Chronicle of Disaster

C Company's final morning watch was set for 8 A.M. and was delayed by about 45 minutes. Thirty-one-year-old Udi Goldwasser from Nahariya was the officer in charge of the patrol; his code name over the communications network was 4.

Israel Defense Forces slang has a term to describe the mood prevalent among the reservist soldiers in the Zar'it section - the area of the abduction, on the morning of July 12, 2006: "end-of-term [i.e., end of reserve duty] feeling," they call it. The main - if not only - topic of conversation during those final hours is the length of time it will take them to get home.

C Company's final morning watch was set for 8 A.M. and was delayed by about 45 minutes. Thirty-one-year-old Udi Goldwasser from Nahariya was the officer in charge of the patrol; his code name over the communications network was 4. Goldwasser, an amateur photographer and deep-sea-diving coach, had married Karnit the previous October and was enrolled at the Haifa Technion [Israel Institute of Technology], to begin working on his master's degree the following fall. He was seated in the commander's seat, to the right of the Hummer's driver, career soldier Razak Mu'adi.

Eldad Regev and Tomer Weinberg sat in the back. The patrol left Zar'it and traveled eastward, together with another Hummer (4A) with three soldiers, instead of the regular four: Wasim Nazal, the driver; Shani Turgeman, the commander; and combat soldier, Eyal Banin.

The soldiers were not particularly tense as they drove off on their mission, although Goldwasser had heard First Lieutenant Nir Leon, the officer in charge of the patrol, say that a "red touch" had been identified at 2:20 A.M.: Someone or something had touched the electric security fence. "It was a very frightening night. I thought at least 20 Hezbollah people had passed through the fence," said Leon. Goldwasser promised to examine the spot.

The attack began shortly after 9 A.M. Hezbollah waited patiently until the two Hummers appeared from around a bend in the road and were completely exposed. As the second Hummer passed the highest point and began descending, it was attacked by heavy machine-gun and anti-tank fire. Hezbollah's holding link, which had positioned and hidden itself among thick undergrowth on the opposite bank (on the Lebanese side of the fence), disabled the Hummer so its crew could not come to the help of the first Hummer, which was moving down the slope about 110 meters ahead of it. Nazal, the driver, was killed inside the vehicle. Turgeman and Banin were shot to death as they climbed out of the Hummer.

But Hezbollah focused mainly on the first Hummer. A small force that had crossed the border into Israel during the night shot two RPGs at short range at the Hummer, which took most of the flak on the right side. Weinberg, who was badly wounded, and Mu'adi, who was slightly wounded, managed to get themselves out of the left-hand side of the burning vehicle and hide among the bushes. "I had already said all my good-byes," Weinberg related later.

Since the two wounded soldiers were not in a position where they could see the abduction, the rest of the reconstruction is based on findings in the field. Hezbollah, it appears, went up to the Hummer and pulled out the two wounded Israelis, Goldwasser and Regev, a 26-year-old Bar-Ilan University student from Kiryat Motzkin. With the two captured soldiers, the abductors boarded the civilian jeeps awaiting them across the border and headed north, toward the nearby village of Ita a-Shaab.

Immediately after the attack on the Hummers, an artillery attack began on Moshav Zar'it and the surrounding military positions. Several civilians and soldiers were slightly wounded. At the same time, Hezbollah sharpshooters disabled all the IDF observation cameras in the area. Battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Benny Azran heard the explosions from his office in the Zar'it camp and "already, as I was walking from my office to the command and communications room, I knew we'd had it. I entered the room and there were so many reports from so many places ... I didn't know where to turn my attention to first."

The first one to really understand what was happening was Ze'ev, the sergeant major of the support company, who had heard a report over the communications network: "4, 4A, collision." Ze'ev phoned his company commander, Noam Schneider, who hadn't a clue as to the location of the patrol under attack, but from his knowledge of [border marker] 105 as an obvious weak spot, he decided to set out in that direction from headquarters in Zar'it. Schneider chose to take a hidden route, via a wadi that joined the road from the south rather than from the west, along the high road. Since the entire area was under fire, it took some time for communications to be checked vis-a-vis the force. But it was quite clear even before the check was completed that two Hummers, 4 and 4A, were not responding. Schneider had joined Azran, who announced over the network that they were in a "Hannibal" situation - suspected abduction of soldiers. It was 9:45.

