Monday, July 31, 2006

'Did Israel underestimate Hezbollah?'

Israeli experts question campaign against 'the best Arab troops we've ever faced'

ESTANISLAO OZIEWICZ

With a report from Agence France-Presse

Despite 19 days of air, sea and land strikes against Lebanon, Israel has been unable to decimate Hezbollah and stop its rain of rockets, leading a former defence minister, a former intelligence official and others to conclude that Israel underestimated the militants and are paying the price for a strategic blunder.

Israel's official line is that Hezbollah is being defanged. "We have made a lot of progress in terms of destroying Hezbollah's capabilities," Daniel Ayalon, Israeli ambassador to Washington, said yesterday.

But Israel's armchair quarterbacks are clearly doubtful.

"Israel is far from a decisive victory and its main objectives have not been met," military analyst Zeev Schiff wrote in the Israeli daily Haaretz.

Amos Harel, a Haaretz colleague, wondered whether the Israeli army had failed. He dismissed the assertion by Lieutenant-General Dani Halutz, Israeli army chief of staff, that the air force had hit most of Hezbollah's command-and-control centres and diminished its long- and medium-range missiles.

"One thinks that if Israelis had been asked on July 12 whether it was possible that Hezbollah would shell the north for two weeks without the [Israeli Defence Force] being able to stop it, most of them would have replied in the negative," Mr. Harel wrote.

Israel's initial battle plan depended on air power, although many military experts have said that strategy almost never works on its own. But subsequent, small infantry strikes have not worked either -- Hezbollah guerrillas have put up stiff resistance -- and although Israel is leery of launching any big land attacks, it has called up as many as 30,000 reservists.

Moshe Arens, a former Israeli defence minister, said the military campaign has been poorly executed. "This will be a disaster for Israel," Mr. Arens, a former ambassador to the United States, was quoted as saying in the Israeli press. He said that Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah "will be seen in the world as someone who fired thousands of Katyushas on Israel communities for weeks and came out unscathed."

Mr. Arens also said that Israel now may have to change its strategy and launch a large ground invasion. "I think that without significantly large ground troops being used, we're not going to reach the launching sites," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "And if we don't reach the launching sites, the rockets will keep coming."

According to a Guardian report from a Hezbollah redoubt in the south of Tyre, the militant fighters are extremely disciplined, well-trained and filled with Shia zeal.

And, they are patient.

"We stay put and we don't move till we get our orders, and this is why we are not like any other militia," one of the fighters said from inside a well-furnished apartment in a village on the outskirts of Tyre.

"We have specific orders. Even when we fire rockets we know when and where [to fire] and each of the men manning the launchers runs to a specific hiding place after firing."

Yossi Alpher, a member of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service who used to head the Jaffe Centre for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, said recently that Israel's current Lebanon campaign is more difficult than anticipated.

"I dare say, based on what we've seen so far, these [Hezbollah] may be the best Arab troops we've ever faced."

Now, Israeli Defence Minister Amir Peretz is bracing for an all-out Hezbollah assault.

"Hezbollah may be preparing for a 'closing act' for the operation," a government official quoted Mr. Peretz as saying during yesterday's weekly cabinet meeting.

The official said that Mr. Peretz indicated that such an attack could include "launching a massive barrage of rockets or long-range missiles toward the centre of the country."

In an interview with The Sunday Times yesterday, Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hezbollah's second in command, said that the organization's ability to stockpile arms and build bunkers and tunnels during the past six years have been key elements in its fight against Israel.

"If it was not for these preparations, Lebanon would have been defeated within hours," he said.

Israeli Captain Doron Spielman said that Hezbollah used the time since Israeli soldiers withdrew from south Lebanon in 2000 to fortify themselves.

"They're well trained, well equipped, and ready to die," he said, "as can been seen from the very small number of prisoners taken by Israeli forces."

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