Hizbullah mujahideen killed the Israeli general commanding Israeli and South Lebanese Army (SLA) forces in Israeli-occupied southern Lebanon on February 28, in a carefully planned and impeccably executed ambush. Three other Israelis were killed with him.
The operation came just five days after another Hizbullah ambush in which three Israeli officers - a major and two lieutenants from an elite paratroop unit - were killed. The two major operations marked the end of a winter break in Hizbullah operations, which had caused a lull in hostilities since November, and provoked anger and anguish in Israel, with massive demonstrations demanding that Israel withdraw from Lebanon. Brigadier-general Erez Gerstein, 38, was the most senior Israeli officer to be killed in Lebanon since 1982. He was riding in an armour-plated Mercedes as part of a four-vehicle convoy between the villages of Kawkaba and Hasbaya at noon when mujahideen detonated bombs which had been planted specifically for him.
The mujahideen then shelled the other vehicles with mortar bombs to cover their own withdrawal from the area. None was injured. Gerstein, it was later revealed, was in Lebanon for consultations with local commanders following the earlier attack. The attack on him was based on information provided to Hizbullah by sympathisers or agents within the Israeli/SLA command structure, even though his movements and schedule were carefully guarded for security reasons.
The operation’s success was yet another indication of the quality of Hizbullah’s intelligence. The Israeli response was characterised by big words and small actions. At a news conference immediately after the deaths, the Israeli Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Shaul Mofaz vowed to “retaliate for as long as needed.” He added that “the army will fight the Hizbullah... it has the capacity.”
Prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu was similarly bullish, declaring that “Israel cannot tolerate this kind of repeated attack on its territory, on its citizens and on its soldiers.” The retaliatory operation was given the grandiose code- name `Operation Land, Sea and Air’. Israel also tried to play up the scale of the Hizbullah threat, ordering 200,000 Israelis into bomb shelters, supposedly in response to two Hizbullah missiles allegedly landing in Israel. In the event, however, the Israeli response was relatively low-key and petered out after just 48 hours. One gunboat shelled a Palestinian camp south of Beirut, and Israeli aircraft flew some 23 operations attacking villages and alleged Hizbullah bases in the Bekaa Valley and other parts of the country, killing two mujahideen and several civilians. Rather than attacking the Hizbullah, Israeli’s muchvaunted army concentrated on strengthening its fortifications in the occupied zone for fear of further Hizbullah attacks. It later emerged that - far from trying to punish the Hizbullah - Israel may have deliberately avoided hitting Hizbullah targets for fear of provoking further attacks that would have cost it more casualties.
Meanwhile, in Israel the Hizbullah successes led to demonstrations against the government by families of servicemen demanding that Israel withdraw from Lebanon without delay in order to avoid further casualties. Like the Americans in Vietnam, and the Russians in Afghanistan and Ichkeria (Chechnya), the Israel’s military operations in Lebanon are being undermined by the demoralization of its own people and the increasing reluctance of its troops to serve in Lebanon.
With elections looming, Netanyahu’s government and opposition parties are caught on the same dilemma: it is no longer clear which is electorally more popular among Israeli voters - strong action against the killers of Israeli servicemen, or ignominious withdrawal. As it happens, the latter is not a serious option for Israel for the time being. Israel’s presence in southern Lebanon is inextricably tied to its relations with Syria, which is the paramount power in Lebanon and permits Hizbullah to operate there. And its relations with Syria depend upon reaching a deal concerning the Golan Heights, which Israel has occupied since 1973 and which popular opinion will not permit it to relinquish - yet. Nonetheless, the debate on how to withdraw with minimal loss of face has become the main topic of conversation on Lebanon, with an inevitable impact on morale and confidence.
Meanwhile, the government tries desperately to find ways to control the ironically-named `security zone’ with minimum exposure and cost. Gun- emplacements that usually have 10 soldiers are now manned by just four or five. Troops prefer to walk up to 12 miles back to the Israeli’s border during their free time rather than stay in Lebanese bases or travel by military vehicles, for fear of attack. The idea of withdrawing from the town of Jezzine, north of Sidon, has been mooted to reduce the zone’s size and stop using the Marjayoun-Jezzine road, along which more than 30 Israeli soldiershave so far been killed. Israel also knows that it cannot rely on the SLA, but they are the only allies it has. One way or another, Israel knows that it has not suffered its last at the Hizbullah’s hands just yet.
Muslimedia: March 16-31, 1999