ANALYSIS: In Lebanon, Government Hamstrung Troubled Division

Task force finds Division 91 warned IDF General Staff that reserve battalion was unfit for duty along border.

The regular division in the Galilee warned the Israel Defense Forces General Staff that captured IDF soldiers Udi Goldwasser and Eldad Regev's reserve battalion was not fit to operate along the northern border, according to interim findings by a task force investigating the abduction.

Division 91, headed by Brigadier General Gal Hirsch, even asked the General Staff to remove the battalion from the border and replace it with better trained troops. The General Staff rejected the request, and insisted the reserve battalion remain on the border until it finished its tour of duty on July 12 - the day Goldwasser and Regev were abducted.

The task force, headed by Major General (Res.) Doron Almog, also found that the division asked that surveillance positions be placed overlooking the area where the abduction took place, as well as 15 other vulnerable areas. The General Staff delayed implementation of this request.

Of the four Israel Defense Forces divisions that fought in this summer's Lebanon war and which are the subjects of military inquiries whose findings will be presented to top IDF leaders this week, three were exempted from responsibility for both holding the line and being ready to fight Hezbollah.

The three - an elite reserve division headed by Brigadier General Eyal Eisenberg and a division in the regular army headed by Brigadier General Guy Tzur, both from the Central Command, and a Northern Command reserve division headed by Brigadier General Erez Zuckerman - were also not brought into combat in the first days after Hezbollah abducted reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev on July 12.

Instead, a double burden was placed on Division 91. That division was saddled with both the day-to-day responsibility of defending the north as well as of engaging in non-stop combat from the moment of the abduction until the last IDF soldier left Lebanon two weeks ago. An investigation of Division 91 that will be presented to the top brass today focuses on the combat following the kidnapping. An inquiry of the abduction itself is slated to be completed in two weeks.

Until July 12, Division 91 was forced to carry out its mission while its hands were tied by government policy and military orders. The division was sentenced to wait passively for Hezbollah aggression - whether on Har Dov, in Ghajar or anywhere else along the 120-kilometer-long border. It was not permitted any preemptive moves that involved opening fire or crossing the border. The contradiction-laden policy set at the top was to protect the cities and towns of the north (including leaving the roads open so as to safeguard economic and social life there), to foil abduction attempts, and to suffice with a response to any Hezbollah initiatives that were not delayed - there was no illusion that they would be called off - by the stratagems employed by the division.

In light of warnings that stemmed from intelligence information, albeit vague and ambiguous ones, Hirsch put his troops on alert - and they foiled four of Hezbollah's abduction attempts. The division's success put the politicians and top military leaders at ease; they wanted quiet, and didn't act to change the volatile reality along the Lebanese border.

Division 91 was like an abused wife who manages to hold back her violent husband time and again, until one day he manages to carry out his plans. Each time, he is arrested, given a warning and released, leaving him free to plan the next assault. And when he succeeds, people wonder how it is that the victim did not learn her lesson from the previous incidents.

The abduction itself was first investigated by a task force appointed by outgoing GOC Northern Command Udi Adam, and those findings are among the information being collected by Almog's task force.

The task force is expected to assign responsibility for the abduction to five military ranks - the general staff, the Northern Command, the division, Brigade 300 and the reserve battalion - as well as to the government. It is also expected to determine whether it was an intelligence failure or an operational failure that bears most of the responsibility for not preventing the kidnapping. Interim findings indicate that many people share the blame.

The questions that continue to disturb the investigators have to do with the conduct of troops along the border in the hours preceding the abduction. At 2 A.M. the troops received an unusual warning: The border fence had been cut. A commander in the division said before the patrol went out that he thought 20 Hezbollah militants had infiltrated overnight. The two vehicles on patrol were less than 200 meters apart, instead of a kilometer, as the rules require, to prevent a simultaneous attack on both of them. The abduction became known when the driver of one of the vehicles found a hiding place in a nearby ditch, called his brother, who also serves in the standing army, and asked him to report the incident to the war room.

The Almog task force is expected to submit half a dozen systemic recommendations, including a call for a mobile deployment in place of a stationary one, and the return of the field intelligence corps to Military Intelligence. That unit would be responsible for collecting all combat information and for maintaining contact with the commanders responsible for this intelligence collection in their respective sectors.