"We Have to Stop This"

On the 5th anniversary of the Second Lebanon War, a minute-by-minute account of the war's break out. Chapter One in Amir Rapaport's Fire on Our Forces: How We Failed Ourselves in the Second Lebanon War — A special IsraelDefense project
"We Have to Stop This"

When Major General Gadi Eisencott, head of the Israel Defense Forces' (IDF) operations branch (GHQ), left the chief of staff's meeting room, he walked over to the head of the planning branch (GHQ), Major General Yitzhak (Khaki) Harel. It was almost midnight, July 12, 2006. A few minutes earlier, the chief of staff, Lieutenant General Dan Halutz, had informed the meeting of the government's decision to order the IDF to attack Fajar rocket launchers in the heart of villages in South Lebanon. Eisencott was troubled. "We have to stop everything, they don’t realize what this means," he whispered to Harel. The two generals knew what would happen: Hezbollah would respond with massive rocket fire on the Israeli homefront, and after that, war was all but inevitable. "It's too late. The planes can't be called back," the head of planning replied. "All we can do is get a hold on the situation so it'll be over ASAP."

Outside the meeting room, on the fourteenth floor of the defense establishment building (the Kirya) in central Tel Aviv, stand a leather sofa and a table with newspapers always scatted across it. The walls are overlaid with thin layer of light-colored wood. As the generals returned to their offices with heavy hearts, air force bases throughout the country were getting ready to carry out the operational plan known as "Specific Gravity." Combat aircraft were being armed. Pipes were stretched to the aircraft to make sure the fuel tanks were full. Technicians were running across the runways. The pilots were going over the details of their targets: houses where the Iranian-made Fajar rockets were ensconced, each rocket carrying a warhead weighing over a hundred kilograms.

Israel was set to commence operations in Lebanon with a heavy sense of outrage and a thirst for revenge for the abduction of the reservists, Eldar Regev and Ehud (Udi) Goldwasser that morning. Israel had sky-high objectives but it lacked a clearly-defined plan for attaining them and no timetables had been prepared. The government ministers who approved of the attack on the Fajars had not known that the IDF was opposed to "Specific Gravity." The ministers acted as a rubber stamp for the prepackaged decision brought to them. As they saw it, the IDF operation would last a few hours, at the most a couple of days. They had no inkling that their vote that evening implied one thing only: war.

In the event of escalation in Lebanon, the IDF's plans included bombing the country's infrastructure, in order to force the Lebanese government to take action against Hezbollah, and a ground operation to remove the Katyushas from the border. The political level, however, did not approve of a strike against the infrastructure, and Chief of Staff Halutz was totally against a ground operation (though he offered no alternative plan). Nobody, none of the generals, chief of staff, defense minister, prime minister, or government ministers knew what the next step would be after the strike against the Fajars. The chain of events from the minute the reservists were abducted - 09:05 that morning - until launching the Second Lebanon War illustrates the extent to which Israel suffers from intrinsic flaws in making its most important decisions.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert received information of the kidnapping while he was speaking for the first time with Aviva and Noam Shalit, the parents of Gilad Shalit, an IDF soldier who was captured and transferred to the Gaza Strip two and half weeks earlier, on June 25. "Warn the military people that they're walking into a trap. It's not going to end with just these two," Olmert told his military secretary, Major General Gadi Shamni, who brought him the bad news. In moments such as these a prime minister feels the burden of responsibility resting on his shoulders and understands how alone he is at the top.

At the same time, in Defense Minister Amir Peretz's office in the Kirya, a discussion on the IDF attack in Gaza early that morning was about to begin. The air force had tried to liquidate two senior members in the Hamas military branch, Ahmed Gandor and Muhammad Dif, but had only wounded them. They were lucky: one of the two bombs failed to explode.

The most prominent feature in the minister's office is the huge plasma screen hanging from the ceiling. The colored carpets that cover the floor are lost in the room's vastness. That morning, fifteen or so senior members of the defense establishment - including Chief of Staff Halutz and Yuval Diskin, the head of Shin Bet (Sherut Bitahon Klali, Israel's General Security Service, comparable to the FBI) - sat around the long table next to the panoramic window overlooking the Tel Aviv coastline. All at once their pagers started beeping. The first report spoke of a massive mortar and missile barrage along the Lebanese border. One house in the northern village of Metula imploded after receiving a direct hit. A Hezbollaht attack was repulsed on the perimeter of the IDF stronghold Dvoranit, near Rosh Hanikra on the Lebanese border.

