Israel’s decision to launch a ground war to accomplish what its air force had failed to do was made hesitantly and haphazardly. While Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) units had been making forays into southern Lebanon during the second week of the conflict, the Israeli military leadership remained undecided over when and where–even whether–to deploy their ground units.
In part, the army’s indecisiveness over when, where and whether to deploy its major ground units was a function of the air force’s claims to victory. The Israeli Air Force (IAF) kept claiming that it would succeed from the air–in just one more day, and then another. This indecision was mirrored by the Western media’s uncertainty about when a ground campaign would take place–or whether in fact it had already occurred.
Senior Israeli officers continued to tell their press contacts that the timing of a ground offensive was a tightly kept secret when, in fact, they didn’t know themselves. The hesitation was also the result of the experience of small IDF units that had already penetrated beyond the border. Special IDF units operating in southern Lebanon were reporting to their commanders as early as July 18 that Hezbollah units were fighting tenaciously to hold their positions on the first ridgeline overlooking Israel.
At this point, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made a political decision: he would deploy the full might of the IDF to defeat Hezbollah at the same time that his top aides signaled Israel’s willingness to accept a ceasefire and the deployment of an international force. Olmert determined that Israel should not tip its hand–it would accept the deployment of a United Nations force, but only as a last resort.
First, he decided, Israel would say that it would accept a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) force. In keeping with this strategy, Israeli reserve forces were called to the front on July 21. The surprise call-up (the IDF was to defeat Hezbollah first from the air, and then–if that failed–use its regular forces, with no reserve forces to be called) made the initial deployment of the reserves hurried and uncoordinated. (It is, to repeat, likely that Israel did not believe it would have to call on its reserves during the conflict, or it would have called them much earlier.)
Moreover, the decision to call the reserves took key senior reserve officers, usually the first to be notified of a pending call-up, by surprise. The reserve call-up was handled chaotically–with the reserve “tail” of logistical support lagging some 24-48 hours behind the deployment of reserve forces.
The July 21 call-up was a clear sign to military strategists in the Pentagon that Israel’s war was not going well. It also helps to explain why Israeli reserve troops arrived at the front without the necessary equipment, without a coherent battle plan, and without the munitions necessary to carry on the fight. (Throughout the conflict, Israel struggled to provide adequate support to its reserve forces: food, ammunition and even water supplies reached units a full 24-48 hours behind a unit’s appearance at its assigned northern deployment zones.)
The effect of this was immediately perceived by military observers. “Israeli troops looked unprepared, sloppy and demoralized,” one former senior US commander noted. “This wasn’t the vaunted IDF that we saw in previous wars.”
In keeping with Olmert’s political ploy, the IDF’s goal of the total destruction of Hezbollah was also being markedly scaled back. “There is one line between our military objectives and our political objectives,” Brigadier-General Ido Nehushtan, a member of Israel’s general staff, said on the day after the reserve call-up. “The goal is not necessarily to eliminate every Hezbollah rocket. What we must do is disrupt the military logic of Hezbollah. I would say that this is still not a matter of days away.”
This was a decidedly strange way of presenting a military strategy–to conduct a war to “disrupt the military logic” of an enemy. Nehushtan’s statement had a chilling effect on IDF ground commanders, who wondered exactly what the war’s goals were. But other IDF commanders were upbeat–while the IAF had failed to stop Hezbollah rocket attacks on Israeli cities, fewer rockets were fired at Israel from July 19-21 than at any other time (a very small number on July 19, perhaps as few as 40 on July 20 and 50 on July 22).
July 22 also marks the first time that the United States responded militarily to the conflict. Late on the day of the 21st, the White House received a request from Olmert and the IDF for the provision of large amounts of precision-guided munitions–another telltale sign that the IAF had failed in its mission to degrade Hezbollah military assets significantly during the opening rounds of the war.
The request was quickly approved and the munitions were shipped to Israel beginning on the morning of July 22. Senior Pentagon officials were dismayed by the shipment, as it meant that Israel had expended most of its munitions in the war’s first 10 days–an enormous targeting expenditure that suggested Israel had abandoned tactical bombing of Hezbollah assets and was poised for an onslaught on what remained of Lebanon’s infrastructure, a strategy that had not worked during World War II, when the United States and Britain destroyed Germany’s 66 major population centers without any discernable impact either on German morale or military capabilities.
But there was little grumbling in the Pentagon, though one former serving officer observed that the deployment of US munitions to Israel was reminiscent of a similar request made by Israel in 1973–at the height of the Yom Kippur War. “This can only mean one thing,” this officer said at the time. “They’re on the ropes.”
