Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Israeli army blunders through war

By Declan Power

Moves by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) to broaden their forces and objectives are entirely typical of their military posture over the years.

As the prospect of a UN resolution and some sort of ceasefire starts to take shape, the IDF is intent on reaching its objective of pushing Hezbollah forces back as far as the Litani river.

The idea is to create a buffer zone of 30km from the Israeli border which Israeli troops can patrol, and deny Hezbollah the ability to launch missiles into Israel. So far, despite rhetoric to the contrary, Hezbollah has yet to demonstrate a missile with the capability of penetrating any further into Israel than 30km.

Israeli military manoeuvres are based on clearing the villages of south Lebanon of Hezbollah manpower. They were unable to do this purely by firepower from either the air, sea or artillery.

Now Israelis have opted for large-scale conventional infantry penetration into south Lebanon.

While the IDF has a myriad of special forces operatives, it relies largely on the likes of crack mainstream infantry units such as the Golani Brigade.

Units like these have been to the fore of many of Israel’s pivotal battles in the past. Indeed, this indicates further how Israel perceives the current combat in Lebanon as part of its ongoing struggle for survival.

Added to this is the ongoing mobilisation of reservists. Israel cannot sustain any kind of large-scale military operation without recourse to its pool of reserve manpower. They have always been an integral part of any military planning.

With the failure of the air and artillery bombardment to silence the Hezbollah rocket attacks into Israel, the IDF was faced with two options - the full-scale combat in which it is now engaged, or a more surgical approach.

The surgical approach would have involved the Shin Bet, the shadowy IDF military intelligence organisation, and the Sayeret Matkal, known as the General Staff Reconnaissance Force.

It was Shin Bet, also known as Shabak, which was responsible for recruiting and running agents in hostile Arab territories.

Unlike Mossad, the national intelligence service, Shin Bet has an Arab Affairs sub-section, which would have a number of stay-behind agents in south Lebanon after the Israelis pulled out in 2000.

These Shin Bet agents would have routinely reported to their handlers on Hezbollah deployments, armaments and potential strategies that would affect Israel.

It seems likely that these Shin Bet agents may not have been as useful as thought and may have had too limited a mindset in being able to furnish their Israeli masters with a useful appreciation of the situation on the ground in south Lebanon.

Had this not been the case, then it is unlikely Israel would now be committing such an extensive ground force. Another indication of the failings of Israeli tactical intelligence has been the targeting of civilians.

Debate can still rage amongst moralists and politicians, but there is a number of basic points. We have seen the high level of fire-direction technology used by the IDF airforce and artillery.

There is no real doubt of ineptitude there, but military forces still must rely on human-gathered intelligence to be sure that they’re targeting their opponents. This is especially true in a war where Hezbollah are avoiding full-scale confrontation.

While the Israelis have deployed the forces in away similar to past conflicts, this is not the Six Day War of 1967 or Yom Kippur in 1973. These are not the massed armies of Egypt or Syria.

The IDF are applying symmetric solutions to what is now asymmetric warfare. The truth is, Israel was always better able to fight brilliantly when hugely outnumbered. It could deal with multiple assaults by nation states.

The difficulty now is in confronting non-state forces that can fight efficiently in low-intensity conflict and cause Israel to shoot itself in the foot when it attempts to escalate the conflict.

If Shin Bet had been providing more efficient intelligence, then it is likely the Sayeret Matkal may have been deployed.

This is a strategic commando unit, responsible to the General Staff of the IDF.

They first achieved fame just over 30 years ago when, in an audacious and daring operation, they crept into Entebbe in Uganda to successfully rescue 256 hostages from under the nose of Idi Amin.

Thirty years ago, this unit caused the Western world to cheer Israel and see it as a bastion of liberalism against Islamic fundamentalists.

However, in the years after, the Sayeret became used in the increasingly dirty war of assassination and kidnap.

It was used extensively against the PLO leadership and was often accused of murder and other illegal acts.

However, it was the Shin Bet and the Sayeret that were most successful in bringing about the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel that has recently broken down. Rather than using a heavy hammer, Shin Bet intelligence identified and monitored the leadership of Hamas for the Sayeret to assassinate.

The result was much less civilian carnage and an acceptance of Hamas of the need to agree to a ceasefire before their entire leadership was annihilated.

Of course, this tactic has limited longevity unless part of a political and diplomatic strategy. Again, the key to initial success was good tactical intelligence.

Israel finds it has blundered into Lebanon like the proverbial bull in a china shop. Its intelligence failures meant it had no choice, as once confronted with the missiles, it had to go the distance to stop them.

A more detailed intelligence profile that showed the extent of Iran’s rocket arming and training programme might have made the Israelis hesitate and decide on a different strategy.

It might have been worthwhile to mix tactical and strategic intelligence gathering to put Iran in the spotlight for its role in arming and prodding Hezbollah into action, rather than engaging in an all-out fight.

The problem here is the emotional quotient in the relationship with Israel and its military. The notion that Israel pursues a psychological war with Hezbollah and its Iranian masters while actual rockets are dropping into Israeli towns and cities is anathema to the Israeli psyche.

No Israeli leader, be he civilian or soldier, has ever forgotten the public opprobrium for Israel being caught off-guard in the Yom Kippur war. World vilification or domestic condemnation, it’s always been an easy choice for Israeli leaders.

Declan Power is an independent security and defence analyst.

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