Israeli Soldiers Find a Tenacious Foe in Hezbollah

By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 8, 2006

KIRYAT SHEMONA, Israel, Aug. 7 -- Late last week while guarding a house in southern Lebanon that Israeli forces were using as a command post, Cpl. Matan Tyler received an unusual order from his commander: Watch out for guys wearing Israeli uniforms.

A day earlier, a nearby regiment had been approached by fighters wearing familiar olive shirts and vests with Hebrew writing, Tyler said he was told. The fighters -- Hezbollah militiamen disguised as Israelis -- opened fire on a house full of Israeli soldiers.

"You really can't underestimate the Hezbollah," said Tyler, 20, a member of the army's Nahal Brigade. "They are the masters of the field. They know the area better than us. They know where to hide and when to move. They always know where we are."

The incident is just one among dozens of examples of an enemy that has proven more resilient and better-equipped than Israeli military forces anticipated. After nearly four weeks of air attacks and ground combat, Israeli military officials say that they have killed only a small fraction of Hezbollah's fighters and that the group still has hundreds of launchers and thousands of rockets at its disposal.

"What we face is an infantry division with state-of-the-art weaponry -- night-vision gear, advanced rifles, well-equipped -- deployed along our border," said Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser, who until last month was director of analysis for Israeli military intelligence. "They have some of the most advanced antitank missiles in the world."

In more than two dozen interviews at army bases, hotels, artillery batteries and staging points for their entry into Lebanon since the heaviest ground fighting began last week, Israeli soldiers expressed confidence in their superiority over Hezbollah, but frustration that they are fighting an elusive enemy as difficult to find as it is to defeat.

"Most of the time we only see them when they want to draw attention to themselves, then they kick us from behind," said Tyler, who was resting with his battalion at a lakefront hotel near Tiberias after a week in southern Lebanon. "It's horrible, yes. You feel -- not weak, but how do you say it, threatened? There is always, always uncertainty."

Several soldiers said they were surprised by how long the operation has taken. When Israelis invaded Lebanon in 1982, they reached to within 10 miles of Beirut in two days. In the current conflict, after more than three weeks of fighting, the heaviest ground combat is still in a string of towns along the border.

"It's so slow and you're just going crazy. You're not really getting very far in there and it's brutally hot just sitting in those houses," said Cpl. David Gross, 22, of Livingston, N.J., who moved to Israel two years ago to join the army.

"Look, we're all smart enough to know it's probably best that they do it this way. Fewer people get killed," he added. "But it's also hard because I don't know if we will ever be able to stop the rocket attacks. You just feel like we'll keep pushing them back and they'll just shoot the rockets farther. Is that frustrating? Yes."

The soldiers described a battlefield littered with booby traps and fortified by fighters who have been preparing to repel a ground invasion since Israeli withdrew from southern Lebanon six years ago, after an 18-year occupation.

Master Sgt. Yusaf, a scout for the army's Baram Brigade who spent 16 years fighting in southern Lebanon during the 1980s and 1990s and who spoke on the condition that only his first name be used, said comparing Hezbollah's capabilities then and now "is like talking about the difference between men who have guns and an army."


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