Despatches: Hizbollah winning war with deadly pounds 12 `rocks'

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Dogged by indiscipline, inefficiency and the almost total collapse of its intelligence network in southern Lebanon, the Israeli army is losing its war against pro-Iranian Hizbollah guerrillas north of its border with Lebanon.

More than 100 suspected collaborators have been seized by Hizbollah within the past 12 months, while both sides are now using increasingly sophisticated weapons to kill each other.

The "rocks" are made of Bakelite. The Hizbollah buy them at Beirut's garden shops where fake stones for rockeries on the balconies of high- rise buildings cost scarcely pounds 12 - and in which the internal lamp can easily be removed to make way for explosives. The Israeli version - another garden "rock" accessory - is packed with plastic explosive and ball-bearings to give extra killing power.

Every few days, the United Nations bomb-disposal men - aware of a new and sophisticated mechanism within the triggering area - defuse these lethal cocktails; both sides, they say, have become sophisticates in blowing each other up.

Sometimes, several "rocks" are linked together with cortex and attached to anti-personnel mines. Last month, an Israeli bomber - putting together his camouflaged explosives in a workshop - accidentally left a Hebrew ordnance tag inside the "rock". On another, one UN unit found "six ballbearings" written in Arabic underneath. But it is the Hizbollah who are winning the war. So far this year, the Israeli occupation army has lost 37 of its men, not counting another 73 who were killed when two military helicopters collided on their way to Lebanon. And last week, they came in for a further shock.

After discovering that their Centurion tanks were vulnerable to the Hizbollah's Saggar missiles, the Israelis withdrew all but their armour-draped Merkava tanks from southern Lebanon. But the Hizbollah, after acquiring upgraded Saggars, were able to fire a missile right through the hull of a Merkava, killing instantly the Israeli lieutenant commanding the tank. All hatches on the tank had been battened down; he was supposed to have been safe.

Furthermore, what the Hizbollah lacks in weaponry, it is fast making up for with extra guerrillas. Two weeks ago, it transpires, the militia launched 25 simultaneous attacks along the Israeli occupation line from the foothills of Mount Hermon to the Mediterranean; at least 175 men were involved, all firing their mortars at Israeli military positions at precisely 7pm.

Far more serious for Israel in the long term is the discovery that dozens of their collaborators - including women - have been seized by the Hizbollah. They include the informer who turned double agent and led 15 Israeli soldiers - who believed they were about to kill Hizbollah men - into an ambush outside the village of Ansariyeh, blowing up 11 of them with mines.

But they also include the second-in-command of security for the rival Shia Muslim Amal movement in the village of Ein Baal. He was found to have an Israeli two-way radio in the back of his television set and an aerosol can containing maps of Hizbollah infiltration routes. Only a month ago, the Israelis arrested their own former top collaborator in the city of Sidon - known by the code-name of "Abu Arrida" - stripped him of his Israeli citizenship and locked him up in Ashkelon jail for spying for Lebanon.

In the past year alone, 24 members of Israel's own proxy Lebanese militia, the so-called South Lebanon Army (SLA), have defected to the Hizbollah, and Israeli troops now refuse to mount joint patrols with their supposed allies in southern Lebanon. In their turn, SLA men have refused to leave Israel's military compounds to go on day or night patrols. Yet even as their auxiliaries decline to serve with them - one SLA officer staged a mutiny against the Israelis near the town of Marjayoun last year - Israel's own military professionalism is being called into question.

The official Israeli inquiry into the deaths of five of its soldiers in the Golani Brigade who were burnt to death in August by a brush-fire started by their own artillery - during another ambush that went disastrously wrong - has concluded that the soldiers should have been ordered to evacuate sooner but "had no prior training or understanding on how to behave during fires".

News of this extraordinary lapse - most modern armies are taught that unexpected fire can be as lethal as bullets - came as a report on Israel's Radio Haifa claimed that Israeli engineer soldiers sent to rescue the military victims of the helicopter crash earlier in the year looted the belongings of some of their 73 dead comrades. Although the Israeli army's spokesman denied the report, the radio quoted one of the rescuers as saying that several of his comrades stole flak jackets bearing the names of the dead soldiers - and that although fierce arguments broke out among them afterwards, some soldiers still possess the stolen equipment.

Another Israeli helicopter disaster almost occurred a few days ago when a case of grenades broke open in the air while Israeli troops were being ferried by night into Lebanon. The machine was forced to land while soldiers frantically tried to find the missing grenades with torches.

Amid such chaos, it is little surprise that neither the Israelis nor the Hizbollah any longer take prisoners. In battle, SLA men and Israeli soldiers are given no quarter by the Hizbollah while only six months ago, the Israelis shot dead two Hizbollah attackers and wounded another in a wadi near the village of Taibe. When humanitarian workers reached the scene, they found all dead, the third man shot several times at close range in the back of the head.

The Israelis have several times offered to make a unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon, but they demanded the disarming of the Hizbollah prior to their retreat. Syria, whose support for the Hizbollah constitutes a bloody pressure point on the Israelis who still occupy the Golan Heights, is in no mood to oblige. For without a war in southern Lebanon, how could President Assad persuade Israel to take its army and its settlements out of the occupied Golan?