By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 19, 2006; A01
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.
But those successes also included decisive contributions from the armored corps and infantry. The limits of air power became clear during the first Palestinian uprising in the late 1980s. Facing a restive population using mostly rocks and civil resistance, airstrikes made little tactical sense. That changed during the second Palestinian uprising, when Israeli aircraft were deployed to bomb government buildings in the West Bank and Gaza and to shoot missiles at suspected militants.
"Even if the military operation may temporarily stop the rockets from Lebanon and Gaza, Israel must be ready to pay a certain price, namely to negotiate in order to stop it forever," said Gabriel Sheffer, a political science professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "There will be no end to the rockets until there is a political and cultural solution to the broader conflict."
Israel began developing anti-missile systems after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when the Jewish state was hit by Scud missiles from Iraq, despite the U.S.-deployed Patriot anti-missile system and thousands of U.S. Air Force sorties over Iraq's western desert searching for launchers. The Israeli military has since deployed the Arrow-2 anti-missile system, designed to knock down ballistic missiles such as the Scuds possessed by Syria but not the shorter-range Katyushas or Qassams.
In partnership with the U.S. Army, Israel had begun developing the Nautilus, a laser-based system for use against short-range missiles. One of the virtues of the Nautilus was that, for the first time, it was designed to provide a cost-effective way to knock down Katyushas. But despite a successful test a few years ago, the U.S. Army backed out of the program.
In Gaza, Israel has relied largely on airstrikes and artillery fire to go to the source of the Qassams. The rockets range from 2 1/2 to 6 1/2 feet in length and are usually made from metal tubing, sometimes from sawed-up lampposts uprooted from Gaza's streets.
They are fired from collapsible metal stands, often from dunes, orchards or narrow streets, and the farthest one has traveled roughly nine miles. In attempting to stop rockets, the Israeli military has fired more than 11,000 artillery shells into Gaza and carried out scores of assassinations from the air since withdrawing its last soldier from the strip in September.
"The shorter the range, the more difficult it is to do something against it," said Isaac Ben-Israel, a retired major general who headed the research and development directorate of Israel's Defense Ministry. "The time between preparing the rockets and hitting the targets is seconds. There's nothing you can really do to intercept them."
In Lebanon, Israel's threat has primarily been the Katyushas, commonly 120mm factory-made rockets that carry a roughly 40-pound warhead. In recent days, however, Hezbollah has fired rockets more than 25 miles with payloads twice the size of the traditional Katyusha.
But Ben-Israel, who now runs the security studies department at Tel Aviv University, said the longer-range rockets actually present easier targets for Israel's air force because they require sophisticated launchers that are easier to track. Israeli military officials say they have had some success in recent days knocking out the known Hezbollah launch sites and rocket fire has declined, though it is unclear whether that is a result of the military operation or Hezbollah's strategy.
The longer-range rockets are also far more expensive than Katyushas, meaning Hezbollah likely has fewer of them.
By relying on airstrikes and limited incursions, Olmert has avoided long and bloody ground operations that could lead to an unpopular occupation. A small number of Israeli special forces have been operating just inside the Lebanese border against Hezbollah posts, Israeli military officials said, although there are no signs that an invasion force is being assembled. All but a few specialized army reservists remain at home.
Oren, who was with one of the first Israeli army units to enter Beirut in the 1982 Lebanon invasion, said Hezbollah's longer-range arsenal signals that "the whole notion of territorial depth is losing meaning. Clearly the issue here is a political and diplomatic solution. There is no military solution."
"In order to get rid of rockets, you have to occupy the territory," said Zeev Schiff, the longtime military affairs correspondent for the Israeli daily Haaretz who co-wrote the definitive account of the Lebanon war. "If you took south Lebanon, you might solve the short-range rockets. Then, people will tell you, Hezbollah will just find longer-range missiles. So do you occupy northern Lebanon? So it goes."