Sunday, August 20, 2006

Israel Committed to Block Arms and Kill Nasrallah

Steven Erlanger, The New York Times:
Despite a cease-fire agreement, Israel intends to do its best to keep Iran and Syria from rearming Hezbollah and to kill the militia’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, says a senior Israeli commander.

International commitments to exclude the Hezbollah militia from southern Lebanon and to disarm it already seem hollow, said the commander, who had a well-placed view of the war and its planning and has extensive experience in Lebanon.

The officer would only speak on the condition of anonymity in an interview on Friday. But, speaking one day before commandos carried out a raid that Israeli officials said was to disrupt arms shipments for Hezbollah from Syria and Iran, he was explicit that Israel would continue to seek out and block any such attempts. He also emphasized that, despite criticism from the Israeli public and even troops of the performance of the Army and government, he considered the threat and the fighting ability of Hezbollah to have been severely diminished. READ MORE

Furthermore, he made it clear that Sheik Nasrallah remained a target as the leader of a group that Israel and the United States have labeled terrorist. “There’s only one solution for him,” he said. At another point, he said simply, “This man must die.”

Mr. Nasrallah is regarded as a hero in much of the Muslim world. The pro-Syrian president of Lebanon, Émile Lahoud, praised him and Hezbollah this week for what he called their victory over Israel.

Israel and the United States, however, view Hezbollah as a tool of non-Arab Iran, which created it, and of Syria, which supports and helps to supply it, rather than being loyal to Lebanon and its multireligious government.

Israel, the officer said, views Hezbollah as “Iran’s western front’’ and, regardless of how poorly the new United Nations forces may perform, he argued, Israel will benefit from new international support for the extension of Lebanese sovereignty to the Israeli border, made most visible in the deployment of the Lebanese Army.

“I don’t care about the capability of the Lebanese Army,” he said. “What is more important, and here I’m not speaking for the Israeli government, is the understanding that the Lebanese government took control of southern Lebanon. Now we can deal with them as a country and a government, and speak and compromise. This is the huge change this operation created.”

Hezbollah, he said, is no longer just Israel’s problem, and “the world understands that we are helping to stop the influence of Iran,” at least in the longer term.

The army was planning on 15 days of air war before any ground forces were considered, he said. “We didn’t want to do any ground assault and thought we could create the conditions for a cease-fire without a major ground assault.”

But the army miscalculated, and Hezbollah did not break. The air force failed to kill Sheik Nasrallah or to destroy the Hezbollah leadership. The army was also surprised, he said, by the sheer numbers of the advanced antitank missiles Hezbollah possessed, including Russian Metis-M and Kornet missiles that were sold to Syria and passed on to Hezbollah, he said, and which caused most of Israel’s military casualties.

The United Nations was also “too soft and too late” in negotiating a cease-fire, and Israel then felt it had to act to stop the short-range Katyusha rockets that the army and the government knew, he insisted, could not be stopped with air power alone. “We tried to postpone it until we had no other choice,” the officer said.

The army asked the government for a five-day ground operation to reach the Litani River and was ready on Monday, Aug. 7, the commander said. “The government asked us to wait because of the negotiations, and we waited Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and most of Friday,” he said. Only then, when the negotiations at the United Nations were going against Israel, did Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz order the expanded ground operation, which had only been approved by the cabinet on Aug. 9.

In the end, the army had two days of fighting, not five, before the cease-fire took effect last Monday at 8 a.m.

Israelis have been extremely critical of Mr. Olmert, Mr. Peretz and, to some degree, the army leadership. Israelis overwhelmingly supported the decision to go to war against Hezbollah after its cross-border raid on July 12, when it captured two Israeli soldiers and killed eight people.

But the war dragged on, the government seemed indecisive and Hezbollah was fighting well. Israelis felt there was too much reliance on air power, the ground war was too long delayed and then too modest, and the cease-fire agreement did not even secure the soldiers’ release or guarantee the disarming of Hezbollah.

The lifeline of the three-month-old government appears shortened, and the future of the chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, is uncertain.

Still, the Israeli Army feels it fought well within the limits set for it, and the commander insisted that the Israelis won every battle with Hezbollah, despite its good training and equipment and the underground tunnels, barracks and command posts it constructed with Iranian help.

“We believe it was important to stop the war with Hezbollah understanding that we can beat them anywhere, any time, and we did that,” he said. “I believe it will change the situation for a long time.”

Israelis are spoiled by the 1967 and 1973 wars, he said, but there is no decisive victory against terrorism. In Washington, too, he said, “I believe the military and security professionals understand what we did, and they are not disappointed.”

The Israeli Army scored two important achievements, he confirmed. First, good intelligence allowed it to knock out up to 80 percent of Hezbollah’s medium- and long-range missile launchers in the first two days of the air war, preventing Sheik Nasrallah from firing a longer-range Iranian Zelzal missile on Tel Aviv.

More important, Israel was able to destroy launchers within 45 seconds to a minute after they were used, which no other army in the world can do with regularity, he said. Employing drones, radar, precision weapons and artillery, Israel could track a launching and bomb it.

But it could not do that with the thousands of short-range Katyusha rockets. They are small and easily portable, can be fired from buildings or simple metal tripods or even fired with a simple timer.

There are other tactical lessons, the commander said: more armor plating underneath tanks, better supplies, more money to be spent on reserves and training.

“But in the long run, if we see Hezbollah rearming itself and running southern Lebanon, I believe the next round is coming.”

After all, “this is the Middle East,” the officer said. “One war ends, and the next one is already at the door.”

In the occupied West Bank on Saturday, Israel arrested the Palestinian deputy prime minister, Nasser al-Shaer of Hamas, at his home. Israeli has arrested more than two dozen Hamas cabinet ministers and legislators in the West Bank, including the parliament’s speaker, Aziz Dweik, since late June, when Hamas took part in the capture of an Israeli soldier.

Also on Saturday, an Israeli soldier was killed at a checkpoint east of Nablus by an armed Palestinian, who was killed in turn by other soldiers, the Israeli Army said.