washingtonpost.com
War Stirs Worry in Israel Over State of Military
Many Say Failure to Silence Hezbollah Sends Bad Signal

By Doug Struck and Tal Zipper
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 19, 2006

JERUSALEM, Aug. 18 -- Sgt. Lior Rahamin's Israeli reserve unit had not trained in two years. When its members were called up for the Lebanon war, they didn't have straps for their guns, spare ammunition, flak jackets or more than one good radio. There were other shortages: Twice their operations were canceled because they had no water to take; once they went two days without food.

"Hezbollah didn't surprise us. We were surprised by the Israel Defense Forces," said Rahamin, 30, a paratrooper who was wounded fighting in Lebanon in 1997 and who volunteered to go with his unit again. The next time they call, he said, "we will not show up."

From the failure to get food and water to the troops, to complaints of an uncertain war plan and overconfident generals, the Lebanon war is fast being viewed within Israel as a major stumble. Military and political leaders already are trading blame; some are expected to lose their posts. Officers say the mistakes show weakness in the military, the Israel Defense Forces, known as the IDF. Many Israelis worry that the failure of the military to squash the Hezbollah militia will make their country more vulnerable to other enemies.

"For four weeks we failed to defend ourselves against daily bombardments against our cities. This is a failure that never happened before," said Yuval Steinitz, a Likud Party member and former chairman of parliament's defense committee. "This is going to send a bad message."

Such fears were fueled by a strident speech by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the end of the war, promising to follow Hezbollah's model to retake the Golan Heights. Less than 24 hours after the cease-fire, he boasted that Hezbollah had "defeated the legend of the army that had never been defeated."

Brig. Gen. Ido Nehushtan, a member of the Israeli army's general staff who is taking over as head of planning for the military, defended the outcome of the operation. "This was a unique war," he said in an interview Friday. "You can't judge it in a traditional way. Our war was much more like a war on terrorism than a war against an army. . . . It's not realistic to expect any white flag coming from the bunker."

Nehushtan insisted that the military did not expect to stop the Katyusha rocket attacks on Israel -- only to try to cripple Hezbollah.

"To stop the rain of Katyushas, you would have to take every inch of the land. The objective was to deal Hezbollah a significant blow," he said. "They have lost heavy numbers and a huge amount of infrastructure."

The complaints that have emerged as Israel's soldiers return from the field have heightened the country's concerns about the state of its army and the judgment of its leaders.

"If we would have gone in with more foot soldiers, we would have done more," said Avi Hubara, 40, a schoolteacher and reservist who volunteered to go to Lebanon to fight. "But the politicians were scared to make decisions. It was a failure. We got people killed. There was lots of friendly fire. We did not hurt the capability of the Hezbollah. We did not return the kidnapped soldiers. We did not win."

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his defense minister, Amir Peretz, have little military experience and are now the target of scathing criticism for faults in the operation. The Knesset, the Israeli parliament, is demanding a judicial investigation of the conduct of the war. Public opinion of the government and military leaders has plunged in the polls, and the returning soldiers are glum.

"Led Astray," said a headline in the Haaretz newspaper. "Why We Didn't Win," the largest-circulation daily, Yediot Aharonoth, pondered in bold type. There is much blame for the military, as well as for political leaders. The returning reserve soldiers tell of confusion, contradictory orders and missing supplies and equipment.

"We were getting ready to board the bus in Lebanon with faces painted for combat, but they called us back," said Sgt. Yuval Drori, 30, a reservist who works at a software company. "Another time we were at the border, with bullets in the chambers, but they canceled again. The mission changed every 30 minutes. There was a great sense of a big mess."

"In the last six years, there hadn't been any preparation" for putting soldiers into combat, said a retired major general, Shaul Givoli, director of the Council for Peace and Security near Tel Aviv. "Even the rations had expired."

Critics list a variety of miscues, some acknowledged by the army. "We made some mistakes in preparation," a high-level military officer said in an interview. "We need to recheck our intelligence, our logistics, the readiness of reserves."

