Israeli army's damaged reputation

Hezbollah's resistance one year ago forces the military to ask questions of itself.

    The army was unable to stem rocket attacks into northern Israel last year [AFP]

    Traditionally, Israel's army has been seen as one of the world's most formidable fighting forces.

    In video

    David Chater reports on the continuing fallout from the war for the Israeli army


    However, in 2006, Hezbollah, an organisation that Israel believed it would defeat in days, dealt what was seen by many as a devastating blow to the Israeli military's reputation.

    Analysis of Israel's spectacularly successful campaign against Arab forces in 1967 and Hezbollah's tactics in 2006 show striking parallels.
    Forty years ago, Israel had used a combination of military intelligence, effective leadership and an unwavering belief in its cause to devastating effect.

    In 2006, it was Hezbollah's turn to harness these strengths and secure what even it saw as a seemingly improbable defeat against its enemy.


    Intelligent thinking


    Chita Cohen was the commander of a helicopter squadron when Israel launched its aerial attack, Moked (Operation Focus) on Arab forces at 7.45am on June 5, 1967.


    Cohen attributes the success of Moked to three factors - the element of surprise, the targeting of weak points and the efficiency of the Israeli air force.


    Israeli pilots came in below radar cover and attacked airfields that had been pinpointed in advance.


    The bases were attacked in the morning, when Arab pilots were still breakfasting, and to keep up the momentum Israeli pilots often flew four or five sorties a day.


    The first two of these factors were underpinned by the strength of Israel's military intelligence, whose careful research paved the way for Israel's success.


    Mouin Rabbani, a Middle East expert at the International Crisis Group, says: "In 1967 the Arabs were unprepared for war, in 2006 Hezbollah were.


    "Hezbollah had excellent intelligence about Israel while Israel had poor intelligence against Hezbollah."


     Hassan Nasrallah became a powerful symbol
    for Hezbollah's resistance to Israel [AFP]

    A dedicated Hezbollah unit recruited agents who were able to gather information about Israel's military bases and other high-level targets that were to prove vital in 2006.


    In contrast, Israeli intelligence made a tactical mistake in believing that if operations were pursued against Hezbollah, support for the movement would be minimal.  


    Helped by funding from Iran, Hezbollah had widespread support among Lebanon's towns and villages, paying for school fees and medical expenses, providing health insurance and offering money for people to start up small businesses.


    Jamil Mroue, publisher of Beirut's The Daily Star newspaper, said: "Israel viewed Hezbollah from a terrorist prism, it treated them as if they were not part of society itself.


    "It attacked Hezbollah on the presumption that the local population would not help the movement, as it had failed to help the Palestinians in 1982."


    Instead, much of the Lebanese population, even those who were not Shia, were to stand by Hezbollah during the conflict.


    Lacking leadership


    Mroue said: "The men who fought in 1967 went on to produce a long line of leaders, prime ministers, generals. They had a kind of quality.


    "The men who lead the army now are no longer so focused, so intense, no longer burnt by the holocaust, which the leaders of 1967 were still close to."


    Rabbani is more blunt, he said: "Israeli society has changed vastly over the last 40 years. In many ways it has become lazy and corpulent.


    Special report

    A series of reports on the Middle East one year after the war in Lebanon

    "This is reflected in the state of the army, which has become a pig trough, a professional army in the worst sense of the word.


    "It has become institutionalised and unable to learn from its mistakes. In terms of its leadership, it is the worst possible people that have risen to the top."


    In 2006, this lack of leadership was reflected on the ground, with problems equipping reservists and misguided strategies on the ground.


    In contrast Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper, was moved to describe Hezbollah as a trained, skilled, well-organised, and highly motivated infantry.


    Collective inexperience


    In 2006, the lack of leadership in the army was matched by the poor leadership of the Israeli government.


    Ze'ev Schiff, Haaretz's defence correspondent and an expert on the Israeli army, said: "This was the first time in Israel's history that neither the prime minister, defence minister or foreign minister had any military experience."


    Schiff feels that Israel's military operation was hindered by Ehud Olmert, the prime minister, whose handling of the war he describes as "a problem".


    He believes that Israel should have struck with overwhelming force early on in order to prevent a prolonged campaign.


    Schiff is critical of Olmert's cabinet which debated this strategy, but then opted for a lesser use of air and artillery firepower and a limited movement of troops on the ground.


    General Shlomo Gazit was head of research for Aman (Israeli army intelligence) in the run up to the 1967 war and director of Aman from 1974 to 1978.


    Ehud Olmert, Israel's prime minister, lacked
    the experience of fighting a war [EPA]
    He believes if the war in 2006 had been handled differently Israel "could have occupied Lebanon in 48 hours".


    Gazit also criticises Olmert: "He didn't have any military experience. He didn't know the right questions to ask the military. He is totally blank when it comes to understanding the military, the Middle East and the Arab mentality."


    The chronic lack of leadership within Israel's army and government was a marked contrast to the direction given by Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's secretary general.


    Nasrallah became a powerful symbol for Hezbollah's resistance to Israel and it was clear that the movement's fighters had a strong belief in him as their leader.


    Just cause


    The question of belief is the final contrast between 1967 and 2006.


    In 1967 the Israeli nation was less than 20-years old and there was still a high degree of idealism among its population.


    Israel argued that it had to make a pre-emptive attack on its Arab neighbours in order to defend itself and its actions were overwhelmingly supported by its citizens.


    The takeover of areas such as East Jerusalem gave tremendous zeal to the army in its operations.


    In 2006, as the conflict in Lebanon dragged on, Israel seemed unsure both of its tactics and the legitimacy of its actions.


    This time it was Hezbollah that felt it was fighting a just cause, defending the population from an invader which was to eventually kill more than 1,000 civilians.


    As recriminations over Lebanon continue in Israel, the country's military, and indeed its government, have a number of difficult questions to face.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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