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15 Years On, Mistakes of Second Lebanon War Dictate Israel’s Next Moves

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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IDF soldiers patrolling Israel's border with Lebanon, May
IDF soldiers patrolling Israel's border with Lebanon, MayCredit: Gil Eliahu
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The 15th anniversary of the start of the Second Lebanon War was marked Monday relatively quietly. As is the custom, the annual memorial ceremony for those killed in the war took place according to the Hebrew date, a few weeks ago. The army again held a briefing for journalists, as it does almost every year, on the lessons learned from the war, but the media seemed less attentive this time.

All this has been happening as Lebanon undergoes great pandemonium. The political and economic crisis there is making life intolerable, creating a never-ending shortage of fuel, electricity, medication and food.

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Because Hezbollah, the country’s strongest force, is among those responsible for the situation, Israeli defense officials, for now, consider the crisis a restraining factor regarding the possibility of another military clash. The Lebanese agenda is almost completely civilian and economic; at this stage, the risk that Hezbollah will want to escape the crisis via friction with Israel looks quite low to intelligence people.

The relative quiet on the northern border since the 2006 war, probably the longest such period since the ‘70s, makes it tempting, as usual, to take a different view of the performance of the political and military leaders during that war, which back then was perceived as a failure.

But actually the major reason for the calm lies in Iran’s priorities. First, the desire was to preserve Hezbollah’s strength to deliver a counterblow if Israel attacked Iran’s nuclear facilities. After that, Shi’ite fighters were sent from Lebanon to rescue the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war.

And as usual, we have to remember that Israel, too, has an interest in the calm. The deterrence is mutual. Just as Hezbollah worries about the destruction the Israel Defense Forces could inflict on Lebanon, Israel is deterred by Hezbollah’s firepower and the damage it could cause civilian areas in the center of the country.

Every conversation with officers who fought then as company and battalion commanders and have since been promoted triggers two analyses. First, they believe the army functioned even more chaotically in that war than previously believed.

Second, the preparations before a possible war in Lebanon or Gaza in the future are based on correcting the mistakes of 2006. The lessons stand out in a number of areas: polishing the operative plans, streamlining the production and use of intelligence, and improving the work of the command posts.

But in this story the ground forces, despite their immense size compared to the IDF’s other branches, remain the deprived child at the General Staff’s table. The decision not to use the infantry and armor in Gaza in May was logical in the circumstances; Israel didn’t want to get dragged into a long war or topple the Hamas regime.

The prevailing view in the IDF is that it will be different in Lebanon, simply because there will be no alternative. The intensity of the firepower launched from the north at Israeli civilians will generate vast pressure on the government, any government, to send the army into southern Lebanon on a broad and aggressive maneuver.

Hezbollah supporters waving flags on Lebanon's border with IsraelCredit: AZIZ TAHER/ REUTERS

Still, for two decades at least (and all the more cogently since the 2006 war) the questions have remained the same: Will the politicians risk a move like that, entailing major military casualties? Will the senior command project enough confidence to the politicians in the units’ ability to accomplish the mission?

The question for years has been whether a ground maneuver is still relevant. After the decision in May – again – not to send the troops in, it’s possible to talk about a kind of melancholy of the ground forces.

In the Second Lebanon War these forces were utilized on a small scale and late. For about a month, the infantry and armored brigades dithered in pointless entries and exits at a narrow strip north of the fence.

In the last 60 hours, Ehud Olmert’s government sent units forward, a desperate, superfluous and failed move. In retrospect, taking into account the preparedness that was revealed in this last foray, it’s probably just as well that no broader maneuver was attempted.

Part of the move involved landing forces from the elite 98th Division by helicopter in the western sector of southern Lebanon. This operation was halted on the second night after Hezbollah shot down a Yasur helicopter, killing five. Over the years, the IDF continued to drill the landing and parachuting of ground forces in the enemy’s rear, a move known in the jargon as “vertical envelopment.”

Next week, a military delegation will take part in a controversial operation: the parachuting of officers and soldiers into Slovenia to commemorate Hannah Szenes and her parachutist comrades from Mandate Palestine who fought in Europe during World War II. The showcase operation has generated considerable criticism, both inside and outside the IDF. Cynics in the General Staff said this week that this is the closest the army will come in the coming years to executing a vertical envelopment.

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