From the outset, Israel tried to wage the war largely from the air, instead of sending a large ground force into Lebanon quickly. The bombardment created scenes of devastation in Lebanon. Israeli army officers insist that the operation brought serious damage to Hezbollah's infrastructure, supplies and manpower. But the bombing did not stop the rain of rockets fired by Hezbollah fighters.

Israeli forces also were surprised by the effectiveness of Hezbollah and its missile armaments, which hit an Israeli ship, may have downed a helicopter, and penetrated about 20 of Israel's most modern tanks.

Public criticism was intense after Israel broadened the ground war inside Lebanon in the last two days before the cease-fire. More than 30 Israeli soldiers were killed during the fighting that weekend to seize ground that the army then abandoned Monday morning when the cease-fire took effect.

The senior Israeli officer, who helped plan the last-minute push, said the ground operation was valuable. The officer, speaking on grounds that he not be identified by name, said that the outlines of the cease-fire were not known when the order to go ahead was given and that the battles helped shape the final agreement.

But the coming cease-fire was clear to those in the field. "We were called up to go in, and on that night I told my friends, tonight and tomorrow people will die for nothing," said Drori, the reserve sergeant. "The cease-fire agreement was there, and everybody knew what was to be achieved, and people will die.

"It seemed the IDF was trying to drop every single bomb in its arsenal. You could hear the blasts and bombs whistling around you. Then at 7:55 Monday morning, it all went still. Those last 30 casualties were in vain."

Drori's squad escorted combat bulldozers. Then the bulldozers left to be refueled and did not come back. "Nobody told us about it. We finally called the army engineering commander, and he told us to come back because the bulldozers are parked. He said we did a great job. In fact, we didn't do anything."

Gerald Steinberg, who heads the conflict management program at Bar-Ilan University in suburban Tel Aviv, said: "The screw-ups could have been avoided. The hesitations and lack of leadership -- go in, don't go in, go there, go here. We all knew almost daily of troops being told to go in, then being called back. Had the war gone well, that would have been forgotten. But it didn't.

"Then in the last couple days, a mad rush when we all knew there was going to be a cease-fire. We lost 33 soldiers, and so many crippled and badly wounded. Wasn't there a better way to do it?"

Many Israelis see a more ominous consequence of Israel's missteps. The failure of Israel to silence Hezbollah, followed by the claims of triumph from the militia, Syria and Iran may leave the perception of weakness, they feel.

"The only lesson Israel's enemies can possibly have been learning is that after decades of defeat and frustration, they have found the means to effect the demise of the Jewish state. They need only acquire greater rocket and missile capabilities," the editor of the Jerusalem Post, David Horovitz, wrote Friday. "It was brought about by a level of arrogance and complacency probably unparalleled since the" victory in the 1967 war led to Israel being caught unprepared for a surprise attack in 1973, he said.

Writing in the Haaretz newspaper this week, columnist Reuven Pedatzur agreed. "The IDF's failure is eroding our national security's most important asset -- the belligerent image of this country, led by a vast, strong and advanced army capable of dealing our enemies a decisive blow if they even try to bother us," he wrote.

"In Damascus, Gaza, Tehran and Cairo, too, people are looking with amazement at the IDF that could not bring a tiny guerrilla organization to its knees for more than a month," he said. "What happened to this mighty army?"

Knesset member Steinitz said Israel had long relied on a doctrine that when attacked, it had to counterattack deep into enemy territory "and defeat the enemy almost at any cost. Now, in the last decade or so, we developed a culture of strategic war that is less costly to human life. Instead of looking for a knockout, we are looking to gain points. I think it's a mistake."

Others contend that any potential opponent looking at the devastation wreaked by Israel on Lebanon will not see that as evidence of weakness.

"The destruction in Beirut and southern Lebanon do create anger, but they also create deterrence," Steinberg said. "Israelis are coping with this. It's not a sense of denial. It would be a mistake if Hezbollah or others look at Israel as a weakened society. Israeli society is very determined to see this through, and prepared to fight another war."

Zipper reported from Tel Aviv. Special correspondent Samuel Sockol in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company