The gate into the wadi was locked, and the scout who had come with Azran shot the lock open. The small force advanced toward the burning Hummers and soon encountered the driver, Mu'adi, who jumped out from behind some bushes. Mu'adi had just managed to report the attack on his cell phone to another driver, a regular soldier annexed to the Nahal Company (infantry brigade) in the adjacent zone. Azran and Schneider tried to question Mu'adi, but he was too shocked, and they continued to make their way toward the Hummers. Two bodies lay alongside the second Hummer. A third body could be seen inside. A quick count of the dead and wounded verified the original fear: It was an abduction. Two Israeli soldiers had been taken.

All the officers in the 91st Division, entrusted with guarding the Israel-Lebanon border, were told the same thing, either before taking up their positions or during their stint of reserve duty: Anything you don't get done during the first few moments after the enemy has conducted a successful abduction, you'll never get done. At that point, Azran and Schneider decided that it would be no use trying to pursue the captured soldiers. From that moment on, it was a matter for the ranks above theirs.

Trojan Horse

The video tape captured by "Maglan" (a prime paratroop unit) at Mount Dov, close to Mount Hermon, in late June 2005, left little room for speculation: Hezbollah was planning further abductions of Israeli soldiers in the region of the Shaba Farms, around the border between Syria, Lebanon and Israel. The presence of three Hezbollah special force members was identified in Wadi Mrar, in Israeli territory, an area where no fence separates Israel and Lebanon. The IDF chased them for a whole day, at the end of which a Hezbollah commander was killed in a clash with the Maglan force. His two colleagues managed to escape back into Lebanon. There were signs in the wadi that the position where the three Hezbollah fighters were laying in wait had been expertly prepared and perfectly hidden by camouflage nets.

But the most interesting find was the recording, which the three Lebanese had made several hours before the attack, while they were still in Israeli territory. Apart from providing a detailed account of the area, the three had also found time to fool around. One of them filmed his two friends taking a rest, dressed in camouflage fatigues and helmets. All three had beards and appeared completely relaxed. Their commander, who was later killed, was chewing gum. "Can you see the flies?" he asked the photographer and pointed to the sky, probably at Israeli mini-RPVs. "Take a picture of the RPVs." "What's up?" the photographer tested his prowess as an interviewer. "Great," the commander replied. "What could be better than this? We'll take it walking."

During the following 12 months, Hezbollah waged several rocket and mortar attacks on IDF positions on Mount Dov. At the same time, Hezbollah planned three further attempts at abducting Israeli soldiers, all of which were thwarted. The most ambitious kidnapping attempt took place at Kafr Rajar on November 21, 2005, when dozens of Hezbollah special forces crossed into Israel on foot and in all-terrain vehicles and tried to attack an IDF paratroop position, with the objective of abducting soldiers. But, relying only on a general intelligence warning, the IDF force changed location in time, so that Hezbollah stormed an empty post and were attacked in an ambush. A young sharpshooter, Corporal David Markowitz, killed three Hezbollah fighters. Encouraged by the media, the 91st Division exaggerated their victory. Even former prime minister [Ariel] Sharon was impressed. "You have saved the country from a tricky strategic situation," he wrote in his letter of congratulations to head of Northern Command, Udi Adam, and intelligence branch chief, Aharon Ze'evi. Corporal Markowitz's courage overshadowed the fact that the IDF had enjoyed a great deal of luck in thwarting the attack.

Late May 2006 saw a further escalation, which began with a mysterious explosion. In a bomb explosion in Sidon, Mahmoud al-Majzoub, commander of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Lebanon, was eliminated. Hezbollah, suspecting Israel was behind the assassination, reacted to the killing by launching an accurate Katyusha rocket attack on the Israel Air Force base on Mount Meron, the southernmost point to be attacked in recent years. The IDF closed the round of blows with extensive rocket and artillery fire across the zone close to the border, in the course of which dozens of Hezbollah positions were targeted. At least three Hezbollah members were killed, and the organization abandoned its forward positions. Israel agreed to stop the attack after Hezbollah appealed to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) via the Lebanese government. However, the IDF's proposal forbidding Hezbollah from returning to its border positions after the firing had subsided, was refused.

But, according to the Winograd Committee on the Second Lebanon War, the writing was already on the wall: "The next abduction was just a matter of time and it was doubtful if it could be avoided. All available means for managing the situation surrounded the lowest target concept, in other words, removing soldiers and military objectives from places Hezbollah could penetrate with ease."