In spite of its deep misgivings about the Israeli response (and the misgivings, though unreported, were deep and significant–and extended even into the upper echelons of the US Air Force), senior US military officers kept their views out of public view. And for good reason: criticism of Israel for requesting a shipment of arms during the 1973 war led to the resignation of then Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) chairman General George Brown. Brown was enraged that US weapons and munitions were being sent to Israel at the same time that American commanders in Vietnam were protesting a lack of supplies in their war in Southeast Asia.
The current JCS chairman, Peter Pace, who remained notably silent during the Israeli-Hezbollah war, understood history, saluted, and remained silent. But the JCS and senior military commanders were not the only US officials who were worried about Israel’s performance. While the new US munitions were winging their way to Israel (via Prestwick, Scotland), intelligence officials were conducting initial assessments of the war’s opening days, including one noting that in spite of the sustained Israeli air offensive, Al-Manar was still broadcasting in Beirut, though the IAF had destroyed the broadcast bands of Lebanon’s other major networks. (This would remain true throughout the war–Al-Manar never went off the air.) How effective could the Israeli air campaign have been if they couldn’t even knock out a television station’s transmissions?
The call-up of Israel’s reserves was meant to buttress forces already fighting in southern Lebanon, and to add weight to the ground assault. On July 22, Hezbollah units of the Nasr Brigade fought the IDF street-to-street in Maroun al-Ras. While the IDF claimed at the end of the day that it had taken the town, it had not. The fighting had been bloody, but Hezbollah fighters had not been dislodged. Many of the Nasr Brigade’s soldiers had spent countless days waiting for the Israeli assault and, because of Hezbollah’s ability to intercept IDF military communications, Israeli soldiers bumped up against units that were well entrenched.
IDF detachments continually failed to flank the defenders, meeting counterpunches toward the west of the city. Special three-man hunter-killer teams from the Nasr Brigade destroyed several Israeli armored vehicles during the fight with light man-made anti-tank missiles. “We knew they were going to do this,” Ilay Talmor, an exhausted Israeli second lieutenant, said at the time. “This is territory they say is theirs. We would do the same thing if someone came into our country.”
While the IDF continued to insist that its incursions would be “limited in scope”, despite the recall of thousands of reserve troops, IDF battalions began to form south of the border. “We are not preparing for an invasion of Lebanon,” said Avi Pazner, a senior Israeli government spokesman. The IDF then called Maroun al-Ras its “first foothold” in southern Lebanon. “A combination of air force, artillery and ground-force pressure will push Hezbollah out without arriving at the point where we have to invade and occupy,” Pazner said.
The difference between “pushing” out a force and invading and occupying a town was thereby set, another clear signal to US military experts that the IDF could enter a town but could not occupy it. One US officer schooled in US military history compared the IDF’s foray into southern Lebanon to Robert E Lee’s bloody attack on Union positions at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, during the American Civil War. “Oh I can get there, all right,” Lee’s lieutenant said during that war, “it’s staying there that’s the problem.”
After-battle reports of Hezbollah commanders now confirm that IDF troops never fully secured the border area and Maroun al-Ras was never fully taken. Nor did Hezbollah ever feel the need to call up its reserves, as Israel had done. “The entire war was fought by one Hezbollah brigade of 3,000 troops, and no more,” one military expert in the region said. “The Nasr Brigade fought the entire war. Hezbollah never felt the need to reinforce it.”
Reports from Lebanon underscore this point. Much to their surprise, Hezbollah commanders found that Israeli troops were poorly organized and disciplined. The only Israeli unit that performed up to standards was the Golani Brigade, according to Lebanese observers. The IDF was “a motley assortment”, one official with a deep knowledge of US slang reported. “But that’s what happens when you have spent four decades firing rubber bullets at women and children in the West Bank and Gaza.”
IDF commanders were also disturbed by the performance of their troops, noting a signal lack of discipline even among its best-trained regular soldiers. The reserves were worse, and IDF commanders hesitated to put them into battle.
On July 25, Olmert’s strategy of backing down from a claimed goal to destroy Hezbollah was in full force. The Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz was the bearer of these tidings, saying that Israel’s current goal was to create a “security zone” in southern Lebanon. His words were accompanied by a threat: “If there is not a multinational force that will get in to control the fences, we will continue to control with our fire towards anyone that gets close to the defined security zone, and they will know that they can be hurt.”
Gone quite suddenly was a claim that Israel would destroy Hezbollah; gone too was a claim that only NATO would be acceptable as a peacekeeping unit on the border. On July 25, Israel also reported that Abu Jaafar, a commander of Hezbollah’s “central sector” on the Lebanese border, was killed “in an exchange of fire” with Israeli troops near the border village of Maroun al-Ras–which had not yet been taken. The report was not true. Abu Jaafar made public comments after the end of the war.
