July 21, 2006

Israel-Hezbollah: Preparing the battlefield

This article originally appeared on MSNBC's Hardblogger

We are 10 days into the Israel Defense Force (IDF) operations against Hezbollah. All indications point to an imminent ground incursion into Hezbollah’s stronghold in southern Lebanon.

Some points to consider as this operation unfolds:

The air campaign that has been ongoing since the first day has not been as successful as the Israelis had hoped. They have not been effective in preventing Hezbollah from repeated and sustained rocket attacks on Haifa and other cities in northern Israel. Despite repeated air and artillery attacks, Hezbollah has been able to strike an unprecedented 25 miles into Israeli territory, effectively putting approximately 1 million Israelis under threat of Hezbollah rockets.

I am surprised at how resilient Hezbollah has been. IDF gunners have fired a huge number of rounds into the area of southern Lebanon where the rockets missiles are thought to be located — from where they need to be launched to hit Haifa and Nazareth. Footage of these 155mm artillery batteries showed pallet after pallet, truckload after truckload of shells moved to firing positions. Still, the Hezbollah rockets continue.

Israel has mounted small-unit incursions — most likely reconnaissance and special operations missions — across the border into southern Lebanon, including many on an expected axis of attack, that being to the west of Qiryat Shimona. These incursions have met with stiff resistance by Hezbollah, despite the relentless Israeli artillery and air attacks.

Just today, we saw what are probably the final preparations of the battlefield. Additional reserve units have been called up, bringing the force levels on the border to about three divisions. In amazing footage broadcast live to the world, an Israeli combat engineering unit was seen marshaling on the border — amazing because the Israelis are usually so tight-lipped about their military operations. Leaflet drops warned residents to flee southern Lebanon in advance of the battle.

Finally, the IDF chief of staff made these remarks: “Tonight we bow our heads to the IDF soldiers who are fighting and prepare ourselves for the battles ahead. ... We left Gaza and left Lebanon in order never to go back — but now we have to fight the terror wherever it is.”

It is important to remember as the Israelis and Hezbollah close for battle that Israeli forces have not been in southern Lebanon since they left in 2000. Hezbollah perceived that pullout as a victory (you could make that argument). Since 2000, it has had free reign to survey the land, develop obstacles, set up planned ambush sites, etc. When the Israeli army pushes across the border, it will be met be a disciplined, committed — some would say fanatical — force. It will be a difficult fight.

The Israeli armed forces are among the finest in the world — they are well trained, well led and well equipped. They will ultimately prevail, but it will be at a steep price.