Is Israel facing a quagmire?

As many as 14 Israeli troops were killed by Hezbollah forces Wednesday, raising the specter of a grinding guerrilla war Israelis don't want.

Published July 27, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

On the map the war looks so straightforward. An Israeli commander has marked Hezbollah strongholds in south Lebanon red for the purposes of our briefing -- lately practically all of the towns north of the Israeli border are colored red. Marked with blue crosses are the strategically important positions, mostly crossroads, now controlled by Israel. "Now we have to just go in and deal with the Hezbollah boys," the commander, who asked not to be identified, said. "There isn't much more to say."

Only a few hundred meters from Bokim Battalion's base -- a unit dispatched to Avivim in northern Israel for the battle against Hezbollah -- lies Lebanon. For the past few days the Israeli army has been launching a series of compact commando missions, at the most comprising a few tanks and a couple of dozen men, across the border. The idea is to weaken Hezbollah, putting a stop to the nearly 100 small missiles fired at Israel every day and leading ultimately to victory in the war against the Islamist militia.

The mission, christened "Just Reward," now appears much more difficult than was first thought -- above all in terms of casualties. Since the small targeted ground operations began Israeli soldiers have been dying on a daily basis in heavy firefights. Wednesday was especially bloody. In an attempt to take the Hezbollah stronghold of Bint Jbail, as many as 14 Israelis lost their lives.

Military analysts and politicians talked confidently at the beginning of the mission of targeted, surgical assaults against Hezbollah and an estimated conflict duration of about a week. Now Israel is increasingly preparing for a long war. Even the commander in Avivim just shrugs his shoulders when he is asked when the war will end. "We are fighting against an invisible enemy ... against small hidden positions all over southern Lebanon, against weapons concealed in bunkers," he says. "That can take a while."

Still the newspapers have refrained from criticism, describing merely the dilemma the army faces. "Two weeks after Israel set out to defeat Hezbollah, its military achievements are pretty limited," wrote columnist Yoel Marcus in the newspaper Haaretz. However, should more deaths, injuries and minor victories for Hezbollah occur in the coming days, the mood could change. Already Israelis are starting to hear and read comparisons with Iraq or Afghanistan.

The long road toward Avivim is an impressive display of Israel's military superiority. The army's heavy tanks line the roadsides, with soldiers sitting on top polishing their weapons. Artillery fires night and day. And Apache attack helicopters fly almost continuous sorties over the border. You can hear the explosions from their deadly cargo even from Avivim.

But all this technology has its limits. Despite days of bombardment from the air, Hezbollah appears to have been only slightly weakened, and continues launching around 80 missiles at Israel every day. For days the military has been indicating that only a ground offensive can achieve its objective. "We have to go into the villages," says the commander. "But it is obvious that we will be attacked there." Even more obvious is the fact that Hezbollah's fighters will have an advantage because of their local knowledge.

That it would not remain simply an aerial war must have been apparent to those responsible in Ehud Olmert's government. During the past few days Israeli newspapers have reported that two years ago an attack against Hezbollah was played out on the military planning table. The result: Simply bombing the Hezbollah militia from a height of 10,000 meters would be ineffective against its small bunkers, plentiful weapons, and improvised yet functioning communications system.

Ultimately the Israelis are experiencing conditions similar to those the U.S. has encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan -- the classical arena of asymmetric warfare and a prime example of an army facing a difficult-to-identify enemy. They are fighting against troops without uniforms, with no bases and with incalculable support from the local populace. "A father, who will be feeding his child one moment, can suddenly become a fighter, and then switch back again," said an Israeli general recently.

In the fight for Bint Jbail a further problem in the offensive against the militants became apparent. The Israeli military is unable to reach many corners of the town with its well-armored tanks. "We had to advance house by house, street by street," said a military spokesman on Tuesday. But it is exactly this sort of fighting that Hezbollah guerrillas specialize in. Their fighters know where the good hiding spots and firing positions are. Above all, they know the escape routes. Israeli air superiority is of little help.

Listening to the exhausted soldiers recuperating in Avivim, the picture of classic guerrilla warfare emerges -- exactly the kind of fight for which Hezbollah has been preparing for years. A young tank driver, just 21 years of age, described on Monday a typical ambush. First, the tank column came under fire from the roof of a building, likely from a machine gun. When they approached the target, they were attacked from behind with an anti-tank grenade. One of the tanks was heavily damaged and a number of soldiers were injured. Two soldiers lost their lives.

Israeli soldiers, well schooled as they are in both fighting and strategy, like to describe the Hezbollah fighters as cowardly -- but as dangerous just the same. "They know that they wouldn't have a chance against us in face-to-face fight," says one soldier. "That's why they hide and try to lure us into ambushes." The young Israeli was operating in Lebanon for several days, and every day, he says, he and his men came under fire. "The men who fight for Hezbollah have nothing to lose," he says. "The only thing they want is to kill as many of us as possible."

For Hezbollah, pictures like those from Wednesday are the best propaganda possible. Dead Israeli soldiers and the wounded being carried back over the border on stretchers by their comrades -- exactly the sort of images the militants want the world to see. Their message: "Our areas cannot be taken." Over and over in recent days they have said how much they welcome the advances by the Israeli military. According to a spokesman for Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, they want to kill as many as 40 Israelis a day.

By Matthias Gebauer

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