At first glance it seemed that the Shiite organization was letting off steam in response to the Israeli Air Force's (IAF) attempted assassination of Dif and Gandor, but there was a foreboding of worse to come. Senior defense officials knew that the barrage might be a diversion for a Hezbollah abduction operation. A few minutes after the discussion opened with a review of events in Gaza, the generals' adjutants began sending them updates - via the defense minister's secretary - on the shelling on the northern border. Despite the rising anxiety, the rule was maintained that only the director of the chief of staff's office was permitted to break into a meeting chaired by the defense minister. Eisencott, the head of IDF operations, also received a message. He left the meeting for a few minutes to get fresh information over the phone, and soon returned to the table with a dramatic announcement: "Now our problem is that we've lost radio contact with the "levena" (a convoy of two or more vehicles)

"What's a 'levena'?" queried the defense minister, who entered office only nine weeks ago and was still inexperienced in military and security matters.

"It generally refers to a tank and a special APC (fitted onto the body of a tank whose belly is protected from explosives)," explained Eisencott, like a teacher elucidating a basic point to a pupil. "A 'levena' can also be made up of other vehicles. They might be engaged right now and that's why we can't reach them. At any rate we've declared 'Hannibal'."

This time Peretz didn’t have to ask what the codename meant. After Gilad Shalit was kidnapped, the IDF announced "Hannibal" and scrambled to engage in pursuit and cut off the abductors escape routes with air fire. "Exactly where did this happen?" Peretz asked. The deputy chief of staff, Major General Moshe Kaplinsky ("Kaplan"), spread a map out on the table showing the sector between the two report points (104 and 105) on the security fence, north of two Israeli villages, Shtula and Zarit, where contact was lost with the "levena." "Does it make sense to carry out a kidnapping at this hour?" Peretz wanted to know. The officers answered affirmatively.

Given the dramatic developments, the chief of staff, director of operations, and Israeli Air Force (IAF) commander, Major General Eliezer Shkeidi, rushed to the GHQ's underground command "pit." The atmosphere there was one of heavy gloom. The reports flooding in informed the generals that two smoldering military Humvees had been found at the last point of contact with the patrol, and three solders killed , and two wounded. Two other men on the patrol were believed missing.

It was still not clear if a kidnapping had taken place, but as the minutes rolled by the chances of picking up the abductors' tracks diminished. The sixty minutes immediately after a kidnapping are termed "the golden hour." If this time slot runs out, it is almost impossible to make it up later. But the minutes passed and nothing was discovered, and then very bad news came in: a Merkava Mark II tank that had crossed into Lebanon in a desperate chase after the abductors, had detonated a powerful explosive device 500 meters from the border, on the road leading to the village of Ita a-Sha'ab. This was the exact trap that the prime minister mentioned when he received the report on the abduction.

The tank's task had been to obstruct vehicles coming from the nearby village to the place of the kidnapping. The tank was supposed to have had an APC accompaniment, but the latter failed to cross the security fence due to a mechanical breakdown. The APC crew proceeded on foot to the tank and saw it blow up a few dozen meters in front of them. Parts of the tank shot up 800 meters into the air over their heads and landed inside Israeli territory. Although a few days earlier, specific orders had been issued to affix armored belly plates on all the tanks in the sector, the Merkava was without such plating which could have reduced the effect of a blast. Four crew members were presumed dead, but the approach to the vehicle was practically impossible because the entire sector was under a heavy mortar barrage.

The stifling air in the GHQ command pit, together with the grey cement walls undergoing renovation, made work in the room almost intolerable. At the height of the event, upon learning of the destroyed tank, Halutz radiated determination and a fighting spirit. "So, what do we do now?" he asked in the initial conference that was held in the operations branch's northern zone room. "Hit Beirut," replied Khaki Harel, the head of planning. "For the past year we’ve been saying that the Lebanese government is responsible for what happens of its side of the border. Now we'll show them we mean business."

