Why Israel didn't avenge its general

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REMEMBER ALL those Israeli tanks and armoured personnel carriers grinding towards the Lebanese border last week after the killing of Brigadier General Ezer Gerstein and two of his Israeli soldiers?

The pictures looked pretty dramatic on television. The BBC and CNN both showed this armoured behemoth en route to Lebanon. Yet - unreported, of course - not a single one of those tanks and guns crossed the border.

Then there was the videotape of Israeli air strikes on Lebanon in revenge for the killings 10 days ago. The tape shows targets exploding in clouds of smoke and debris. But the "massive bombardment" announced by the Israelis turns out to have been routine. Not a single Hizbollah guerrilla was killed. The video war was definitely won. But what about the real war in southern Lebanon?

The Israeli videotapes were genuine enough. In the wadi of Jmehjmeh just outside Tibnin - scarcely three miles from the Israeli occupation zone - the wreckage of a Hizbollah building that may also have been an arms depot still lies across the fields, the cliff face against which it was built as fissured in reality as it appears on the film taken by the Israeli jets that attacked it. A neighbouring school was not touched by the guided BSU-12/B 500lb bomb.

Up the Lebanese coast at Naahmeh, a long-abandoned triangular building once used by Palestinian guerrillas - clearly visible on the Israeli aircraft camera tape - lies flattened, its concrete fabric scattered around the long grass. But it wasn't Palestinians who killed General Gerstein and his comrades last week. In Baalbek, the Hizbollah had moved out of the decrepit and long-disused Khawam hotel before the Israelis hit it. In other words, the Israelis' pre-strike intelligence was accurate at Jmehjmeh, out-of-date at Baalbek and hopeless at Naahmeh.

Not so the Hizbollah's. It now transpires that the stretch of road on which General Gerstein and his soldiers were travelling - with an Israeli radio journalist - was, for the Israelis, the safest piece of highway in southern Lebanon. Running as it does between Christian and Druze villages, a Shia Muslim group such as the Hizbollah would have had immense difficulty penetrating the area without being discovered. Yet the carefully shaped charges used in the ambush would have needed at least four men to plant, men who would have had to wait for the Israeli convoy, detonate the explosives by line of sight and make good their escape afterwards.

There is no doubt that Lebanese guerrillas blew up General Gerstein's armoured Mercedes. And that they knew he was coming. But could the guerrillas have been Druze or Christian militiamen working for the Hizbollah? For months now, the Hizbollah have been boasting of a guerrilla movement of all religions operating as an anti-Israeli resistance force in southern Lebanon. A computer-generated reconstruction of the attack - again released on videotape by the Israelis - showed how specifically and accurately the guerrillas had attacked General Gerstein's car, tossing it 120ft down a ravine. But it doesn't reveal how the guerrillas escaped. Which leaves open an intriguing question: did Israel's enemies live inside Israel's own occupation zone?

The only civilian Israeli casualty, the 32-year-old journalist Ilan Roeh, knew this road well.

Of all the correspondents covering the south Lebanon war from the Israeli side, he was among the most accurate and honest of journalists, well aware that Israel had lost its guerrilla war - though, travelling with the general, confident no doubt of his safety.

So was General Gerstein. Already a former brigade commander, the Israeli military response to his killing came out of anger rather than tactical necessity. It is not difficult to understand the motive: hit the Hizbollah and show the film back home so that Israelis about to vote in May elections know that their army and air force do not sit back when they are attacked. Hence that footage.

Yet ironically, the most extraordinary videotape released by the Israelis was taken a few days earlier. It showed what happened when a pilotless MK "drone" - a small propeller- driven photo-reconnaissance aircraft - spotted a Hizbollah guerrilla hiding behind a house in the village of Markaba, again inside Israel's occupation area. He had just been involved in an ambush of Israeli troops.

On the film, you can clearly see the guerrilla running for his life, away from the house, across fields and down the main street of the village.

The tiny plane follows him as Israeli helicopters prepare to attack. At one point, a village woman tries to talk to the Hizbollah man and he runs from her, apparently anxious that she should not be hurt if he is killed. As fast as his legs will carry him, he heads for the cover of trees, and the videotape shows the flash of a huge missile explosion in the forest as the Israeli aircraft strike. Even the Hizbollah announced their man's departure from the world.

But two days later the same guerrilla, badly wounded by shrapnel in the head but very much alive, turned up in a hospital in Sidon - calling himself Hadi Sayed Hassan, after the name of the son of the Hizbollah leader killed by the Israelis last year - with a dramatic story of his escape. "A rocket landed just three feet away from me, shrapnel was flying all around," he said.

"I lost my hearing for a while and was completely covered in debris. I regained control and kept running."

A tank shell had forced him to run from the building in which he was hiding and he remembered the woman who tried to talk to him in Markaba. He had refused her offer of help for fear she would be killed, he said.

Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbollah leader, commented acidly that the videotape showed that, "with all its air power and sophisticated weaponry, Israel was unable to capture a single Hizbollah fighter." He would have no doubt read with interest the words of a senior Israeli officer quoted in the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz last week.

The Hizbollah, he said, was not a "terrorist" organisation, as Israel claims, but a movement of "national liberation" carrying on a guerrilla war. An Israeli victory in southern Lebanon was therefore "impossible".