Israel’s War Performance Comes Under Microscope


The earliest of what promises to be a cascade of post-mortems on Israel’s military performance in Lebanon last summer are starting to come in. And the picture they paint is far from pretty.

They depict military and political leaders sending soldiers to war against the Shiite guerrilla force Hezbollah with ill defined, constantly shifting goals. They speak of commanders who failed to lead their soldiers personally, in the time-honored Israeli fashion, instead staying behind the lines to monitor their units’ progress on video screens.

And they criticize a poorly organized army that had become used to chasing and controlling Palestinians in the West Bank and failed to adjust to the much different challenge posed by Hezbollah.

"Tactically and operationally, Israel has enormous problems exposed for all the world to see," said Shoshana Bryen, special projects director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs in Washington. "[The army] must overhaul its whole operational procedure."

The early critiques come from both official and unofficial sources. Several commissions are currently investigating how Israel’s political and military leaders managed the war, including a military inquiry initiated by Defense Minister Amir Peretz and another, broader investigation authorized under enormous public pressure by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Outside reports include an extensive investigative story in The Washington Post last Saturday and a three-part dissection of the war, based on interviews with both sides, by a former senior British intelligence official who was a top Middle East expert for the European Union.

When it comes to Israel’s tactical failures, many of the analyses find common ground. In the first of several reports ordered by Peretz for the Defense Ministry, retired Maj. Gen. Yoram Yair found that Division 91, under the command of Brig. Gen. Gal Hirsch, suffered from frequent shifts in objectives and changes in orders, sometimes on an hourly basis.

Yair also found that the decision by seven out of eight brigade commanders to monitor their troops’ progress by video screen from the Israeli side of the border made it harder for the soldiers to understand their situation and carry out their missions.

More broadly, Yair criticized the army as a whole for failing to set defined goals and criticized cuts made in army training and preparation.

Meanwhile, in a report last Saturday, The Washington Post disclosed that on July 14, just two days into the war, the research unit of Israeli military intelligence questioned the war plan’s ability to achieve the government’s stated goal of destroying Hezbollah military capabilities.

The analysis, reported the Post, concluded that the heavy bombing campaign then under way, with only a small ground offensive, would show "diminishing returns" within days. The plan would neither free the two Israeli soldiers whose capture by Hezbollah set off the war nor reduce rocket attacks from by Hezbollah on northern Israel, the report concluded: conclusions borne out by the war’s course up to its conclusion.

"The question we want to know to this day was why the military chose an option that had no exit strategy," a senior Foreign Ministry official who read the report told the Post. "They never had one, as far as we could tell."

For all their scathing criticisms, no analysis released so far has sparked as much controversy as the one from Alistair Crooke, the former British intelligence and European Union official.

Crooke, who coauthored his three-part report with Washington-based writer Mark Perry, did not restrict himself to tactical or strategic critiques. With access to both sides, he was able to look closely at Hezbollah tactics. But he also reached sweeping geopolitical conclusions that have angered supporters of Israel.

According to Crooke, Hezbollah won a "decisive and complete" victory of lasting portent against Israel last summer thanks not just to a flawed Israeli performance but to numerous strategic and tactical breakthroughs of its own.

Among other things, Crooke found, Hezbollah succeeded in intercepting ground communications between Israeli commanders that gave them advance warning on many Israeli moves.

Prior to the war, Hezbollah also apprehended and "turned" a number of local spies for Israel, he found. These agents then fed the Israelis false information on the location of some hidden Hezbollah bunkers and arsenals in South Lebanon.

Moreover, report Crooke and Perry, in the years preceding the war, Hezbollah built numerous phony "decoy" bunkers to mislead local spies and Israeli surveillance drone planes. During the same period, it succeeded in building secretly some 600 hardened emplacements dug as much as 130 feet into the rocky hills of South Lebanon.

Israel Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his security cabinet "violated the first principle of war," the analysts write: "They showed contempt for their enemy."

Crooke and Perry found, for example, that when Israel mustered its reserves in an attempt to redeem a foundering campaign, it did so with a "surprise" call-up that gave commanders no warning. The results included a disorganized mobilization with logistical support for combat troops lagging as much two days behind their deployments.

Crooke and Perry’s report, published in Asia Times, an online publication, argues that Hezbollah, by its performance, has reversed "the tide of 1967," when Israel’s six-day triumph over three Arab foes with U.S. support forced the region to take long-term account of the two countries’ power.

"That power has now been sullied and reversed, and a new leadership is emerging in the region," they wrote.

Bryen of JINSA denounced this geopolitical proclamation as "garbage."

In the wake of the war’s cease-fire, she noted, diplomacy has brought French, Italian and Spanish troops into South Lebanon to shore up the United Nations longstanding peacekeeping operation there. The beefed up force may still not stop Hezbollah from being supplied, she conceded, but Hezbollah’s extensive network of fortified bunkers and arsenals that took six years to build (and were key to its victory) have been destroyed by Israel. "They are gone for good," she said.

"Next time, they will have to shoot from where the Italians, French and Spanish soldiers are patrolling," said Bryen. "This is not a problem? Now, Hezbollah is constrained by a European army, not by the Nepalese or Fijians. They are not there to fail. Their governments have committed themselves to a surprising level. But Crooke ignored the whole UN operation."

Crooke’s background includes his work facilitating various Israeli-Palestinian cease-fires during the second intifada while working for the European Union. Today, Crooke and Perry head up the Conflicts Forum, a group based in Washington and London that, according to its Web site, aims to "bring about a New Engagement between the West and Islam by challenging and changing underlying inaccurate political perceptions … of Islamists."

Among Crooke’s other key findings:
Hezbollah fought the entire conflict with one just 3,000-man brigade, known as the Nasr Brigade, and, unlike Israel, never felt a need to call up reserves.
Hezbollah fighters suffered 184 combat deaths (nearly equal to the Israeli rate) and not 400 to 500, as Israel claims. The analysts reach their calculation by counting public burials for those killed. "It is impossible for Shiites (and Hezbollah) not to allow an honorable burial for its martyrs," they note, "so in this case it is simply a matter of counting funerals."
Despite numerous claims to have done so, Israeli forces never fully succeeded in capturing the key border towns of Maroun al-Ras and Bint Jbeil, and never secured the border area.
Israel’s destruction of Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure was part of its military plans, and separate from its goal of destroying Hezbollah military and political assets. "The Israeli government made no secret of its intent: to undercut Hezbollah’s support in the Christian, Sunni and Druze communities. That idea … had been part of Israel’s plan since Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000." But instead, it rallied the other communities around the Shiite group.
Israel’s use of cluster bombs may have left behind an especially acute, ongoing danger to civilians because Israel appears to have used "single-fused" versions of these munitions. These single-fused bombs have a "dud" rate of 14 percent or more, as opposed to a 3 percent dud rate for the double-fused versions now used by the United States. Crooke and Perry hypothesize Israel may have obtained these cluster bombs from the United States, which no longer uses them, because their use began shortly after the United States shipped off a munitions resupply to Israel. "Recent reports in the Israeli press indicate that artillery officers carpeted dozens of Lebanese villages with the bomblets: as close to the definition of "indiscriminate" use of firepower as one can get," they charge.