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Israel Encounters an Unexpectedly Different War

Times Staff Writers

Whether Israel’s war with Hezbollah ends this week or weeks from now, it has exposed serious deficiencies in the Jewish state’s formidable fighting machine and the strategies that underpin it, unleashing repercussions that will shake the political establishment for a long time to come.

For a month, Israeli civilians here in the north have found themselves targeted by Hezbollah rockets that the mightiest army in the region could not stop; the image of desperate Israelis huddling in shelters for days on end is a haunting blow to a nation that prides itself on its strength and resolve.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Aug. 27, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 27, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
Israeli prime minister: An Aug. 13 article in Section A about Israel’s conflict with the Hezbollah militia incorrectly said that Ehud Olmert was the first elected Israeli prime minister who had never been an important army commander. The office mostly has been filled by former senior army commanders only since 1992, when Yitzhak Rabin became prime minister.

Israeli commanders, after early vows to quickly wipe out Hezbollah, now acknowledge they may never be able to completely halt the rocket fire. One top military strategist spoke last week of redefining the word “victory.”

“This may be the first war that Israel does not win,” said military historian Michael Oren, a research fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.

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From its independence in 1948 through the devastating Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars, Israel was accustomed to defeating the Arab armies that challenged it. But Hezbollah has presented Israel with a different enemy and a different war.

Neither the Israeli military’s traditional skills as a modern armored force nor its ability to battle Palestinian militias has proved sufficient against the highly motivated, well-armed Hezbollah army.

Israel hopes its victory will come eventually in marshaling and sustaining international support for the isolation and containment of Hezbollah, and in establishing consensus that Iran and Syria must be held accountable for their patronage of the Shiite Muslim faction that has grown in Lebanon during the last quarter of a century.

Israel’s military shortcomings, in the meantime, have proved acutely embarrassing.

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The failure to make the desired progress on the battlefield can be attributed to several factors, including reluctant politicians, faulty intelligence, poorly trained and equipped reservists, terrain that is virtually impassable for heavy tanks, and rusty fighting tactics.

Ehud Olmert, the first elected prime minister who was never an important army commander, went into the offensive reluctant to incur Israeli casualties -- a hesitation, his critics say, that proved instrumental in the failure to strike a decisive blow against Hezbollah.

Public opinion has begun to turn against Olmert for his conduct of the war, and he will face new questioning today when he convenes his Cabinet to debate the United Nations resolution for ending the Lebanon conflict.

Already, the criticism among Israel’s acerbic political commentators is unforgiving.

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“You cannot lead an entire nation to war promising victory, produce humiliating defeat and remain in power,” columnist Ari Shavit wrote in Friday’s Haaretz newspaper. The day Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah “comes out of his bunker and declares victory to the whole world, Olmert must not be in the prime minister’s office.”

Israel’s reservists, the backbone of its army, have suffered huge casualties. Oren, the historian, said the reserves were “not up to combat snuff” and had to undergo quick refresher courses before they were sent into battle. Some family members complain the courses were not enough.

In past wars, the reserves counted on a large component of kibbutzim men -- strapping, outdoorsy types. But a demographic and economic revolution in Israel in the last decade means that more and more reservists now being called up were sitting behind computers instead of working on farms.

Israeli military commanders acknowledge their surprise at the level of sophistication of Hezbollah’s armament, notably its antitank missiles, capable of piercing armor. These have inflicted a large percentage of the Israeli deaths in this war.

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Soldiers emerging from the battlefield have told stories of running out of food and water, a suggestion that resupply lines are weak or nonexistent. One Israeli journalist traveling with troops reported that several soldiers in his unit had to be evacuated because of dehydration.

And the soldiers describe an enemy that defied their expectations, one far more cunning and prepared than the Palestinian militants they have trained for and encountered in recent years.

“It’s completely different,” said 1st Sgt. Gil Hiram, 22, with the Golani Brigade’s special forces. “We were kind of overwhelmed by how different it was. These were trained army men -- these weren’t some two-cent terrorists given an AK-47. They know how to do camouflage almost as good as us.”

Hiram spoke from a hospital in Haifa where he was recovering from bullet wounds received in fighting in a Lebanese village just across the border. A day before he was ordered to Lebanon, he was in the Gaza Strip.

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“You can take Lebanon in one day, as the U.S. took Iraq in one week. [But] once you’re there, the [real] fighting begins,” said Arik Dayan, 26, a paratroop company commander who was also recovering from wounds suffered in fighting in Lebanon. He was operating in Palestinian territory in the West Bank one day, only to be transferred abruptly to the Lebanon offensive.

Hezbollah had a “big advantage” because its fighters worked in small groups and were mixed with the regular population. “Once we got into the villages, they would send wave after wave of fighters,” Dayan said.

The prosecution of this war also has laid bare divisions within the Israeli military hierarchy. Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, the army’s chief of staff, ordered that the commander of the offensive be replaced mid-campaign, a highly unusual and potentially demoralizing move.

Privately, some military officers complained that Halutz, a career air force commander, failed to understand the urgency of launching a wider ground campaign, favoring instead thousands of bombing sorties over Lebanon that devastated much of the country but did not silence Hezbollah.

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These critics contend that Israel would have been more successful if it had deployed troops immediately along the Litani River, north of where most Hezbollah fighters were entrenched, and then worked to squeeze them from the north and south. Instead, Israeli forces largely concentrated on trying to control small villages just over the border, with limited results.

Only now have Israeli forces appeared to position themselves to apply a kind of pincer pressure, deploying hundreds of troops into southern Lebanon on Saturday. Halutz says it has taken the damage inflicted by constant air power to weaken Hezbollah to a point where it can be corralled on the ground.

Whenever this war ends, there will be finger-pointing aplenty over who is to blame for the mistakes. Maj. Gen. Udi Adam, the head of the northern command whom Halutz essentially demoted, suggested Saturday that he would have done things differently.

Asked in a television interview why the long-threatened massive ground attack was launched a month after the conflict began, Adam said: “This is not a question you should be asking me. The northern command was ready to expand the fighting two weeks ago.”

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Also coming in for criticism are civilian authorities who failed to evacuate threatened towns and are increasingly being accused of mishandling relief aid.

Haim Barbivai, the mayor of Kiryat Shemona, the largest city in this part of the north, acknowledged that numerous Israeli cities were unprepared for the humanitarian disaster that befell them, with families trapped in bomb shelters and most businesses shuttered.

“We didn’t know it would last so long,” Barbivai said. “We thought it was going to end in minutes: the mighty Israeli army against Hezbollah. But when war starts, you never know where it will end.”

Wilkinson reported from Misgav Am and Chu from Jerusalem.

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