Holding the Lebanese government accountable for Hezbollah aggression had become the dominant concept in the IDF after the Syrian troop withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2005. Until then, the approach had been that the Syrians would pay the price for any provocation from their surrogate, Hezbollah chairman, Hassan Nasrallah.

Eisencott entered the "pit" after carrying with him the IDF's contingency plans for escalation in Lebanon. He recommended continuing the air strikes along the border for four or five more hours. "Afterwards we'll have to consider what can be gained from the operation; the strategy, directions, resources needed; and how we intend to proceed. This will take a few days to prepare," he said.

Halutz pointed out that "this was a serious incident that demanded a serious response," and that a preliminary discussion would be held at noon to review the IDF's options. He returned to his office and made a number of phone calls straightaway, one of them to his Bank Le'umi branch office on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv, instructing his investment counselor to sell off his private stock portfolio.

The offices of the chief of staff and defense minister are in a building in the Kirya (central Tel Aviv) that was constructed a few years ago. The impressive edifice, designed by the architect Avraham Yaski, consists of twin sixteen-story towers connected by bridges at the upper levels. One tower serves the IDF general staff and its civilian twin houses the defense ministry.

A few dozen meters from Halutz's office, on the other side of the bridge separating the two towers, Defense Minister Peretz began taking a close look at IDF operations. His military secretary, Brigadier General Eitan Dangot, had unfolded a map of South Lebanon on the table and was showing him a book with details of the targets that the IDF was supposed to attack according to "Hannibal." Each bridge and road had a photo and brief description next to it. While Dangot was leafing through the book, Peretz got in touch with Olmert. "It's important that we do everything in coordination. We must have complete control over the situation. The Lebanese government has to be held responsible for what happened," Peretz said, basing this on what he had managed to absorb from military people.

Olmert faced a battery of television cameras and journalists at the reception planned for Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, held on the grounds of the prime minister's office in Jerusalem. His statements contradicted the line he would later adopt. "I want to make one thing clear. We do not regard this morning's events as a terrorist attack, but as aggression by a sovereign state that attacked Israel without any reason or provocation . . . The Lebanese government, that Hezbollah is part of, seeks to undermine regional stability. Lebanon will bear the responsibility for its [Hezbollah's] actions. The IDF is operating in Lebanon and the government will convene tonight to authorize further responses. I believe that these responses will reverberate in the correct places and with the necessary intensity."

When asked whether Syria, too, was responsible for what happened, Olmert issued a warning to Damascus: "Syria is a terrorist regime . . . [and] this naturally calls for adequate preparations to deal with the Syrian government's involvement in [today's events]." Olmert also stated the Israel would not negotiate the return of the abductees: "We will not give in to blackmail or negotiate with terrorist elements over any matter dealing with the lives of Israeli soldiers. This was true yesterday and it is true today."

Tzipi Livni, Israel's foreign minister, also participated in the meeting with Japanese prime minister. As soon as the meeting was over, Livni held her first conference with senior officials from her ministry, but nothing of substance came from it. Decision-making was being conducted on one axis only: the security axis.

This is the process that led to the Second Lebanon War. It demonstrates the extent to which the prime minister and cabinet are dependent on the IDF for strategic decision-making, and how vital it is for the person at the top of the pyramid to be informed by a single advisory agency that can centralize the data flowing in from other agencies. The prime minister is the only person who is supposed to have an overall picture that takes into account military considerations and political implications of Israel's steps. But the only assistance in security matters that the prime minister receives comes from his military secretary, a major general in active service. Israel's National Security Council (established in 1999) is subordinate to the Prime Minister's Office, but in reality it deals only with marginal tasks that are "tossed" to it from time to time. It lacks top-notch experts or the accumulated knowledge that can be used in times of a crisis. The distance between the Israeli National Security Council and its American counterpart, which has tremendous influence and prestige, is the distance between Jerusalem (or Ramat Hasharon, where the Israeli council's offices are located) and Washington.