'Hannibal,' first time

The deterioration on the border with the Gaza Strip had begun about five months after Hamas' victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections, at the end of January 2006. The constant increase in Qassam rocket attacks on Sderot and the western Negev had Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's new government confused. The suffering in Sderot increased, and the government was unable to provide solutions. The attacks led Israel to question its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

Israel responded by renewing IAF attacks and by dispatching small commando units into the Strip. As a substitute for a major ground operation, Israel launched a furious attack from the air; achievements were only partial. The dozens of Palestinian casualties included many civilians. Each time the IDF broadcast optimistic reports on its success in reducing the number of rockets, the Palestinians would fire some more.

Things reached a dangerous state of escalation on the morning of June 25. A joint section consisting of Hamas, the "Committees for National Uprising," and a small offshoot known as the Army of Islam infiltrated Israeli territory via a tunnel north of Kibbutz Kerem Shalom, on the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip. The infiltrators, helped by an organized military cover of antitank rockets and mortar fire, attacked a number of positions and troops along the border.

The team of a Merkava tank facing the Gaza Strip was surprised by the Palestinians as they emerged from the tunnel. Lieutenant Hanan Barak and Sergeant Pavel Slutzker were killed. A third team member was wounded and remained inside the tank. The fourth, Corporal Gilad Shalit, was wounded and taken by his armed abductors into the Gaza Strip. As with the Zar'it abduction [soon after], confusion reigned. The forces in the field were busy with secondary terrorist groups linked to the infiltrators and noticed far too late that one of the tank crew was missing. There was no real chase after the abductors.

In response to the abduction, Israel launched an extensive military operation in the Strip, which it called Summer Rain. The air raids became even more intense and were followed by infantry attacks in the Beit Hanun region. In a month of activity, some 450 Palestinians were killed, including about 100 civilians. One Israeli soldier was killed by friendly fire. Shalit remained in captivity. Israel's force did nothing to persuade the organizations that held the soldier to budge so much as an inch.

On July 4, after the Palestinians fired a rocket at Ashkelon, Olmert threatened to "cause Hamas to weep and whine." Unlike his predecessors during similar crises, Olmert made a lot of statements. "The question of freeing Palestinian prisoners [in return for Shalit] is not to be considered," he announced the day after the abduction. According to another of his declarations, "There will be no deal. Either Shalit is released, or we shall be obliged to free him by force." Behind the scenes, Olmert's people informed the press that the prime minister intended to change the rules of the game. Israel would no longer be so vulnerable to blackmail. Israel's response would prove to the terror organizations that the abduction of Israeli soldiers is of no benefit to them. Olmert's declarations were later repeated with regard to the Lebanon abductions.

With the deadlock surrounding Shalit, IDF forces advanced deep into the Gaza Strip in the early morning of July 12. For the first time since the withdrawal, Israeli soldiers entered the outskirts of the region that, only a year before, had housed the Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip. At the same time, Israel made attempts to dispose of Hamas military leaders Mohammed Deif and Ahmad Ja'abri in their hiding place in Gaza. Def was badly injured. His colleague was unhurt, although a number of civilians were killed. The press praised Olmert's daring. Regardless of the danger to Shalit, the prime minister had followed a hard line toward Hamas.

Early warning

On the morning of July 6, the head of Northern Command received a call from Major General Gadi Eisenkot, who suggested that, with things as they were in Gaza, it might be a good idea to consider possible repercussions on the situation in the North. Hezbollah might see itself obliged to respond to developments in Gaza. Udi Adam checked with his intelligence officer. Since no danger signs were identified, it was decided to remain on low alert.

Following the abduction of Shalit and with no concrete intelligence to support their fears, Adam and 91st Division commander Brigadier General Gal Hirsch decided to raise the level of alert in southern Lebanon, from level 2 to level 4, on a scale of 1 to 5. According to the officers, the abduction in Gaza could stimulate the appetite of Hezbollah, and Hassan Nasrallah might be tempted to grab the reins of the struggle from the Palestinians.

Headquarters was party to the decision, and, over the next couple of weeks, the northern border was placed under high alert. All furloughs were canceled in units stationed close to the border. South of Zar'it, along phase line 105, Egoz Company commander Major Benji Hillman set up ambushes. Teams from elite units were posted at other known weak spots. But all of Hirsch's attempts at obtaining concrete information on Hezbollah's intentions failed. He had no such information.

On July 10, following continued pressure from his officers and after GHQ had lowered the alert level, the 91st Division commander also announced that the alert would be lowered from level 3 to level 2. (Level 4 had been canceled on July 2.) There seemed no point to maintaining a high alert, since it was not backed by additional troops and other resources. As an immediate result of lowered alert, "red zones" were reopened to military movement. On the other side of the border, Hezbollah waited patiently. "They simply sat there and waited for us to lower the alert," said Hirsch after the war. "As soon as the Hummers returned to the [security] fence, Hezbollah was back in action."

