Last week, long before setting off on their post-army treks to the Amazon rainforest, the fighters of the Golani infantry brigade's reconnaissance battalion spent long hours in the tangle of woods near southern Mount Carmel. In the natural terrain around the Elyakim training base, the army has constructed outposts resembling as closely as possible Hezbollah's extensive system of bunkers and emplacements in nature reserves in southern Lebanon, which it failed to cope with during the Second Lebanon War.
Almost four years later - July 12 will mark the anniversary of the war's outbreak; the Hebrew date was marked in a ceremony this week - the Israel Defense Forces is training intensively in combat tactics suited to Lebanon, with the aim of achieving better results in a potential next round of fighting.
The IDF knew about the nature reserves in Lebanon from which Hezbollah launched rockets in 2006 before the last war, but much of the relevant information did not make its way to the combat units. On July 19, 2006, when the elite unit Maglan found itself in the heart of the first Lebanese nature reserve the IDF encountered in the war - on a hill overlooking Moshav Avivim, just across the border - the detailed intelligence about the site sat in sealed crates: Military Intelligence had not made it available to the forces in time, claiming it was too highly classified.
Three days later, after the nearby village of Maroun al-Ras was captured, Col. Haggai Mordechai - the commander of the Paratroops Brigade at the time - said that only then did he understand the character of the nature reserves. "We thought we were dealing with [people with] a few pup tents, with sleeping bags and cans of food," he explained. After a few encounters at similar sites resulted in casualties, the IDF decided to stop launching raids in the nature reserves.
The Elyakim training site is saturated with false explosive devices and camouflaged emplacements, in which the Golani reconnaissance troops are expected to uncover simulated rocket-launching sites. Observing the thick forest below, battalion commander Lt. Col. Oren Cohen says: "We know a lot more about nature reserves today than we did five years ago. If the battalion had been sent into sites like this in 2006, we would have paid a high price."
On the night before they entered the nature reserve as part of a recent exercise, members of the reconnaissance unit hiked through 15 kilometers of rough terrain, carrying equipment and weapons weighing an average of 30 kilograms on their backs.
"I had to lug less than that back then and it wasn't easy for me in the least," Cohen says. "While it's true that a local Hezbollah squad spends years preparing to defend itself against the IDF at a particular location, in the end they only undergo a month and a half of training. Our soldiers are far more trained. Such a confrontation will cost us casualties, but the mission will be accomplished. I feel quite confident with the soldiers training below."
Like most postwar training exercises, much of the week-long drill is conducted with brigade headquarters notifying the battalion commander of targets ahead while the unit is on the move. The stint in the nature reserve caps a 13-week brigade-wide training exercise. From Elyakim, the battalion was flown by helicopter to the Golan Heights for a different drill.
Whose job is it?
During the Second Lebanon War, the brigade and battalion commanders did not internalize the fact that locating the rocket-launchers responsible for prolonged shelling of the home front was part of their mission. Dealing with the short-range Katyusha rockets that paralyzed the Galilee communities was perceived as being someone else's job - maybe that of the Israel Air Force (meanwhile the air force, it turned out afterward, was convinced that was the mission of Northern Command ).
"There was no correlation between the specific missions of each unit and the overall goal of the war," admits an officer who played a senior role in Northern Command. "Deploying ground forces was a very controversial move, accompanied by a lot of concern about casualties on the part of both the government and the highest ranks of the General Staff."
At the end of the war, then-commander of the Nahal paramilitary brigade Col. Miki Edelstein sat down for a meeting with officers from the U.S. Army. The Americans' conclusions were perfectly simple: To take out Katyushas, one of the guests told Edelstein, "you put on your boots" - in other words, send in ground forces. The IDF understands this now, but also knows that it is not feasible to have its units worn down by having them chase after every last rocket. According to one conservative estimate, Hezbollah has 40,000 rockets in Lebanon.
Success in the next round will require both combing through and taking control of the terrain - to whatever extent that time allows - and striking at essential targets of Hezbollah and the Lebanon government.
As part of the lessons of 2006, Hezbollah moved its "center of gravity" from nature reserves in open areas to compounds in the heart of villages and forests. The organization's assumption is that by fighting from within populated areas, they will wear down Israel, which will be apprehensive about a mass killing of civilians.
Israel, which appears to enjoy high-quality intelligence on events in Lebanon, is collecting information about these "urban reserves" as well. At the same time, the Dahiya doctrine has also been developed, by which the IDF has threatened to respond to rocket fire originating from Shi'ite villages by unleashing a vast destructive operation - as it did against the Shi'ite quarter (the Dahiya ) in Beirut in 2006.
