Lebanon debacle leaves 12 Israeli soldiers dead

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It began with a night raid on Lebanon led by an Israeli lieutenant colonel, another of what the Israelis like to call their "anti terrorist operations". But it ended yesterday in military ignominy and failure with 12 Israeli troops dead at the hands of the Lebanese army and guerillas, four others wounded and the severed head of an Israeli soldier held aloft by a member of the pro-Iranian Hizbollah.

The full extent of Israel's latest debacle in Lebanon - it followed the death of four Israeli soldiers last month in a bush fire caused by their own artillery inside Lebanon - was evident by midday, when the Hizbollah's leader, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, displayed captured Israeli rifles and military equipment, along with the limb of at least one Israeli soldier at a press conference in Beirut.

The Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri, pleaded desperately to the US and French ambassadors in Beirut to prevent any further Israeli raids, while Israel's own Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, ignoring the fact that the Lebanese disaster was of his army's own making, claimed Israel was now fighting a "war against terrorism" on two fronts.

As usual in Lebanon, international attention focused on Israeli casualties; the death of a 35-year-old Lebanese woman and a baby during the Israeli attack went largely unreported.

The bungled Israeli assault contained several lessons for Israel; it was a symbol of just how much more bloody for Israel would be an attack on Palestinian authority areas in the West Bank if the Israelis decided to enter Palestinian-held cities - a step threatened by Israel after the suicide bombings in Jerusalem on Thursday, which killed five civilians and the bombers. And it showed yet again that the Lebanese - who once fled every Israeli military offensive - now fight the Israelis with a desperation born of 21 years of conflict.

The Israelis had landed by sea, apparently intent on blowing up buildings in the village of Insarieah, south of Sidon, in an area where many members of the Hizbollah opposed to Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon have their homes.

No sooner had the Israelis moved inland, however, then a series of massive explosions tore through their ranks. The Hizbollah claimed they had stepped on the guerillas' roadside bombs. Other sources suggest the Israelis accidently triggered the explosives they were carrying on their backs to attack the village. In any event, Lebanese troops guarding the coast opened fire on the Israeli units as the guerillas poured down the coast road to surround the attackers.

With the surrounding trees and bushes set alight by the gunfire, the Lebanese could easily see the Israeli helicopters sent in to rescue the soldiers, and for some time drove them away with anti-aircraft fire.

By the time the Israeli helicopters had managed to evacuate most of the dead and wounded, the battlefield was littered with abandoned Israeli rifles and heavy machine guns, helmets and human remains. When a guerrilla held up the severed head of an Israeli by the hair, a Lebanese soldier took it from him, along with other body parts.

The Israeli attack was presumably intended as a response to the Jerusalem bombings - even though there is not the slightest evidence that the latter was connected to the Lebanon. And Israel's attempt to portray its military defeat in Lebanon as part of a continuing struggle against "terrorism" is even more forlorn.

Wicked though the Jerusalem bombings were, an equally vicious slaughter took place in Sidon last month when Israel's proxy militia shelled the city, killing five civilians along with a three-month-old baby. This was in revenge for a Hizbollah bomb which killed two Lebanese Christian teenagers.

These killings - as "terrorist" an act as the Jerusalem bombings if the word is to be fairly used - were later described as perhaps "understandable" by the very same Israel spokesman, who was yesterday threatening to assault the Palestinians for failing to end "terrorism". Truly the peace process is in its grave.