In retrospect, the IDF believes that, after its crushing failure in Rajar the previous November, Hezbollah planned the abduction meticulously over several months. Command of the operation was most probably entrusted to the head of the organization's terror mechanism, Imad Mughniyah. More than 20 Hezbollah fighters, divided into four sections, took part in the action. One section crossed the border during the night and carried out the abduction. The location had been picked after careful deliberation and lengthy observation. Hezbollah knew that IDF patrols rarely came to the spot and that the nearest army post was not permanently manned. As far as IDF observation points were concerned, it was a "dead area." Here even radio reception was distorted. According to American researcher Andrew Exum, Hezbollah expected the IDF's response to the abductions to be slow and clumsy, due to the chosen location.

A well-equipped bunker built by Hezbollah on a rise overlooking the road, on the Lebanese side of the border, was chanced on by the IDF only toward the end of the war. Several months previously, when the soldiers in a post near Zar'it complained of "someone digging under our feet," the division brought in geologists who explained that the ground in that region was too hard in which to dig. The soldiers, it later transpired, had been right.

The first Israeli force entered Lebanese territory less than two hours after Goldwasser and Regev were abducted. It was more a demonstration of presence than a real pursuit. The 91st Division had minimal resources available for upsetting the escape of Hezbollah from the area. Despite protests, an artillery battery was removed from the region shortly before the abduction and deployed elsewhere for maneuvers. Although fighter helicopters were rushed in, they had not been instructed to attack on the Lebanese side.

Division commander Hirsch called in a Nahal force, together with a Merkava tank from the 7th Brigade Armored Corps, for a retaliatory attack on Hezbollah's nearest posts, in an action code-named Header. The tank was ordered to capture a vantage point over Givat Hadegel, a nearby hill on the Lebanese side, site of a Hezbollah post, and to take control of the exit roads from the village of Ita a-Shaab, as a solution to the unlikely possibility that the abductors were still there. The tank advanced, intending to run over Hezbollah's tin huts, but one contained a huge bomb. The massive explosion could be seen clearly on all the aerial photographs taken by the unpiloted aircraft and broadcast in real time onto screens in all the IDF offices and war rooms. Television crews arriving in the Zar'it region managed to record it. The tank's four-man team was killed outright.

In order to protect the tank's remains and to ensure that Hezbollah did not snatch the bodies, a Nahal force was posted near Givat Hadegel. When they arrived, they found a huge, still-smoking crater on the spot at which the bomb had gone off. Hezbollah soon started filling the area with mortar fire. Israeli soldier Nimrod Cohen was hit by shrapnel and died. The remains of the tank and the four bodies were removed only two days later. In his testimony to the Winograd Committee, Hirsch said that he dispatched the tank out of a commitment to the abducted soldiers. The means at his disposal were limited and he was fully aware of the risks, but "everything I had to give, I gave in order to rescue them. Both professionally and ethically, in order to rescue Udi and Eldad."

Missing intelligence

After the war, chief of staff Dan Halutz convened a tribunal headed by Major General (Res.) Doron Almog to examine the event. Almog was fierce in his criticism of the IDF's deployment along the border over the years and opined that insufficient troops, means and intelligence had been invested in preventing abductions. But he placed most of the responsibility on Hirsch, who, he believed, had not done enough to instill in his troops an awareness of the dangers of abduction.

The division commander firmly refuted all the findings. In November 2006, Hirsch resigned from his post and from the IDF. The debate focused on the quality of intelligence at the disposal of the army with regard to Hezbollah's plans prior to the abduction. The 91st Division had received no intelligence; the alert was raised along the northern border, based purely on intuition and analysis, only after the abduction of Shalit in Gaza. However, an internal examination of the Intelligence Directorate while the war was still being fought revealed that the intelligence collation system possessed preliminary information that had not been passed on in time to the 91st Division. During the two weeks prior to the abduction, Intelligence had recorded over 30 pieces and fragments of information relating to the planned abduction. According to Hirsch, had he been in possession of this information in time, he would have maintained a high alert. Without the information, he lowered the alert, patrols were resumed along the fence, and the abduction was made possible.

Hirsch's decision to conduct a chase was a noble and ethical gesture, but its chances of success were minimal while its results served only to intensify the crisis. After a day of battle, which included two soldiers abducted across the border to Lebanon and eight soldiers killed, the mood in the country provided an easy platform for belligerent declarations and hasty decisions that ultimately led to war.

Excerpted from "34 Days: Israel, Hezbollah and the war in Lebanon," by Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008).