Shock and What? Israeli's Puzzling Military Strategy

Israel underestimated Hezbollah, which is strategically more powerful and better armed than most expected. The Islamic militia is taking on even Israel's most powerful weaponry. Joystick warfare isn't working, but Israelis don't have the appetite for a bloody groundwar.

By Siegesmund von Ilsemann

Hezbollah's Russian weapons can pierce even the toughest Israeli armor.
Getty Images

Hezbollah's Russian weapons can pierce even the toughest Israeli armor.

Last Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert issued an oath of disclosure when he said: "I have no intention of saying when we will end the campaign in Lebanon." But then he revealed the real reason that he hasn't been able to do so by admitting that the military action had already lasted longer "than we had expected."

So far, Israel's successes in the war against Hezbollah have been meager. Its military has not managed to eliminate Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah or present the world press with evidence of a major weapons depot in southern Lebanon. Meanwhile, the bombardment of Israeli territory continues, with Hezbollah firing about 100 rockets a day into the country's north. Indeed, the entire course of the conflict is puzzling from a strategic perspective.

In the past, Israel sought to defend its security with lightning campaigns. But this time it seems to be pursuing the approach the Americans tested in Iraq and dubbed "Shock and Awe." But even there the strategy, which involved large-scale aerial bombardment, didn't remain successful for long, as evidenced by the bloody guerilla war America's enemies have been fighting there for more than three years now.

"This strategy also cannot work" against an underground army like Hezbollah, which is supported by a large segment of the population, says Philip H. Gordon of the Washington-based Brookings Institution. In fact, sending in ground troops is the only way to track down Hezbollah's weapons caches and firing positions. But it's an approach that has proved to be anything but easy.

Tough adversaries

Sixteen days into the Lebanon campaign, Israel had already lost 33 of its soldiers, a much higher death count than the Israeli public can stomach in the long run. "The Shiites are much tougher adversaries than we expected," Israeli officers said after returning from the front.

Advancing Israeli combat units are encountering perfectly constructed position systems wherever they go. Lethal explosive traps and a weapons arsenal than can even destroy Israel's most advanced weaponry are creating unexpected problems for the attackers. "Never before has a terrorist organization had such highly advanced military technology at its disposal," laments retired General Yaakov Amidror.

Hezbollah's Russian-made "Kornet" rockets are even capable of puncturing the multi-layer armor of Israeli "Merkava" tanks. The group's portable anti-aircraft systems are a threat to combat helicopters and other Israeli aircraft, which had previously enjoyed unlimited air sovereignty in the region.

Bunker busters and cluster bombs

Early last week, Israel's northern command reported that it had taken control of the Lebanese border town of Bint Jbail. But on Wednesday it became the site of Israel's biggest losses in the current campaign. By Thursday, Israel conceded that the town was by no means under its control. Indeed, Hezbollah's tough resistance has held up the Israeli advance along the entire border -- and this despite the fact that Israel's army is using virtually every conventional weapon at its disposal. Within 12 days, its artillery has launched more than 20,000 rocket-propelled grenades, including US-made M483A1 cluster weapons. Each of these grenades ejects 88 small but highly explosive charges across its target area. Because of unavoidably high civilian casualties, most experts consider the use of such weapons in residential areas to be in violation of international law.

Its supply of precision-guided weapons has dwindled so quickly that Jerusalem was forced within days to ask Washington for an expedited shipment of its so-called bunker-busting GBU-28 bombs.

Israeli and Hezbollah strikes

Israeli and Hezbollah strikes

The Israelis dropped 23 tons of bombs on the supposed hideout of its archenemy, Hassan Nasrallah. And yet the Hezbollah leader made a triumphant appearance the next day on his organization's television station and threatened his Jewish enemies with even more devastating counterattacks.

Only one week after saying the Israeli Army would withdraw from Lebanon "within a few days," Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said last week the country now plans to establish a "temporary" security zone after all. But Israeli military officials say the security zone will be only be two-kilometers wide -- a pointless effort from a military standpoint. For his part, Hezbollah's Nasrallah has sought to exploit this strategic waffling and apparent lack of a serious plan on the part of the Israelis.

Even retired German General Helmut Harff, the former commander of German military contingents in Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo, had assumed that a "buffer zone of 30 to 40 kilometers" would be needed to put a stop to Hezbollah's rocket attacks. A week ago, Harff was convinced that setting up that security zone would "happen very quickly." In the end, however, he too was mistaken.

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