectives of taking the high ground. Wherever the Israel Defence Forces decided to act, the general said, “we have no problem to do so, no restrictions”.
In 14 days:
4 villages captured by Israel
40,000 shells have been fired
2,750 rockets and mortar fired into Israel
17 civilians killed
24 soldiers killed
381 Lebanese killed
75 soldiers injured