Israeli War Plan Had No Exit Strategy

Israeli forces fire into southern Lebanon from the frontier in northern Israel on July 12, the day Hezbollah fighters seized two Israeli soldiers in an ambush.
Israeli forces fire into southern Lebanon from the frontier in northern Israel on July 12, the day Hezbollah fighters seized two Israeli soldiers in an ambush. (By Oded Balilty -- Associated Press)

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By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 21, 2006

JERUSALEM -- Just two days after Israel launched a punishing counterattack against Hezbollah this summer, Israeli military and diplomatic officials were deeply split over war strategy.

On July 14, as Israeli aircraft prepared to bomb south Beirut, the research unit of Israel's military intelligence branch presented a report to senior Israeli officials that questioned the war plan's ability to achieve the government's goals.

The analysis, according to senior Foreign Ministry officials who read it, concluded that the heavy bombing campaign and small ground offensive then underway would show "diminishing returns" within days. It stated that the plan would neither win the release of the two Israeli soldiers in Hezbollah's hands nor reduce the militia's rocket attacks on Israel to fewer than 100 a day.

Those initial conclusions held true when the war ended 31 days later.

"The question we want to know to this day was why the military chose an option that had no exit strategy," said a senior Foreign Ministry official who read the report. "They never had one, as far as we could tell."

An examination of the first days of the war shows that leaders of Israel's newly elected government launched a broad military campaign without a clear strategy for how it was to end. It also reveals that while Israeli military officials anticipated an entrenched guerrilla force, front-line officers were surprised by just how well prepared Hezbollah was.

This account was drawn from interviews with Israeli military commanders, senior political and diplomatic officials and soldiers, and a visit to the site where the war began. Several commissions are investigating how Israel's political and military leadership managed the war, and those conclusions could determine how long Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government remains in office.

Maj. Gen. Ido Nehushtan, the military's chief of strategic planning, declined to comment directly on the research unit's assessment. But he acknowledged that "yes, you are right, that at one point we reached a point of diminishing returns."

"But you never know when that crack will come," he said.

The Ambush

On July 12, two Israeli Humvees passed within yards of a Hezbollah ambush point. It was a hollow carved in the underbrush, just above the track used by Israeli military patrols. The hidden Hezbollah camp was stocked with food, water, radios, rifles, antitank missiles and diagrams detailing the insignia and size of Israeli military units. The Hezbollah fighters aimed and fired at the Israeli convoy just after 9 a.m. along a remote bend in the fence-lined road.

Lt. Col. Ishai Efroni, deputy commander of the Baram Brigade, had for months seen donkeys carrying sacks on the other side of the border, led by men who appeared to be Lebanese farmers. "We thought it was fertilizer," he said of the sacks. Later, he realized it was weapons and equipment. "This is what you learn in guerrilla school," he said of the Hezbollah fighters. "You take your time."

Efroni noticed that the Hezbollah gunmen had grown increasingly brazen walking the fence line in his sector along the northwestern border, and on May 28 the guerrillas fired a barrage of Katyusha rockets toward Israel's coastal towns. "I got the feeling something had changed," said Efroni, 41, who has spent most of his career in the northern border area.

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