July 12, 2006 was the first day of what has become known as the Second Lebanon War. The name of the war, like most of the lessons taken from it, is off.
The war Israel fought in the summer of 2006 against Hezbollah was not the same as the war Israel fought against the PLO in 1982. The war of 2006 was not a Lebanese war. It was an Iranian war.
It was the first Iran war.
Hezbollah, acting as Iran’s foreign legion, initiated the war with a massive mortar and rocket assault on communities in northern Israel. Under mortar cover, a Hezbollah unit crossed the border and attacked an IDF convoy travelling close to Kibbutz Zarit.
Five soldiers were killed in the missile attack. Members of the Hezbollah squad stole the bodies of two of the dead, IDF reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser and spirited them to Lebanon.
A rescue mission to bring them back failed, after the tank tasked with the job was hit by a land mine. Five more soldiers were killed.
Hezbollah’s assault was not the opening salvo of the war. That happened two and a half weeks earlier along the border with Gaza. The July 12 attack was a carbon copy of Hamas’s June 25 assault.
At dawn that day, Hamas forces opened a salvo of mortar fire on IDF positions along the border with Gaza. Under cover of the fire, a Hamas cell penetrated Israel through an underground tunnel. The terrorists attacked a tank, killing two soldiers and abducting IDF corporal Gilad Shalit.
Following the opening assault, Hamas maintained its mortar, missile and rocket offensive against Israel for weeks.
In 2006, Hamas acted as a wholly-owned and operated Iranian proxy.
Iran began massively funding the Muslim Brotherhood group in 2005. Hamas operatives, like their Hezbollah counterparts and colleagues from the Muslim Brotherhood in Sinai, were brought to Iran for training. Iran smuggled massive quantities of weaponry to Gaza, through Egypt.
In other words, the misnamed Second Lebanon War was a two-front war. It was a coordinated assault on Israel by two Iranian controlled terror armies. They operated with a near identical doctrine and operations guides, albeit, with different capabilities.
Failing to recognize this fact, either during the war or afterwards, Israel’s military leadership has yet to learn the appropriate lessons from the war. Both then and now, the IDF senior brass takes a myopic view of war. The enemy is not a larger force, coordinating and directing operations on the ground that it is the IDF’s job to defeat, the enemy is what you see. And you don’t need to think past your rifle sights.
Perhaps the clearest example of the IDF’s strategic blindness during the war ten years ago was the General Staff’s obsession with Bint Jbeil, the town just north of the border.
Back in May 2000, immediately after the IDF abandoned its positions in the security zone in south Lebanon and allowed the area to be taken by Hezbollah, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah chose Bint Jbeil as the site of his victory speech. In that speech, Nasrallah called on the Palestinians to follow Hezbollah’s example and destroy Israel through war. Nasrallah claimed that although Israel has advanced weapons, “it is as weak as a spider’s web.”
In 2006, the IDF chief of General Staff Dan Halutz decided that the way to win the war was by occupying Bint Jbeil in order to “stage a victory picture,” of the war.
Once the photo was shot, the IDF could gather up its marbles and go home.
To this end, the IDF fought two battles in Bint Jbeil. The first, on July 27, was fought by Golani Battalion 51.
Battalion 51 forces separated into two groups, attacking the town from its sides. Unbeknownst to the forces, Hezbollah was using one of the staging areas as a Katyusha firing base. It was crawling with fighters.
Deputy Battalion Commander Major Ro’i Klein and his men found themselves pinned down by a superior Hezbollah force. The prolonged battle that ensued involved not taking control of the town and defeating the Hezbollah forces on the ground. Rather, it involved evacuating the wounded and dead from the battlefield under fire.
Eight Golani soldiers, including Klein were killed. Klein martyred himself when he jumped on a Hezbollah hand grenade to save the lives of his soldiers.
Battalion 51’s battle in the town was emblematic of the war as a whole. Rather than fight to defeat the enemy, forces were set into helter skelter into battle, unprepared, without knowledge of the enemy positions or strength. The rationale for the battle had nothing to do with a concrete plan to defeat Hezbollah. Success was measured by the number of Hezbollah forces killed rather than the significance of their loss on the organization.
The absence of strategic thinking was nowhere more evident than in the medals ceremony which followed the war. Nearly every citation for bravery was related to actions taken under fire to evacuate wounded or dead. Almost no decorations were distributed to units of individual soldiers for defeating the enemy.
Back to Bint Jbeil. Given the results of the first battle, the General Staff could have been expected to dump its idea of creating a “picture of victory” and actually fighting to win. But that simply wasn’t to be. Indeed, Halutz and his generals doubled down.
On August 7, then paratrooper brigade commander Hagai Mordechai was ordered to take control of Bint Jbeil. He was given a prepared speech declaring victory that he was to read from the building where Nasrallah gave his “Spider Web,” speech. His soldiers were ordered to document the event with videos and still photography.
The order made little operational sense. The paratroopers were already north of Bint Jbeil and fighting other targets. But Mordechai dutifully ordered Paratrooper Battalion 890 to turn around and attack the village.
In the event, due in large part to the absence of operational logic, the forces weren’t properly deployed. Two reconnaissance troops were killed by an engineering unit operating in the area that had not been told about the operation.
The paratroopers took the town. They risked their lives to have their picture taken with a flag on a roof of one of the buildings, which was still surrounded by Hezbollah positions. Mordechai didn’t make the speech. They withdrew several hours later.
The photos were stuffed in a drawer.
After the war, reservists who served under the incompetent leadership of Halutz and his colleagues began marching on Jerusalem demanding that he resign, along with then prime minister Ehud Olmert and then defense minister Amir Peretz.
Rather than reconcile with its own incompetence, the General Staff, the political leadership and the media insisted the reason the war was not a success was because line units were not properly trained or outfitted for battle. There was something to that. So people went along with it.
In no time flat, the deficits were filled.
But the larger problem went deliberately unaddressed. And today we still suffer from it. Today as then, our military leadership refuses to acknowledge the nature of the enemy, and is more concerned about images than victory.
Today, IDF forces are told to ignore the enemy and fight for the images.
Sgt. Elor Azaria is on trial for manslaughter for killing a terrorist not because what he did was necessarily wrong. Indeed, the prosecution’s entire case as fallen apart in the past week.
Azaria is standing trial because B’tselem videoed the event.
He brought the wrong image.
Iran won the war in 2006, as Israel agreed to treat its Hezbollah proxy as a legitimate fighting force and failed to dislodge its Hamas proxy from Gaza. A year later, Hamas threw Fatah out of Gaza. And in 2008, Hezbollah took over the Lebanese government.
For Israel to emerge victorious from the present fight against the Palestinians, we need a military leadership that is willing to fight to win, and recognize that images of victories are only important when they document actual victories.