Military Strategy

Missile War Is a New Challenge To Israel's Long Rule of the Sky

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 19, 2006

JERUSALEM, July 18 -- Israel and the radical Islamic groups Hamas and Hezbollah are waging war for the first time largely in the skies, exchanging rocket fire, artillery rounds and airstrikes in battles that military officials and analysts here say could redefine the regional conflict for years to come.

Both militias are now drawing on longer-range arsenals to send missiles deeper into Israel. The launch sites are hard to detect, and the short-range rockets reach targets in seconds, making interception nearly impossible. Israel dominated air power in earlier years but now faces a fresh challenge from the crude rockets that Hezbollah and Hamas are using to strike Israeli cities. The war of the missiles could also render less relevant the large-scale ground operations that the Israeli military relied on in the past.

Israel's withdrawal from Gaza last year and south Lebanon in 2000 has deprived Hamas and Hezbollah of targets they once hit regularly: army posts, settlers and soldiers.

"Israel has long ruled the skies," said Michael Oren, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center, an academic research organization here, and the author of "Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East," a chronicle of the 1967 Middle East war. "Since they can't shoot down the airplanes, these groups have developed a way to try to rule the skies themselves with missiles. And our ability to stop missiles is very limited."

In his wartime address to the nation this week, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned that "Israel will not agree to live in the shadow of missiles or rockets against its residents." Olmert's plan to leave parts of the West Bank, reducing what some Israelis have called its strategic depth near the country's narrow middle, could also make more of Israel vulnerable to rocket strikes, as did its withdrawal from south Lebanon and Gaza.

The separation barrier that Olmert said will roughly mark Israel's eastern border after the partial West Bank withdrawal is designed to keep out Palestinians, not rockets. Israeli military officials have warned that the next Palestinian uprising could be "a ballistic intifada," but others say a negotiated pullback from the West Bank would ease tensions with the Palestinians and perhaps lead to a state.

The Lebanon bombing campaign, overseen by Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, the first air force officer to lead Israel's military, has destroyed a number of key transportation routes from Syria, collapsed bridges and shut down Beirut's international airport. In its broadest terms, it is an attempt to seal off the country in order to cut Hezbollah's weapons supply lines, which Israeli officials believe run from Iran and Syria. But Israel has been unable to stop Hezbollah from firing roughly 720 rockets into the Galilee region of northern Israel over the past week.

The conflict began last Wednesday after Hezbollah gunmen captured two Israeli soldiers and killed eight others in a cross-border raid and subsequent fighting. At the same time, Palestinian gunmen in Gaza have launched scores of rockets into southern Israel since the June 25 capture of another Israeli soldier from a post outside the strip, a raid that included Hamas's military wing.

So far, 13 Israeli civilians have been killed, including one Tuesday in the northern city of Nahariya, by Hezbollah rocket fire. More than 230 Lebanese have died in the Israeli bombing and shelling, the majority of them civilians, Lebanese officials have said. Israeli military officials say Hezbollah has used civilian neighborhoods to launch rockets.

"When we look at the big picture, what you have is a completely different kind of war," said Brig. Gen. Ido Nehushtan, a member of Israel's general staff. Nehushtan said Israel's success in the contest between one of the world's most sophisticated armies and a stateless militia, which often uses the cover of civilian areas, would send a message to other groups at war with the Jewish state.

But he acknowledged that Israel faces many difficulties, including how to track primitive rockets, the high cost of using precision bombs against Hezbollah missiles that sometimes cost only hundreds of dollars, and limiting civilian casualties in a war being fought in residential neighborhoods. "This is asymmetric war in its purest form. And the outcome of the conflict will project a lot about terror activity not only throughout the Middle East but the rest of the world."

Israel's air force, equipped with U.S.-made fighters and attack helicopters, has been key to many wartime victories. During the 1982 Lebanon war, the Israeli air force shot down 100 Syrian jets without losing any of its own.

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