The 20 soldiers from Israel’s elite Golan Brigade moved through the darkness over the rocky hills of Lebanon until they arrived at the outskirts of this Shi’ite town that until last month contained 35,000 residents. The unit entered an unfinished house to prepare for combat within a few hours.
The troops, however, never advanced beyond their two-story hideout. Hizbullah gunners, believed to have been hiding in the ruins of Bint Jbail, spotted the Israeli force and directed mortar, anti-tank and machine gun fire that trapped the elite Israeli unit for 36 hours in an area thought to have been cleared of the enemy.
“It’s like fighting through chewing gum or glue,” Col. Shlomo Parente, a 48-year-old reservist who fought in the 1982 war in Lebanon, said.
[On Tuesday, Hizbullah escalated ceasefire violations and fired artillery shells toward retreating Israeli soldiers. No Israeli casualties were reported.]
The Golani squad was not alone. Military sources said numerous Israeli combat units, without effective air or armor support, spent most of their time in Lebanon paralyzed by Hizbullah fire. They said hundreds of soldiers were often overwhelmed by as few as a dozen Hizbullah mortar and anti-tank gunners within sight of the Israeli border.
In all, Israel sent 30,000 soldiers to Lebanon. At least 118 soldiers were killed in the 33-day war. The military said 530 Hizbullah operatives were killed.
“From the point of view of the individual soldier, they are better than the Arab armies that surround us,” Col. Omri Bar-David, a reserve battalion commander, said.
In several cases, Israeli commanders, citing Hizbullah squads, dismissed orders to advance. The military reported the detention of five Engineering Corps soldiers, including a reserve company commander, for refusing to embark on a mission in Lebanon.
“There is a lot of confusion,” Anon, a soldier not involved in the courtmartial, said. “We go in, we come out. We go in, we come out.”
The 20-man unit from the Golani Brigade’s 51st Battalion arrived in Bint Jbail on August 10. Hizbullah first disabled a Merkava Mk-3 main battle tank with an AT-14 Kornet anti-tank missile.
Then, Hizbullah gunners directed anti-tank fire toward the building that contained the Israeli force. The unit, which sustained eight casualties in Bint Jbail on July 26, huddled in a first floor bathroom, deemed the most secure part of the building.
“It’s been ugly,” Dudi Levisohn, a member of the Golani squad, said. “But it’s our job. We have to do it. We suffer so the people in Tel Aviv can enjoy themselves.”
Military sources said Hizbullah also forced Israeli units to turn off their communications and tracking equipment. They said Hizbullah deployed systems designed to identify a range of signals, including that of cellphones.
“During the day, Hizbullah sees us perfectely and we can’t see them,” another officer said. “The only time we conducted operations were at night because we believed our night vision systems were better than theirs.”
Several Russian-born Israeli soldiers said Hizbullah’s tactics reminded them of Chechen rebels. They said Hizbullah fighters were better trained and equipped than the Chechens.
“Hizbullah is tougher,” Vladi, an infantry sniper, said.
Sgt. Joel Abel, a medic for a paratrooper unit, said Hizbullah missile strikes exacted a heavy toll on soldiers in Lebanon. Abel, who fought in Bint Jbail and nearby Maroun Al Ras, said several of the soldiers were unprepared to remain in cramped quarters as rockets exploded around them.
“They were quite hysterical,” Abel said. “They sat on the side and didn’t know what to do. It was the first time they’d ever seen that kind of fighting.”
In another battle, an infantry battalion fought 24 hours to advance three houses in a Shi’ite village. The soldiers were pinned down by heavy Hizbullah anti-tank fire from a network of tunnels and bunkers.
“You don’t have to worry about bullets,” an officer, identified only as Eyal, said. “It’s the anti-tank missiles.”
On August 12, a reservist paratrooper unit, traveling in eight APCs, sought to bring water and supplies to combat units in the Lebanese village of Taibeh, five kilometers from the Israeli border. The area was deemed “relatively safe,” an officer in the unit said.
“Right now we are maintaining control of the area of Taibeh,” a reservist identified only as Elisha said. “But the primary threat is the anti-tank missiles. But they are usually only aimed at large things like tanks. That’s why it’s better on foot. The bigger the object the easier it is to see and hit.”
Within 30 minutes, the reserve convoy was stopped by Hizbullah anti-tank, Katyusha and machine-gun fire. Three of the APCs failed to reach Israeli positions at Rabb Al Talatin.
“One APC was unable to climb the hill so I put its supplies in my vehicle,” Ariel, a commander, said. “But by the time I put them in we heard there was a vehicle hit. We had a doctor and a medic so we had to unload the supplies to make room for the wounded soldiers.”
Later, the convoy unit was told that an Israeli tank was struck by a Hizbullah missile. They said three soldiers in the tank were killed and a fourth was seriously injured.
Military sources reported numerous casualties from Hizbullah improvised explosive devices. Yaron, a 30-year-old reservist, recalled nearly stepping on a landmine and then struggling to maintain his balance as his force withdrew along a slope under heavy artillery fire.
“That night I couldn’t function,” Yaron recalled. “I cried the whole damn night and thank God my officers care about me. I guess it was the last straw. I’m not very good at handling stress and here you get a lot of stress without a break.”
Military sources said Hizbullah has been trained in guerrilla tactics by Iranian and Syrian instructors. They said the tactics were developed from lessons learned by the Vietcong in the war with the United States.
“They have studied Western armies to see how we make war and they have prepared themselves for six years,” Yossi, an officer, said.
With the onset of the United Nations-arranged ceasefire, Israeli soldiers, particularly reservists, have expressed increasing criticism of senior commanders. On Monday, reservists were angered when Northern Command chief Maj. Gen. Udi Adam of Hizbullah termed Hizbullah a terrorist group.
“They are professionals,” a soldier who returned from Lebanon told Adam. “They have new weapons. There have been no improvement in our tanks in 10 years. Their mission is clear — to hurt us. And they can do this very well. Don’t say they are not soldiers. They are soldiers.”