Report Casts Doubts on Readiness of Israeli Military to Handle Threats

If any more proof was needed after the Lebanon war of the problems in Israel’s armed forces, it was provided this week by a long-awaited internal audit. The State Comptroller’s Report on the Israel Defense Forces drew on data that predated the summer conflict with Hezbollah, but its findings fit the current, heated debate on whether the Jewish state can continue to withstand the threats it faces.

According to Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss, Israel’s top military brass suffers from insufficient training, with more than two-thirds of brigadier-generals and major-generals not having completed the required courses in the National Command College.

Lindenstrauss also rapped the military for not keeping proper logs of weapon stores, which proved to be a major liability during the 34-day campaign in Lebanon, and said complaints by female conscripts of sexual harassment are not investigated with the required speed.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government, already under domestic scrutiny for its recent decision to declare a truce in the Gaza Strip with the Palestinian terrorist groups, pledged to address the issues raised in the report.

Separately, a private think tank with close ties to the Israeli military released a report Tuesday using declassified military materials to document Hezbollah’s use of civilians as human shields, and other war crimes, during this summer’s war. The American Jewish Congress helped the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center at the Institute for Special Studies prepare and translate the report.

Seen as a semi-official Israeli response to charges that Israel committed war crimes by attacking civilian areas of Lebanon, the report shows how Hezbollah fighters deliberately operated from within populated areas and exploited civilian cover during the 34-day war with Israel, in violation of international law. Israel hopes the report will help deter war-crimes suits against Israel threatened by Lebanese and foreign activist groups.

Among the evidence offered are aerial photographs shot by the Israeli air force and photos taken by Israeli soldiers of Hezbollah military bases in civilian areas. The report said weapons were stockpiled in private residences and public institutions, including mosques, in population centers such as south Beirut, south Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley.

The report includes the testimonies of Hezbollah detainees from Israeli interrogations, who noted that Hezbollah was well aware of the dangers to civilians of placing military operations in population centers.

Indeed, the report said, the Israeli army often warned civilians of the dangers inherent in staying in those areas, while Hezbollah perceived their presence as an “operative advantage” — the civilians acted as shields — and as propaganda.

Many in south Lebanon left their villages for safety reasons because of the Israeli army warnings, but in some cases Hezbollah attempted to convince or force civilians not to leave their villages.

The comptroller’s report, on the other hand, dealt with Israel’s own shortcomings. For Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who has been fending off charges that his lack of military pedigree makes him unfit for the job, it was an opportunity to point out that his predecessors who were former generals also weren’t blameless.

“There are big gaps between our needs and our capabilities, and we must tackle these problems,” Peretz said Tuesday. “We pass the buck to those who were meant to have done the work before us.”

But Israeli defense experts called for an outside investigation into the state of the military, noting that Olmert’s decision to appoint a semi-official probe into the government’s handling of the Lebanon war did little to mollify critics. Many smelled a whitewash.

“The unequivocal conclusion that cries out from the State Comptroller’s Report about the defense establishment is that we need to remove most of the inquiries and investigations from the responsibility of the military and of the Defense Ministry,” analyst Amir Rappaport wrote in Ma’ariv. “After the blow it took in Lebanon, it is difficult to avoid the thought that if the defense establishment’s upper echelons had taken previous criticism seriously, it is likely that some of the military’s sicknesses would have been cured in time.”

Benjamin Netanyahu, head of the Israeli political opposition and a former prime minister — who makes no secret of his ambition to retake top office — predicted that the armed forces might not be able to prevail in a future war. In some right-wing circles, that’s code for the end of Israel.

“I have come to this conclusion in light of the way the Lebanon war was handled, as well as the aftermath,” Netanyahu told Israel Radio. “The government is conducting a policy of weakness, restraint and concessions to terrorism.”

He was referring to the Gaza truce, which Olmert has cast as an opportunity to bolster the relatively moderate Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, in the face of Hamas Islamists who run the government, and negotiate the release of a captured Israeli soldier.

Netanyahu, who says Gaza is on its way to becoming “a second Lebanon,” called on Olmert to launch a massive military sweep in the territory and topple the Hamas-led government.

But Olmert has said time is still on Israel’s side.

“We will always have the time, capability and might to weigh our response and decide how to act,” the prime minister told reporters Monday. “At the same time, Israel is not closing the door on the possibility of a diplomatic move that could promote relations between us and the Palestinians.”

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