View on the ground: Israeli reservists see disarray in Lebanon

With old gear, poor training, Mr. Shalman's unit faced deadly Hezbollah attack

The Wall Street Journal (Emphases added)

ROSH HA'AYIN, Israel (1 September 2006) - FOR reservist Lidor Shalman, the phone call came after midnight on July 30. A recorded message ordered him to report by dawn to a military base in southern Israel.

He kissed his wife and four sleeping children, grabbed his gear, and headed into the night to undergo a makeover from plump and balding corporate purchasing manager to army paratrooper. At the time, northern Israel was under daily rocket attack by Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon. Israel's ferocious bombing campaign had failed to slow the barrage. A ground offensive was in the offing.

The reservists were eager to fight, says Mr. Shalman, a 33-year-old sniper and explosives expert, who works for a cellular-phone company in this industrial town east of Tel Aviv. Years of discord within the reservist ranks over Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip melted away on July 12, he says, when Hezbollah crossed the Israeli border, kidnapped two soldiers and killed three more.

But their determination would quickly turn to doubt, he says, and ultimately to despair.

The Israel-Hezbollah war ended in a blow to Israel's military prestige. The Hezbollah militia, backed by Iran and Syria, lived to fight another day, though it must now contend with thousands of Lebanese government soldiers and United Nations peacekeepers arriving to patrol its southern Lebanon stronghold.

Eyewitness accounts by Israel's citizen-soldiers of critical supply shortages, leadership failures and disarray on the battlefield help explain how an estimated 1,500 guerrillas could face down the most powerful military in the Middle East, and survive.

"Israel needs to wake up," says Jonathan Davis, a 24-year-old combat engineer whose reserve infantry unit, after several days in Lebanon without food or water, refused an order to attack a hospital being used as a base by Hezbollah. "Our army is not at its best and needs to change."

The issue is especially worrisome to those in Israel who think a similar but even bloodier battle could be in store over the next few years with Syria. The Israeli army believes Syria has tens of thousands of missiles pointed at the Jewish state.

Angry reservists are demanding an independent state commission to investigate the war and many say top generals and political leaders should resign. This week, 40 reservists signed a petition renouncing future military service because of alleged mismanagement of their combat unit in Lebanon. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says his own committee will investigate the waging of the war. He says the U.N. resolution calling for Hezbollah's disarmament and a European peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon is one of Israel's "most important" diplomatic achievements.

Israel's 500,000 reservists allow society to function relatively normally even amid perpetual tension with Arab neighbors. The nation's standing army numbers roughly 100,000 troops, mostly draftees between 18 and 21 years old. The reserves also serve as a national melting pot where the country's diverse communities come together as equals.

In Lebanon, nearly half of the 117 Israeli soldiers killed in the war were reservists. Hezbollah says it lost 81 fighters, but Israeli officers believe the number is closer to 500.

Israel's generals admit mistakes were made. In a meeting with reservists last week, Maj. Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky, the army's deputy chief of staff, vowed to fix "errors and flaws" in reservists' equipment and training that hampered combat operations in Lebanon.

"This war caught us in the middle of an organizational change and not everything was in place," says Brig. Gen. Mike Herzog, a former army chief of strategic planning and top military aide to the minister of defense. In the past six years, he says, Israel's army has tailored its tactics, training and gear to stopping Palestinian suicide bombers, not Arab armies.

"Some people in Israel didn't grasp to what extent Hezbollah had become a real military -- a full-time, fully trained, fully equipped fighting force," he says.

When Mr. Shalman's paratroop unit reported for duty in late July, the reservists felt as though they had entered a time warp, he says. There wasn't enough night-vision gear to go around, despite standing orders to wage all combat operations in Lebanon at night. Mr. Shalman says he wasn't given a night-vision scope for his sniper rifle, rendering it useless, and his backpack dated from around Israel's last invasion of Lebanon -- in 1982.

When the reservists complained about the archaic gear, a commander told them, "Fight with your teeth and knives," Mr. Shalman says. One of the reservists contacted a wealthy relative in New York, who wired $9,000 to buy new backpacks for the unit.