The Israeli threats and the scars of the war, which Hezbollah feels far more acutely than it would ever publicly admit, are apparently still able to preserve the status quo in the north and thereby avert another war. The IDF assessment is that neither Hezbollah nor Syria wants to engage in armed conflict this summer. Nonetheless, the fear of escalation remains - particularly if Hezbollah makes good on its plan to perpetrate a showcase terrorist attack abroad, as revenge for the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh two and a half years ago.
The command group in Elyakim consists of Lt. Col. Cohen, Golani Brigade commander Avi Peled and his designated successor, Col. Ofek Buchris. The three have known one another for more than 15 years and served together (often succeeding one another in posts ) in a large number of brigade assignments. They each also have wounds to show for their efforts.
Buchris was injured seriously in Nablus immediately after Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, and was awarded the chief of staff's citation for his contribution to the fighting. Peled and Cohen were hurt together in Gaza by friendly fire from an Israeli tank during Operation Cast Lead in 2009 - an incident in which three soldiers from the brigade were killed. Cohen, who is tired of the media's interest in his injury and his return to service, made an extreme effort to get his hands to function again.
Over the course of the exercise in the thicket, Cohen tells Peled that his hearing aid has been damaged, a problem the brigade commander is all too familiar with himself. Despite being the subject of many mutual jokes, Peled's concern for the more junior officer is evident.
Outspoken and unpretentious, Peled will conclude his term as Golani commander at the end of the month. He will then go abroad to study, but not in Europe, to which he has not ventured since Operation Cast Lead. Along with Cohen, Buchris and a small group of mainly infantry officers, Peled always seems to be at the center of combat. Their paths have crossed countless times over the past 12 years: when participating in a brigade exercise on the Golan Heights under Gadi Eizenkot (now GOC Northern Command ), receiving the rank of lieutenant colonel as a battalion commander at the conclusion of an exercise on Mount Hermon from Gabi Ashkenazi (then the GOC Northern Command, now the chief of staff ), defending the Gaza Strip settlement of Netzarim with his battalion for eight months at the start of the second intifada, and raiding the Nablus casbah as commander of the Egoz unit.
Peled was appointed commander of a ground forces brigade in Gaza after his predecessor, Col. Pinhas Zuaretz, was badly wounded, and he was at Neve Dekalim the day after Defense Ministry tractors leveled the settlement. It was on his watch as brigade commander that Gilad Shalit was abducted, and after the Second Lebanon War he found himself, as deputy commander of the 91st Division, parting from his commander, Col. Gal Hirsh, who was forced to resign after two soldiers were abducted in the north.
I watched him during Operation Cast Lead, too, stubbornly return to his soldiers just one day after being wounded, the whistle of the lethal shell still ringing in his ears. Peled could barely make out the questions being asked by the reporters surrounding him, as the state used him against his will for its own public relations purposes.
As we travel in a jeep, the conversation turns to Maj. Benji Hillman, a soldier and close friend from Egoz, who was killed in the battle for Maroun al-Ras. In April, one of the brigade's deputy battalion commanders, Maj. Eliraz Peretz, was killed in an incident in the Gaza Strip. It's not an easy time for the Golani Brigade, which this year experienced serious training and operational injuries, alongside disciplinary problems. Still, Peled and his successor, Buchris, remember wilder times, when no brigade gathering at the Convention Center in Jerusalem was complete without someone throwing a smoke grenade or two.
Peled, who is 40, has spent 22 years in the forefront of combat units, almost all of them in Golani. It won't be easy for him to leave. Nothing will quite equal being the commander of Golani. His old friends from its reconnaissance unit want to celebrate his departure with an arduous trek, like in the old days. Peled is less enthused. He's already trekked enough. Like other commanders, he's convinced that today's junior officers are better, more professional and more disciplined than he himself was 20 years ago. Maybe, although, he adds on second thought, they lack a little initiative.
The demand for new recruits to serve in the Golani is sky-high. The last draft saw eight candidates for every available place, far more than in any other brigade.
"Even the brigade commander's nephew had a hard time getting in," Peled says. But the brigade still does not intend to use a system that would weed out candidates, as the Paratroops do, "because we are still proud of our role as a social melting pot."
One of the implications of this approach is that there are many more fighters with serious economic and family problems as compared to similar units.
Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, who worked his way up the ranks in Golani, said not long ago that he finds it difficult to explain to the commanders of the current generation what he had to cope with as a platoon and company commander following the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
"At that time," he related, "soldiers who came out of the National Induction Center did not know where they would serve. When we passed Beit Lid [the Paratroops' base] on the way to Shraga [Golani headquarters], new recruits jumped out of the windows of the bus as soon as they realized they were going to be posted to Golani."