Israel misreads its adversaries

Poor tactics, politics and a high-tech arsenal that wasn't so 'smart': Patrick Cockburn in Jerusalem on why the army failed to achieve its goals
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The Independent Online
Two minutes before the ceasefire began at 4am yesterday, a Katyusha crashed into an apartment building in Kiryat Shmona, the town in northern Israel which is a favourite target for the Hizbollah guerillas who fire rockets. It caused no casualties, but the explosion marked the failure of the Israeli army to achieve its goals in its 17-day-long bombardment of Lebanon.

At the start of Operation Grapes of Wrath the army made Shimon Peres, the Israeli Prime Minister, two promises: it said it could largely eliminate the ability of Hizbollah to fire Katyushas across the border and, with its new "smart" guided bombs and missiles, it could do so without inflicting massive casualties on Lebanese civilians. It was to be a clinical war, with no television film of dead children and grieving parents to stoke international outrage.

"The army offered Peres a seductive cocktail," says one diplomat. "They believed they had weapons so accurate they could hit a Hizbollah leader in his bath. When that failed, they began to lash out in all directions."

The rhetoric of the offensive changed after the first four euphoric days as the rockets kept landing. Briefing officers stopped speaking of surgical strikes and the fading ability of Hizbollah to launch the Katyushas. The initial mood, and the army's belief in the accuracy of its new heavy artillery, was well caught by a lyrical description of the Dohar 155mm gun by Alex Fishman, correspondent of the daily Yediot Aharanot. "The Dohar is the rising star," he wrote. "It entered the picture on Friday [the first day of sustained bombardment]. Its enemy: time-operated Katyusha tubes on the ground or small Toyota trucks equipped with Katyusha launchers. The main enemy is the 21.5km-range Grad Katyusha. The artillery can locate the Katyusha as it is being launched and give precise targeting location for it within seconds."

Israeli planning drew on the experience of the Gulf war in 1991, but with an exaggerated respect for high-technology weapons. Videos taken by attacking aircraft showed missiles demolishing buildings said to be used by Hizbollah, though Israeli officers admitted privately that most were unoccupied. Israelis of all people should have been sceptical of the claims about the effectiveness of new weaponry: During the Gulf war, American Patriot missile batteries, much touted as an unfailing antidote to Iraqi Scud missiles, turned out to be wholly ineffective.

A few days after the start of Grapes of Wrath, 155mm shells crashed precisely into the compound of the UN Fijian battalion at Qana, marking the turning- point of the operation. Israeli politicians and military officers immediately said it was a horrible accident. But within the armed forces the massacre at Qana exacerbated a row already raging over the failure to stop Hizbollah rockets. Officers within the Northern Command of the Israeli army, which was conducting the operation, said it was all the fault of military intelligence for underestimating the strength of Hizbollah.

How far was the Israeli army out of control, as many Lebanese on the receiving end of the Israeli bombardment came to believe? There is some evidence for this. Almost a week into the operation, Brigadier-General Giora Inbar, the commander of Israeli forces in south Lebanon, met Israeli military reporters at an outpost of the South Lebanon Army within the Israeli occupation zone. In a comment which led to outrage in the Knesset, he said: "We are advancing step by step. We will not permit a situation in which the Prime Minister will suddenly stop us without having accomplished the tasks."

It is probably untrue that Mr Peres, who is Defence Minister as well as Prime Minister, ever lost control of the fighting, but he does not have the same day-to-day grip over the army as his predecessor, Yitzhak Rabin, a former chief of staff. It is not that he does not have experience with the military machine - as director general of the defence ministry in the 1950s he planned the production of Israel's nuclear bomb. But in Grapes of Wrath he had a chance, five weeks before the election, to show voters that he is not soft on security. Israelis noticed that he had exchanged his dark civilian suit for a military-style bomber jacket.

There is a third reason why the army was able to get its way. If Mr Rabin had not been assassinated last November Mr Peres, as his Foreign Minister, would probably have warned of the political dangers of another entanglement in Lebanon. Instead the Foreign Minister today is Ehud Barak, who only recently stepped down as chief of staff. He occupied the post in 1993, during Operation Accountability, an earlier, less wide-ranging assault on Lebanon, and is one of the few people who consider it a success. At that time he believed it was clever politics to bomb property owned by Rafiq Hariri, on the theory that this would bring the Lebanese Prime Minister to heel.

During Grapes of Wrath there were signs of growing tension between Mr Peres and Mr Barak. Three weeks before the operation started, the army submitted a plan to the cabinet in which military action was to be systematically escalated in four stages. Syria and Lebanon were to feel military pressure from Israel increasing by the day. Merkava tanks were very publicly sent into Lebanon, implying that Israel might make a ground attack. Quite why Israel thought Syria, a notoriously tough regime, and Hizbollah, among the world's most skilled guerrillas, should be impressed by this remains a mystery.

Israel's actions, however, were in keeping with its previous miscalculations in Lebanon. Operation Grapes of Wrath failed just as dismally as Peace for Galilee in 1982-84. It aimed to weaken Syria and Hizbollah and ended up by strengthening them. There may now be a covert witch-hunt within the army to discover what went wrong. The problem is more systemic than simply exaggerated respect for "smart" munitions and an underestimation of the resistance of Hizbollah.

Despite its pride in its military efficiency, Israel has been taken unawares in almost all its military conflicts since 1973. It was surprised by the Egyptians crossing the canal that year, the strength of resistance in Lebanon in 1982, the start of the Intifada (uprising) among the Palestinians in 1987 and, now, by the reaction of Syria and Hizbollah in 1996. In each case Israel made what Napoleon said was the worst mistake in war: a preconceived idea of how its opponents would behave which turned out to be wholly mistaken.