Later on July 25, during US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s visit to Jerusalem, the Israeli military fought its way into Bint Jbeil, calling it “Hezbollah’s terror capital”. The fight for Bint Jbeil went on for nine days. But it remained in Hezbollah hands until the end of the conflict. By then, the town had been destroyed, as Hezbollah fighters were able to survive repeated air and artillery shellings, retreating into their bunkers during the worst of the air and artillery campaign, and only emerging when IDF troops in follow-on operations tried to claim the city.
The Hezbollah tactics were reminiscent of those followed by the North Vietnamese Army during the opening days of the Vietnam conflict–when NVA commanders told their troops that they needed to “ride out the bombs” and then fight the Americans in small unit actions. “You must grab them by their belt buckles,” a Vietnamese commander said in describing these tactics.
On July 24, as yet another sign of its looming failure in Lebanon, Israel deployed the first of thousands of cluster munitions against what it called “Hezbollah emplacements” in southern Lebanon. Cluster munitions are an effective, if vicious, combat tool and those nations that use them, including every single member of NATO (as well as Russia and China), have consistently refused to enter an international agreement banning their use.
The most responsible nation-states that use them, however, “double fuse” their munitions to cut down on the failure rate of the “bomblets” after they have been deployed. During the administration of US president Bill Clinton, defense secretary William Cohen agreed to the double-fusing of US cluster munitions and a phase-out of the “high dud rate” munitions in the US stockpile, which was intended to cut the failure rate of these munitions from 14% (some estimates are higher) to less than 3% (though some estimates are lower).
While investigations into Israel’s use of these munitions is not yet complete, it now appears that the IDF deployed single-fused munitions. Recent reports in the Israeli press indicate that artillery officers carpeted dozens of Lebanese villages with the bomblets–as close to the definition of the “indiscriminate” use of firepower as one can get.
The Israeli munitions may well have been purchased from aging US stockpiles that were not double-fused, making the United States complicit in this indiscriminate targeting. Such a conclusion seems to fit with the time-line of the resupply of munitions to Israel on July 22. The IDF may well have been able to offload these munitions and deploy them quickly enough to have created the cluster-munitions crisis in Lebanon that plagues that nation still–and that started on July 24.
On July 26, IDF officials conceded that the previous 24 hours in their fight for Bint Jbail was “the hardest day of fighting in southern Lebanon”. After failing to take the town from Hezbollah in the morning, IDF commanders decided to send in their elite Golani Brigade. In two hours in the afternoon, nine Golani Brigade soldiers were killed and 22 were wounded. Late in the afternoon, the IDF deployed its elite Paratroopers Brigade to Maroun al-Ras, where fighting with elements of the Nasr Brigade was in its third day.
On July 27, in response to the failure of its units to take these cities, the Israeli government agreed to a call-up of three more reserve divisions–a full 15,000 troops. By July 28, however, it was becoming clear just how severe the failure of the IAF had been in its attempts to stop Hezbollah rocket attacks. On that day, Hezbollah deployed a new rocket, the Khaibar-1, which hit Afula.
On July 28, the severity of Israel’s intelligence failures finally reached the Israeli public. On that day, Mossad officials leaked information that, by their estimate, Hezbollah had not suffered a significant degradation in its military capabilities, and that the organization might be able to carry on the conflict for several more months. The IDF disagreed, stating that Hezbollah had been severely damaged. The first cracks in the Israeli intelligence community were beginning to show.
Experts in the US were also beginning to question Israel’s strategy and capability. The conservative Brookings Institution published a commentary by Philip H Gordon (who blamed Hezbollah for the crisis) advising, “The issue is not whether Hezbollah is responsible for this crisis–it is–or whether Israel has the right to defend itself–it does–but whether this particular strategy [of a sustained air campaign] will work. It will not. It will not render Hezbollah powerless, because it is simply impossible to eliminate thousands of small, mobile, hidden and easily resupplied rockets via an air campaign.”
Gordan’s commentary reflected the views of an increasing number of military officers, who were scrambling to dust off their own air plans in the case of a White House order targeting Iranian nuclear sites. “There is a common misperception that the [US] Air Force was thrilled by the Israeli war against Lebanon,” one Middle East expert with access to senior Pentagon officials told us. “They were aghast. They well know the limits of their own power and they know how it can be abused.
“It seemed to them [USAF officers] that Israel threw away the book in Lebanon. This wasn’t surgical, it wasn’t precise, and it certainly wasn’t smart. You can’t just coat a country in iron and hope to win.”
