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In the middle of the fourth week of the Lebanon War, the tide began to turn in Israel’s favor. DEBKAfile’s military sources report the battlefield finally responded to the effect of Israel’s air might, its tank columns, the pounding by mobile artillery and naval craft and its repeated armored infantry assaults.
After losing 44 fighting men, more than 30 civilians, many thousands of wounded and billions of dollars of damage, finally, the Israeli military was given the chance to do what it does best: focus its firepower instead of spreading it out thin over too many targets.
The setbacks of the first three weeks were partly due to tactical incompetence and laggard decision-making on the part of prime minister Ehud Olmert and defense minister Peretz. Israeli troops therefore spent too long in abrading combat against stubborn Hizballah resistance in such places as Maroun er Ras and Bint Jubeil. But as soon as Israeli ground forces shifted to the massive, long-distance firing mode which they know best, the impact on the warfront was immediate. The battle went their way with a minimum of casualties. In places where Israeli troops adhered to the close combat tactics practiced in the first three weeks, they continued to suffer high casualties.
Hizballah soon showed signs of distress. Lacking the weapons and resources to stand up to IDF’s precise-shooting juggernaut, their commanders quickly pulled their men out most combat sectors of South Lebanon and ordered them to regroup in five places:
1. The Western Sector and the center of Tyre.
2. The Wadi Hajar pocket east of Tyre.
3. The Central Sector surrounding Bint Jubeil, where the outcome is still unresolved after many days of fighting.
4. The Wadi Saluki area northwest of the northernmost Israeli town of Metullah.
5. The Eastern Sector, including al Khiam, the Shabaa Farms and Mt Dov, which has seen little fighting – although last week Israeli forces began – then stopped – a major offensive before it got underway.
These pockets are now the main launching-pads for rockets fired into Israel.
Outside, there is no ground fighting in South Lebanon but for Israeli air strikes.
Hizballah also has also been using the Tapuach and al-Haroub areas south and northeast of Sidon for shooting rockets. It is from this region that Hizballah fired the long-range Khaibar-1 missiles at Hadera Friday night, August 4, which came 45 km short of Tel Aviv.
Saturday morning, Sidon’s 200,000 inhabitants and its outlying villages up to the Zahrani River were warned to leave their homes and head north to escape the coming Israeli air offensive.
Until the Khaibar attack on Hadera, the concentration of Hizballah’s rocket launchers and stores in and around Sidon had been immune from Israeli attack – largely because Olmert and his senior ministers refused to increase the number of ground troops deployed in Lebanon. The military commanders had to do their best with the limited numbers available.
In other words, with the right manpower level, Hizballah’s ability to fire rockets can be dented, notwithstanding claims by Israel officials and generals that there is no way to do this when most of Hizballah’s 13,000-rocket stockpile remains intact.
But even cutting down on the daily 200-plus rocket blitz on northern Israel is not plain sailing because:
First, Neither the Israeli Air Force nor any other air force is capable of completely halting rocket fire from the ground. In the relatively small distances between Lebanon and Israel, the short-range Katyusha rockets have the effect of medium-range weapons, while the short-to-medium range rockets perform like long-range missiles.
Second, Israel does not have enough infantry on the ground to make substantial inroads on Hizballah’s rocket-firing capabilities.
Third, Iran and Syria are constantly restocking Hizballah’s diminishing supplies of rockets of all types, launchers and operating manpower by a round- the-clock airlift from Iran via Syrian military air fields. Some of the incoming supplies are destroyed by Israeli air attacks as they cross into Lebanon, but a substantial part is conveyed to Hizballah by smuggling networks employing mules to traverse Lebanese mountain paths. Even if 2,000 have been wiped out and a similar amount has been fired, no one knows how many are left in stock because it is replenished. As long as that corridor is not severed by bombing the Syrian stopover air facilities, Iran will continue to top up Hizballah’s stockpile. Therefore, the rocket offensive cannot be reduced by very much.
Fourth, Israeli forces do not operate in all parts of South Lebanon.
Hizballah’s withdrawal to five pockets in South Lebanon affords the IDF certain tactical advantages – although liabilities too.
It is now possible to carve the region the Israeli army controls into three sections, western, central and eastern, a tactic familiar from the Gaza Strip, for encumbering Hizballah guerrilla movement between the sections. The goal is to confine Hizballah to the five pockets and place them under blockade. They can then be made to capitulate or face liquidation.
Leaving the two banks of the Litani River, the Nabatea plain and Hazbaya to the north of the river in Hizballah hands leaves a route open for its reinforcements to come through and to strike Israeli forces from the rear.
Nonetheless, by Thursday, August 3, Hizballah was showing signs of being in trouble.
A. Local Hizballah village commanders signaled repeated appeals for more manpower and ammunition. The appeals were not met because outside forces cannot break through the defense lines held by the advancing Israeli troops. The village commanders were therefore told by their superiors to fight to the last man and last bullet and reserve the last grenade for suicide.
B. Hizballah’s shadowy leader, the long-wanted Imad Mughniyeh, was hurriedly appointed commander of the southern front as a last resort to save South Lebanon from falling to Israel.(picture from the 1980s)
DEBKAfile’s military and counter-terror sources maintain that this appointment raises the conflict to a new and dangerous level on several counts.
Mughniyeh, wanted for a quarter of a century by the FBI for the huge bombing attacks he orchestrated on the US embassy in Beirut and American and French troops, as well as a spate of hijackings and murders, is important enough to take orders from no-one ranking lower than Iran’s supreme ruler, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Those orders come through the Revolutionary Guards commander Gen. Rahim Safavi.
Therefore, placing Mughniyeh at the head of Hizballah forces in South Lebanon confronts prime minister Olmert uncomfortably close to Iran’s supreme leader; ranges defense minister Peretz opposite his Iranian counterpart Mustafa Najer and chief of staff Lt. Gen Dan Halutz opposite Gen. Safavi, while on the warfront, Israel’s war leaders face the formidable Mughniyeh, Tehran’s secret weapon for rescuing Hizballah from collapse.
Informed circles in the West have a high opinion of Mughniyeh’s military, intelligence and tactical skills. His hand was seen in the transformation of al Qaeda’s 2001 defeat in Afghanistan into a launch pad for its anti-US campaign in Iraq and many other ventures in the terror war against America. After the death of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, Mughniyeh is rated the world Islamic terror movement’s most outstanding field commander.
Therefore, while the appointment is a measure of Israel’s belated military success in the Lebanese war, it also brings the conflict ever closer to two dangerous orbits – Tehran and al Qaeda. Mughniyeh is the only undercover agent in the Middle East who enjoys the complete personal trust of Khamenei and Osama bin Laden, on both of whom he is in a position to call for aid.
On the diplomatic front, even if the United States and France can get together on a unified UN Security Council ceasefire resolution, DEBKAfile’s military sources report that neither Iran nor Hizballah has any intention of complying with a resolution dictated by the United States, France and Israel.