After more than a week of waiting in the desert, the paratroops were bused on Aug. 8 to the Lebanese border. They set off at midnight, in a brigade of about 200 troops, for a 2.5-mile hike to the Lebanese village of Debel. The terrain was unexpectedly rough, Mr. Shalman says; they didn't reach Debel until sunrise.

At that point, Mr. Shalman assumed they'd have to spend the day in the brush or turn back to Israel, because the troops were under orders never to enter buildings during daylight, lest the enemy see them. But in bright sunshine, the brigade commander ordered all 200 men to scatter among five abandoned houses on the edge of town.

At noon a Hezbollah missile struck, obliterating the first floor of a two-story house. Mr. Shalman, who was in another house, heard an Israeli commander inside the stricken house plead over the radio for a doctor and a helicopter. Then a second missile killed the commander and ignited explosives the Israelis were carrying, Mr. Shalman says. He says he saw a final missile destroy the house just as he, a doctor and other soldiers were running toward it.

The Israeli military later confirmed heavy losses in the attack, saying nine Israeli soldiers were killed and another 30 were injured. The military says it is investigating why so many soldiers were jammed into a single house, presenting an inviting target for Hezbollah.

Mr. Shalman's unit spent the next day in Debel in the home of a Christian family, who fed them and showed them a Hezbollah rocket launcher to destroy. That weekend before the Monday, Aug. 14, cease-fire, Israel poured thousands of troops into southern Lebanon.

Amid the trees and rolling hills in the dark of night, the soldiers had no idea who was friend or foe, Mr. Shalman says. Israeli troops shouted "Tzahal! Tzahal!" as they walked, he says. The Hebrew word identified them as Israel Defense Forces, but defeated the purpose of operating at night. Hezbollah also jammed the Israelis' walkie-talkies with Arabic music, he says.

By the time Mr. Shalman's unit reached Rashaf, a Hezbollah stronghold, the reservists were out of food and water and thoroughly demoralized, he says. The closest army supply depot was over a steep ridge and too dangerous to reach. The unit spent three hungry days in the brush on the outskirts of Rashaf, too weak and upset to fight, he says. They pulled out of Lebanon on the day of the cease-fire.

Mr. Davis, the reserve combat engineer, entered Lebanon with an infantry regiment on Aug. 2, charged with clearing a safe route to the village of Maroun al-Ras. The work was expected to take two or three nights, with the soldiers returning to Israel during the day.

Instead, the unit got trapped near Maroun al-Ras for five days, with enough food and water for just two. Nearly down to their last canteen, they were ordered to walk to Bint Jbeil, a Hezbollah bastion more than a mile away, to attack a local hospital, Mr. Davis says.

The soldiers refused. "We just said, 'That's ridiculous. Forget it,' " Mr. Davis says. His unit, though celebrated during its regular army service for fighting Palestinians in Gaza, has had no heavy-combat training in recent years, Mr. Davis says. He had fired all of 15 bullets in training since completing his regular military service three years ago. "We weren't trained, prepared or equipped to walk two kilometers, through a hostile village, and take over a hospital," he says.

After a second unit declined the mission, Mr. Davis says the army sent three teams of special commandos -- roughly 60 men in all. Eight were killed, he says.

Inon, a reserve officer in an elite combat unit who asked that his last name not be published, says the Lebanon war was "complete chaos." Orders were changed up to four times a night, logistics and troop movements were poorly coordinated, and wavering by leaders in Jerusalem cost soldiers' lives, the 23-year-old platoon commander says.

"You can't go into Lebanon half-way," Inon says, referring to Mr. Olmert's reluctance to commit large numbers of ground forces until the last weekend of the war. By holding back in the area where Hezbollah was most deeply entrenched, rather than blitzing forward in a massive, preplanned invasion, Israel's ground forces found themselves caught in a deadly welter of both enemy and friendly fire, Inon says. He lost two of his own men to an Israeli tank shell and saw at least eight other Israelis killed or injured by friendly fire.

"If that many units go into a small territory and nobody knows what to do, more mistakes happen," Inon says.

Gen. Herzog, the army's former chief strategist, says Israel broke from its basic defense doctrine of advancing speedily and got bogged down trying to go after Hezbollah's fortified positions. One lesson, he says: "It's a lot easier to hit forces when they're standing still."

Write to Peter Waldman at

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