The cold, harsh numbers of the war point up the fallacy of the Israeli air and ground campaign. Hezbollah had secreted upwards of 18,000 rockets in its arsenals prior to the conflict. These sites were hardened against Israeli air strikes and easily survived the air campaign. Hezbollah officials calculated that from the time of firing until the IAF was able to identify and deploy fighters to take out the mobile rockets was 90 seconds. Through years of diligent training, Hezbollah rocket teams had learned to deploy, fire and safely cover their mobile launchers in less than 60 seconds, with the result that IAF planes and helicopters (which Israel has in much fewer numbers than it boasts) could not stop Hezbollah’s continued rocket fire at Israel (“Israel is about three helicopters away from a total disaster,” one US military officer commented).
Hezbollah fired about 4,000 rockets at Israel (a more precise, though uncertain, figure calculates the firing of 4,180 rockets), bringing its stockpiles down to 14,000 rockets–enough to prosecute the war for at least three more months.
Moreover, and more significant, Hezbollah’s fighters proved to be dedicated and disciplined. Using intelligence assets to pinpoint Israeli infantry penetrations, they proved the equal of Israel’s best fighting units. In some cases, Israeli units were defeated on the field of battle, forced into sudden retreats or forced to rely on air cover to save elements from being overrun. Even toward the end of the war, on August 9, the IDF announced that 15 of its reserve soldiers were killed and 40 wounded in fighting in the villages of Marjayoun, Khiam and Kila–a stunning casualty rate for a marginal piece of real estate.
The robust Hezbollah defense was also taking its toll on Israeli armor. When Israel finally agreed to a ceasefire and began its withdrawal from the border area, it left behind upwards of 40 armored vehicles, nearly all of them destroyed by expertly deployed AT-3 “Sagger” anti-tank missiles–which is the NATO name for the Russian-made vehicle- or man-deployed, wire-guided, second-generation 9M14 Malyutka–or “Little Baby”.
With a range of 3 kilometers, the Sagger proved enormously successful in taking on Israeli tanks, a fact that must have given Israeli armor commanders fits, in large part because the Sagger missile deployed by Hezbollah is an older version (developed and deployed in 1973) of a more modern version that is more easily hidden and deployed and has a larger warhead. If the IDF could not protect its armor against the 1973 “second generation” version, IDF commanders must now be wondering how it can possibly protect itself against a version that is more modern, more sophisticated, and more deadly.
Prior to the implementation of the ceasefire, the Israeli political establishment decided that it would “clear drop” Israeli paratroopers in key areas along the Litani River. The decision was apparently made to convince the international community that the rules of engagement for a UN force should extend from the Litani south. Such a claim could not be made unless Israel could credibly claim to have cleared that part of Lebanon to the Litani.
A significant number of Israeli forces were airlifted into key areas just south of the Litani to accomplish this goal. The decision might well have led to a disaster. Most of the Israeli forces airlifted to these sites were immediately surrounded by Hezbollah units and may well have been decisively mauled had a ceasefire not gone into effect. The political decision angered retired IDF officers, one of whom accused Olmert of “spinning the military”–using the military for public relations purposes.
Perhaps the most telling sign of Israel’s military failure comes in counting the dead and wounded. Israel now claims that it killed about 400-500 Hezbollah fighters, while its own losses were significantly less. But a more precise accounting shows that Israeli and Hezbollah casualties were nearly even. It is impossible for Shi’ites (and Hezbollah) not to allow an honorable burial for its martyrs, so in this case it is simply a matter of counting funerals. Fewer than 180 funerals have been held for Hezbollah fighters–nearly equal to the number killed on the Israeli side. That number may be revised upward: our most recent information from Lebanon says the number of Shi’ite martyr funerals in the south can now be precisely tabulated at 184.
But by any accounting–whether in rockets, armored vehicles or numbers of dead and wounded–Hezbollah’s fight against Israel must be accorded a decisive military and political victory. Even if it were otherwise (and it is clearly not), the full impact of Hezbollah’s war with Israel over a period of 34 days in July and August has caused a political earthquake in the region.
Hezbollah’s military defeat of Israel was decisive, but its political defeat of the United States–which unquestioningly sided with Israel during the conflict and refused to bring it to an end–was catastrophic and has had a lasting impact on US prestige in the region.
Next: How Hezbollah won the political war
Alastair Crooke and Mark Perry are the co-directors of Conflicts Forum, a London-based group dedicated to providing an opening to political Islam. Crooke is the former Middle East adviser to European Union High Representative Javier Solana and served as a staff member of the Mitchell Commission investigating the causes of the second intifada. Perry is a Washington, DC-based political consultant, author of six books on US history, and a former personal adviser to the late Yasser Arafat.
(Research for this article was provided by Madeleine Perry.)
This article originally appeared in Asia Times.