By Scott Wilson and Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 27, 2006; A01
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.
"You can do this in a very short time, but you are going to kill many more innocent civilians and cause many more casualties among our troops. We have no intention of doing either," Avi Dichter, Israel's public security minister, said earlier this week.
Moving in tanks and on foot in the town of Bint Jbeil, troops walked into an ambush by scores of Hezbollah fighters, who appeared from tunnels, bunkers and houses. There were reports of hand-to-hand combat and gunfire exchanged at point-blank range.
"Here, instead of making the decision to destroy, we are fighting in the streets," said Yaakov Amidror, a retired major general who served as head of the assessment and evaluation division of Israel's military intelligence. "It is very costly, and the result may lead to another kind of decision in the future at the tactical level. If we have to rely on our overwhelming advantage in firepower to protect the infantry, it will be very devastating for Lebanese civilians."
Israeli commanders said they expected to encounter roughly half the number of Hezbollah fighters that they actually found in the town when they entered after encircling it the previous day. Armed with rifles, grenades and laser-guided antitank missiles, the gunmen fired from houses, alleys and tunnels laced through their border strongholds.
"Whether this declaration of control created false expectation just within the public or inside the IDF itself, I don't know," said Alpher, the former Mossad official, referring to the Israel Defense Forces. "But if this is the assessment that came down from south Lebanon, it indicates that these troops did not have a clear idea of what controlling the town meant, which gets back to the problem of intelligence."
On the other side of the border, Hezbollah officials also described an ambush in which their fighters used antitank weapons.
"The Israelis took some bad losses," said Mahmoud Qomati, a member of Hezbollah's political bureau, adding that Israeli tanks penetrated Bint Jbeil but were quickly enveloped by Hezbollah fighters lying in ambush and armed with the antitank weapons.
Qomati said 15 days of fighting have proved that Hezbollah militia troops can hold their own against Israeli soldiers on the ground. Even with Israeli control of the air, he said, the group has the munitions, equipment and morale to continue fighting "for months."
"That's war," Qomati said. "We take losses, but so do the Israelis."
The Hezbollah guerrilla fighters are mostly local Shiite youths who know the terrain and, in ordinary times, work and live among the population. The Shiite theocracy in Iran is the group's chief financial sponsor, and Israeli officials say much of its arsenal arrives with Syria's blessing. In recent years, its members have rarely carried arms or worn uniforms, except when called on to participate in an operation. They are trained to retreat back among their civilian neighbors when the firing dies down.
"They will fight, and they will disappear," said Timur Goksel, who watched Hezbollah grow into a potent force during 25 years as a senior adviser to the U.N. observer force along the Israeli-Lebanese border.
Their number is a closely guarded figure, according to Goksel and other analysts in Lebanon. A core of about 700 full-time and highly trained fighters forms the backbone of the organization's militia, they said, backed by part-time villagers variously estimated to number between 8,000 and 20,000.
The core group has received the most training, particularly in the operation of missiles and rockets. Its members are highly motivated, having received guarantees that their families will be looked after and their children educated at Hezbollah's expense if they die in combat.
Most of the resistance to Israeli incursions into Lebanon over the past two weeks has involved the use of assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and antitank missiles, including what Israeli officials say are versions or copies of powerful and accurate Russian- and U.S.-made weapons.
The Iranian advisers and volunteers who were once involved in Hezbollah's military branch have been largely eliminated since Hasan Nasrallah took over as Hezbollah leader in 1992, Goksel said, and Iranians are rarely, if ever, seen in southern Lebanon despite Tehran's political and financial support.
Nasrallah, who was only 32 when he assumed command, gave the southern militia forces more autonomy from the headquarters in Beirut's southern suburbs, Goksel said. Southern Lebanon was broken into three regional commands, with the leader of each reporting directly to Nasrallah.
The loose structure has helped prevent Israel's intensive bombing over the last two weeks from disrupting communications or lines of command and control. With guerrillas fighting in their home villages and arms cached in tunnels and underground shelters, there are few vital command lines to attack.
"The command and control system is this," Goksel said, holding up a cellphone.
Cody reported from Beirut.