Nasrallah Reveals New Details About Ambush, Killing of 12 Israeli Commandos

Hezbollah chief reveals how the Israeli soldiers were tracked in Lebanon in 1997 and offers hints about a mysterious murder of a militant leader in Syria

Israel Defense Forces soldiers carrying the coffin of Sgt. Itamar Ilya, one of the members of the elite Shayetet naval commando unit who was killed in a raid in Lebanon on September 4, 1997.
Moti Kimche

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah revealed new details earlier this month about the disaster in September 1997, when 12 members of Israel's elite naval commando unit were killed in southern Lebanon.

Nasrallah claims that Hezbollah had been tracking Israel's preparations for the mission and ambushed the commandos from the Shayetet 13 unit of the Israel Defense Forces – a scenario that some Israeli sources have also suggested over the years.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 27

Nasrallah spoke on May 2 at a memorial ceremony for Mustafa Badreddine, a senior Hezbollah figure who died under mysterious circumstances three years ago in Syria, and had been involved in the 1997 incident.

Nasrallah's remarks have been translated and analyzed in an article by Dr. Shimon Shapira, a brigadier general in the IDF reserves and an expert on Iran and Hezbollah. The article was published on the website of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a research institute.

On the night of September 4, 1997, 16 Shayetet fighters, under the command of Lt.-Col. Yossi Korakin, were tasked with laying bombs along the coastal road in Lebanon between Tyre and Sidon. After landing on the beach, an explosive device was detonated that caused serious casualties and severed the force into two. Korakin and 10 commandos were killed. Those who survived reported they were fired upon after the blast.

Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah addresses his supporters during a public appearance  October 24, 2015
\ REUTERS

The survivors and the bodies of their comrades-in-arms were evacuated by helicopter, with great effort, during which an IDF doctor was killed by Lebanese gunfire. The body of one of those killed, Sgt. Itamar Ilya, remained behind and was returned to Israel in a swap with Hezbollah nine months later.

The abortive mission has been investigated by a number of committees. The IDF and other investigators have proffered contradictory explanations – from a planned ambush by Hezbollah, to an incidental ambush by the organization that was not the result of an intelligence leak from the Israeli side (as suggested by one committee, headed by reserve Maj. Gen. Gabi Ophir), to a malfunction in one of the bombs carried by the commandos.

In 2007 Maariv reported that preparations for the mission had leaked to Hezbollah because an IDF drone had filmed the relevant site some weeks prior to the operation – and transmitted the images by means of an unencrypted channel, which the enemy uncovered. Three years later, Nasrallah said much the same.

Laying and dismantling explosives

Last week the Hezbollah leader added some new details. Based on an analysis of the information transmitted by the drone, his forces laid several ambushes in the designated arena. They assumed that the IDF force would land on the beach and that two or three troops would proceed through the nearby orchards toward the village of Ansariyeh. The assumption in Hezbollah was that the Israeli force intended to abduct or kill someone – they didn’t know who.

Based on that assessment, Nasrallah explained, the organization discussed the situation at a meeting that included Badreddine, who was named to command the attack mission. He recruited Imad Mughniyeh, also known as Hezbollah’s chief of staff; Mughniyeh was later assassinated, in Damascus in February 2008, in an operation attributed to Mossad and to the CIA.

Pictures of top Hezbollah commander Mustafa Badreddine, who was killed in Syria, during his funeral procession in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, May 13, 2016.
Hassan Ammar/AP

Nasrallah claimed that several times beforehand, members of his organization had observed Israeli soldiers landing on Lebanese shores and preparing for some sort of mission, but decided against targeting them, preferring to wait for a bigger operation. Meanwhile, Hezbollah deployed forces that would ambush the IDF troops. Badreddine and Mughniyeh, said Nasrallah, were in the vicinity touring the orchards and following the path which, based on their analysis, they thought the Israeli soldiers would take. On that basis they devised Hezbollah’s plan of action.

In his article, based on Nasrallah’s recent speech, Shapira explains that the problem Hezbollah encountered was that Lebanese farmers work their fields from dawn to nightfall every day, so members of the organization could not set up permanent explosive devices, lest they hurt the farmers. So every night, as dusk fell, Hezbollah would plant the devices and then, the next morning, when the Israelis failed to materialize, before the farmers arrived – they would dismantle them. This happened again and again until the night the Shayetet reached Ansariyeh.

In his speech a few weeks ago, Nasrallah recalled that when Badreddine was named commander of Hezbollah's forces during the civil war in Syria, he was asked to oversee his forces' activities from Lebanese territory. However, Nasrallah noted, Badreddine insisted on fighting with his troops in Syria. He was killed there in May 2016 at a Hezbollah base near the Damascus airport, right after meeting with the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds force, General Qassem Soleimani.

Hezbollah has claimed that Badreddine died in a bombing raid by Syrian rebels. Israel, however, suspects that he was assassinated by the Iranians due to some sort of dispute – and with the tacit acquiescence of the Hezbollah leadership. The previous IDF chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, publicly hinted as much a couple of years ago.

Shapira writes that Iran didn’t hold any special events this year in memory of Badreddine. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif apparently made do with a short letter to Nasrallah. The Revolutionary Guards force, on whose behalf Hezbollah's Badreddine had served since the 1980s, didn’t mention the anniversary of his death in any way, shape or form. Ignoring that occasion at a time of rising tensions between Iran and the United States – when the Iranians could use the support of their protégés in Hezbollah – could also indicate that Tehran indeed had a hand in Badreddine's death.