'Why did these soldiers die?'
Last Monday, a few hours before the cease-fire went into effect, a senior officer came to brief reporters on the progress of Division 162. The movement west toward Wadi Saluki and the villages of Anduriya and Farun, near the Litani River, was one of the main battles of this war. A battle of courage, in difficult conditions, without which the Israel Defense Forces could not push farther west and occupy territory along the Litani.
At this point some of the reporters woke up. "What exactly did the IDF gain in this?" they wanted to know. After all, they pointed out, after you managed to cross the wadi, suffering many casualties, you were ordered to stop. And with the cease-fire the IDF would be leaving its frontline positions. "Why did those soldiers die?"
The officer evaded answering. He said we should ask his superior officers.
The events between August 11, when the orders were issued for the IDF to reach the Litani, and the cease-fire on August 14, will be examined seriously by the IDF and civilian committees of inquiry. But even at this stage, the lethal combination that has characterized this war is already evident: a political leadership whose understanding of the battlefront was minimal, but still sought a victory to wave at the war's end; a General Staff demanding to "blow off built-up steam" and allow the forces to move forward; and a division command dying to show what it could do. Of the 33 fatalities during the final stage of the war, 16 died on Division 162's front, and 12 died in the battle of Saluki.
Division 162 started the war slow, and hoped to change that with the push westward. Initially there had been a debate over the route of the offensive, with Brigadier General Guy Tzur, division commander, wishing to bypass Saluki to the south. By the time preparations were under way and the political leadership had debated whether to authorize the offensive, Hezbollah had observed the movements and sent fighters with anti-tank missiles to reinforce the Saluki front.
That Friday night the government made the most controversial decision of the war, ordering what amounted to a 60-hour ground offensive toward the Litani River. Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz was the only member of the security cabinet who knew the Saluki area well. He called the prime minister to dissuade him from such a move. Even at that point, Mofaz still believed Olmert was simply using the threat of the operation as diplomatic leverage.
At the IDF they say a division under a constant threat has problematic momentum, and that it is very difficult to hold the division back. Mofaz and others reject this unrestrained "momentum" excuse.
Crossing Wadi Saluki requires climbing a steep hill, 400 meters long and 100 meters high. It is overlooked by hills from several directions. In order to safeguard the passage of the large armored force, a large infantry force was dropped ahead of the crossing, near the villages of Anduriya and Farun west of Saluki, to take the high ground.
Just like it did in other battles in the war, Hezbollah had prepared well. The force commander's tank was destroyed by a large mine. Ten other tanks were struck by anti-tank missiles. Some went up in flames. Many of the missiles were fired from the rear, from the direction of the village of Adisiye - an area the IDF had said it controlled two weeks earlier. By early Sunday morning IDF tanks had managed to climb the hill and joined infantry forces fighting Hezbollah men in the villages. Twelve soldiers had died: eight in tanks and four infantry troops. At that point the orders came in to stop the advance. Later in the day, four more soldiers died.
The village of Anduriya had been described as "essential" for crossing from south to north. Hezbollah had dug in well, and because the village was Christian it had not been "softened" by air or artillery. Armored troops said they received air and artillery support at Anduriya, but only at a later stage.
Captain Hanani Mizrahi and three soldiers were passengers in a tank making its way to the village. When the tanks in the rear were hit by missiles, the force commander tried to turn around to assist the wounded. Then two more tanks were hit, including the commander's.
"We came out of the rear of the tank quickly," Hanani recalls. "For the first time we could actually see where we were being hit from. They were shooting at us from 270 degrees - light weapons, mortars, anti-tank missiles. We took cover in an olive grove and took up a 360-degree perimeter defense. We could not move in any direction."
The IDF wars over history have been full of mistakes, of mismanaged battles, of losses that can be described as sacrifices for nothing. Perhaps this is a journalist's judgment and it is too soon, too harsh. Perhaps Olmert was motivated not only by his political future, but by genuine concern for not achieving the operation's aims. Those close to the prime minister say the army promised it would be possible to hold the important positions on the Litani within 60 hours, and that Olmert wanted to be ready in case the cease-fire collapsed immediately after it went into effect. By the time the cease-fire began, the IDF was nowhere near achieving its goals.
"It is entirely legitimate to let the IDF carry through its military plan in order to achieve a better diplomatic deal. This happens in nearly every war," a senior officer at the General Staff says.