Israel's generals braced themselves for a far-reaching inquiry into the causes. The deaths of five Israeli soldiers during a training accident in the Negev Desert in November bought a political furore. Yesterday the army conceded that the South Lebanon casualities constitute the worst battlefield blunder the state has known for several years.
The accident is certain to damage Israeli morale in South Lebanon, where Israel is involved in hazardous low-level war. It is incurring growing numbers of casualties in its attempts to suppress the activities of increasingly professional units of Hizbollah, the Iranian-backed militia.
Along with its proxy brigades in the South Lebanese Army (SLA), the Israeli military attempts primarily to quell attacks by the Hizbollah on Israeli targets over the Jewish state's northern border.
The level of the conflict has risen in recent months, with regular clashes occurring between the two sides almost every night. About 1,000 Israeli soldiers and 3,000 SLA forces patrol in the nine-mile (14km) deep buffer-zone.
When news of the accident first broke yesterday military sources suspected that SLA forces were involved, not soldiers from Israel's official forces. The Israeli army has been training the SLA to take over increasing numbers of activities in the area.
News that Israeli paratroops had made the mistake immediately raised serious questions about co- ordination at a high level. For soldiers to have been shot dead the two units must have come extremely close, and military sources expressed surprise last night that identification was not possible at such range.
According to an Israeli army statement, the soldiers were carrying out an operation at 4.30am and 'as a result of misunderstandings in the field . . . both forces exchanged fire, which caused the injuries'. The accident happened near Qantara village, an area where Israeli forces have repeatedly come under attack in recent weeks, the army said.
An army official refused comment when asked whether the operation was connected to an Israeli helicopter attack against the homes of two Shia Muslim activists in the same area. The helicopter raid was launched at daybreak.
In an interview with Beirut's
as-Safir newspaper, the Hizbollah secretary-general, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, said the group's struggle against Israel was endless and would continue even if others made peace. Israel's Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, who also holds the title of Defence Minister, travelled to the scene of the accident, saying he would oversee the investigation himself.
Initial questions on the accident are likely to be levelled at the army's Chief of Staff, Ehud Barak, whose style of command has caused increasing internal dissent in the army in recent months. Generals have complained that not only does the country not have a proper defence minister - because Mr Rabin is too busy doing the job of prime minister - but it also has a chief of staff who spends too much of his time on political manoeuvring.Reuse content