Israeli troops burnt in their own inferno

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Lebanon has a peculiar habit of revenging itself on its occupiers. And once again the Israelis who choose to occupy southern Lebanon have suffered a humiliating military disaster.

Only months after one of its helicopters crashed en route to the occupation zone, killing 77 Israeli troops, the Israeli army was forced to admit yesterday that an ambush it staged against a Lebanese Shia resistance group had been so badly bungled that an inferno started by its own artillery burned four of its soldiers to death and injured four others, one of them critically.

The full story of ineptitude and "errors of discipline" - the Israeli defence minister's own words - has yet to be told, but already there is evidence that Israel's almost promiscuous use of massive fire power against its enemies was to blame. For it now transpires that the Golani Brigade set out on Thursday morning to ambush Lebanese guerrillas inside the Israeli occupation zone and believed, after it trapped them in a wadi and shot four of them dead, that Israel had won a small victory in its war inside Lebanon.

In the hope of killing the guerrillas who had run away the Israeli ambushers called up artillery fire on the hillside to the north. Within seconds, Israeli batteries laid down a carpet of no less than 120 artillery shells onto the brush of the wadi and hills - and this in blazing hot weather and on a land which has not seen rain for four months. A massive brush fire broke out, but - and Lebanon produces such odd climactic events for its enemies - the wind changed direction and sent the inferno racing across the hillside towards the soldiers of the Golani Brigade.

Finnish soldiers of the United Nations force, who have their second company inside the occupation zone, tried to move close to the area, but were given a "shell warning" by the Israelis to indicate that further gunfire was being prepared. As the Israelis desperately radioed for help, Israeli Blackhawk helicopters flew into the haze above the ambush point as a mile high column of smoke began to drift over southern Lebanon. Civilians in the nearby villages of Kuzair and Wadi Hojej found the sun darkened by inferno.

One of the Israeli units participating in the rescue mission demanded to pass through a Finnish UN checkpoint but the Finns tried to stop them - unaware of the deaths and believing that the Israelis were trying to move through the UN area of operations to attack Hizbollah and Amal gunmen to the north. The Israelis then cocked their rifles and the UN - like their predecessors in Bosnia - dutifully backed down. Israel later claimed that the UN had "obstructed" the rescue mission, an allegation which was harshly condemned by the UN's spokesman, Timur Goksel, who said the Finns had not known why the Israelis had tried to pass and that no Israeli assistance calls had been made to the UN headquarters.

Complaints of UN "obstruction" come badly from the Israelis when their own troops daily obstruct the UN battalion's radio networks, cutting in on UN batallion communications to make small talk about their families and eating arrangements. One conversation apparently involved whether or not an Israeli unit should be eating pizza for dinner. Quite apart from the communications indiscipline of soldiers who deliberately block UN radios, playing games with European troops on a peacekeeping mission is not going to win any wars in southern Lebanon.