The shifting Lebanese military equation
By Ze'ev Schiff (Haaretz - 12/2/2000)
We were barely into the third millennium when Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz held a big news conference to sum up the Israel Defense Forces' previous year of operations in Lebanon.In relative terms, 1999 was a "good year." Fatalities were down to 13, compared to more than 20 in 1998. However, in Lebanese operations the bouquets wither quickly. What began as a celebratory news conference soon became a classic example of "don't count your chickens before they're hatched."
At the time, the top brass felt that the IDF had finally achieved the upper hand in the war against Hezbollah and was finding more effective solutions for that organization's assaults. Senior commanders were happy that IDF operational intelligence had improved, thanks to a major injection of funds. They felt this was triggering quicker IDF responses, especially by the Air Force which was able to upgrade the precision of its night bombing runs. In 1999 the IDF's "smart weapon" exacted a heavier price from Hezbollah.
Scarcely mentioned, however, was the fact that IDF ground forces had been ordered to change their modus operandi. Chief of Staff Mofaz had told the IDF to "downscale its signature" - that is, minimize activities in the field and outside IDF outposts. This made sense following the declared intention to withdraw from Lebanon by July 1, 2000.
Previous operational strategy had called for the IDF to penetrate deep into Lebanese territory - north of the security zone border - and to ambush Hezbollah guerrillas in the field.
The new approach aims to restrict operations outside the outposts so as to reduce pressure on the ground forces. The practical implications of this reorientation include a reduction in IDF targets, including the number of outposts, to an absolute minimum. The South Lebanon Army was given responsibility for logistical convoys in the field. All of these decisions formed a background for reduced IDF casualties.
There was a problem, however. Hezbollah quickly managed, by very simple means, to turn the tables. Since IDF troops had stopped going out into the field to confront its fighters, Hezbollah began to edge closer and closer to IDF outposts and to lay landmines with recently upgraded destructive capacity. This is precisely what Hezbollah did - almost on the very doorstep of the SLA's deputy commander, Akel Hashem. By using simple remote-control tactics, Hezbollah began to organize ambushes based on mortars and missiles and which targeted IDF forces rushing to the aid of troops hit by landmine.
Since the IDF was now confining itself to outposts to downscale its signature, Hezbollah began to target the firing slits in the outposts' sentry positions, and fired anti-tank rockets through those slits. For this tactic, you do not need a large army. All you need is one or two cells of fighters specialized in precision firing missiles capable of inflicting repeated damage. In this period, Hezbollah received second-generation missiles, more advanced and with night-vision sights.
On many occasions Hezbollah has violated the Grapes of Wrath understandings through its operations based in Lebanese villages. However, none of the activities in which six IDF soldiers were killed by missiles and mortars involved any Hezbollah violation of these understandings.
From Israel's standpoint, what counts is the final outcome. Despite all the IDF's sophisticated equipment, six of our soldiers died and the missile-shooters were not killed. In fact, they were not even prevented from getting close to the outposts. These operations are Hezbollah's most recent success - and perhaps the IDF's most recent failure - over the last few weeks. In its frustration the IDF retaliated against Lebanon's infrastructure, and this time the retaliatory strikes were carried out after military casualties, not in the wake of Katyusha rockets fired at the Galilee. Thus, the IDF has lowered its tolerance level. Barak wants more aggressive game rules that will allow the IDF to respond to any attack on Israel after the withdrawal - with or without a Syrian-Israeli agreement - and after IDF troops have been deployed along the international frontier with Lebanon. Nevertheless, it should be pointed out that the defense establishment so far has issued no tenders for constructing new outposts on that frontier.