Hezbollah Proves a Formidable Foe

A man shouts for a fire hose after Israeli jets bombed a building in Tyre thought to used by Hezbollah. The air campaign has failed to reduce the militia's rocket attacks against northern Israel.
A man shouts for a fire hose after Israeli jets bombed a building in Tyre thought to used by Hezbollah. The air campaign has failed to reduce the militia's rocket attacks against northern Israel. (Photos By Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)
By Scott Wilson and Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 27, 2006

JERUSALEM, July 26 -- After weeks of aerial bombardment and artillery fire, Israel's army finds itself in a bruising ground war just across its border against an opponent employing the classic tactics of guerrilla warfare. And so far, say soldiers, commanders and military analysts, Hezbollah has proved a more formidable force by orders of magnitude than the armed Palestinian groups in the territories.

Hezbollah gunmen killed nine Israeli soldiers and wounded 27 others Wednesday in clashes in a pair of towns two miles into southern Lebanon, the highest daily death toll for Israel's army in the 15-day war. The Hezbollah ambush inside Bint Jbeil, a town Israeli military officials said the previous day that they had seized, was at times so intense that Israeli soldiers were pinned down and could not return fire.

But Israeli military officials say they have not been surprised by Hezbollah's prowess in the cramped towns and hilly, forested terrain that the Shiite Muslim militia has controlled since Israel left southern Lebanon six years ago. Instead, many of them say, losses such as these expose the limits of a modern national army pitted against a well-schooled guerrilla force fighting amid a civilian population that largely supports its goals.

"When it comes to this kind of urban warfare, it has been like this throughout history," said Brig. Gen. Ido Nehushtan, a member of Israel's general staff. "It is the most difficult kind of warfare ever."

"Are we surprised?" Nehushtan continued. "Well, I wouldn't say that. But they are certainly fighting."

In ordering Israel's largest military operation in Lebanon since the 1982 invasion, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hoped to rely on air power and avoid the grueling war of attrition that marked Israel's 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon. He told troops during a visit to Hatzor air force base in southern Israel earlier this week that "in every combat situation, the preference is to act from the air and not on the ground."

The air campaign, however, has failed to reduce Hezbollah rocket fire into northern Israel and drawn international criticism for exacting a high death toll among Lebanese civilians, roughly 400 of whom have been killed so far.

Military analysts, former senior Israeli officers and soldiers say the mounting casualties in a still-small ground war are rooted in Israel's scant battlefield intelligence, the challenge of operating in civilian areas and the skill of Hezbollah fighters armed with weapons far more advanced than anything many young soldiers here have seen. For example, they said, Hezbollah has been using laser-guided antitank missiles.

Thirty-three Israeli soldiers have been killed since the conflict began, nearly all of them in ground combat focused in a roughly 15-square-mile border region.

"Obviously it's more difficult than what was anticipated," said Yossi Alpher, a former official of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, who once ran the Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. "I dare say, based on what we've seen so far, these may be the best Arab troops we've ever faced."

Olmert told his security cabinet Wednesday that he intends to clear Hezbollah positions from a strip of southern Lebanon, then hold it until a multinational peacekeeping force can be deployed. Hezbollah fighters staged the July 12 cross-border raid and kidnapping that triggered the war from bunkers along the border.

It remains unclear how deep Israeli troops intend to go into Lebanon and whether the distance would protect Israeli cities from Hezbollah's increasingly long-range rockets, more than 150 of which fell inside Israel on Wednesday. The army is moving slowly with a relatively small ground force, numbering in the low thousands at most.

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