A number of security agencies that are under the prime minister's direct jurisdiction are supposed to supply him with information: the Mossad (comparable to the CIA), Shin Bet, and Atomic Energy Commission. The defense minister – who is in charge only of the IDF - and the army itself are not privy to all levels of security information. Nevertheless, the army alone formulates Israel's emergency plans, taking political considerations into account (of course, as seen through military eyes). Like any army in the world the IDF tends to perceive a military solution to every problem. If the force is insufficient, the solution is to use more force. The preference for military considerations over and above political ones is, then, inherent.

Since actual staff work does not take place in the prime minister's immediate vicinity, the center of gravity in a security crisis is located in the Kirya. The person in charge of the Defense Ministry on July 12, 2006 was the former chairman of the Histadrut (the Israeli trade union) Amir Peretz, who had been in office for a total of two months and eight days, and who entered office with no previous experience in security affairs. The chief of staff was Dan Halutz, a decorated combat pilot, who commanded the IDF during the disengagement from the Gaza Strip and Northern Samaria one year earlier.

At noon a series of talks were held in the Kirya in preparation for the government meeting scheduled for eight o'clock that evening. The first discussion - at a quarter to one – included Peretz, Halutz, and their personal aids. Hezbollah already announced that it had abducted two Israeli soldiers and transferred them to a "safe place." The organization's television station, Al-Manar, broadcast music and "clips" of the Israeli-held, Lebanese prisoner, Samir Kuntar, who murdered Danny Haran and his two daughters and the police officer Eliyahu Shachar in Naharia in 1979. The organization also declared that it was demanding the release of thousands of prisoners, including Kuntar, in exchange for the two soldiers. Israeli radio and television cited the report and admitted that the IDF was deeply concerned that two of its men had been captured.

Peretz and Halutz realized that the IDF was facing a new situation. It would not be attacking specific targets in South Lebanon only, as it has done on two previous occasions after Hezbollah provocations: the failed attempt to kidnap IDF personnel in the village of Rajar on the western slopes of the Golan Heights in November 2005, and rocket fire against an IAF air control unit on Mt. Meron on May 28, 2006. What influenced the IDF decision was the fact that the humiliation in the north came in the wake ongoing deterioration in the Gaza Strip: Hamas's election to the Palestinian parliament in March, its unremitting barrage of Qassam rockets into Sderot and other settlements in the Western Negev that the IDF had been unable to quell, and worst of all - the abduction of Gilad Shalit. Now, in after the events in the north, Israel felt that its deterrent shield was being ground into dust.

"We know about the seven dead today," Halutz said to Peretz. "There hasn’t been such an incident since we pulled out of Lebanon. This is an accumulation of things over the last two or three months. We're at a crossroads. We have to do something." Halutz was keen on causing Lebanon heavy economic damage. "I recommend putting the Lebanese government in our target sights and teaching it a lesson it'll never forget . . . We can cause them damage totaling several billions and shut off their electric power so they'll be in darkness for a year. We can also bomb Beirut airport or the presidential palace in Baabda so the Lebanese government will understand that there's a price to pay for not fighting the Hezbollah." Halutz made it clear: "We will also have a price to pay. [Hezbollah's] response will be Fajars and Katyushas."

"Can we knock out Hezbollah missiles aimed at Haifa and Hadera?" Peretz asked. "We can," came the chief of staff's reply. He was referring to three IDF contingency plans to eliminating Hezbollah's intermediate range (45 to 70 kilometers) rocket launchers: "Specific Gravity" - the plan for destroying stationary, house-based rocket launchers in the villages of South Lebanon; another plan for attacking mobile launchers transported to different areas on trucks. The third plan, "Feather Weight," called for strikes against depots of 122 millimeter Katyusha rockets dispersed throughout South Lebanon.

"At this point I don’t recommend going after the Fajars," Halutz said. But Peretz was in no hurry to concur with the chief of staff. He wanted to know "about mortar barrages on Hadera and Haifa," adding that "it seems more logical to hit the Fajar positions which pose an immediate threat to us rather than bomb the airport." Of course the participants understood that Peretz did not mean short-range mortar shells, but rockets that could reach Israel's depth.

Here the recently instated defense minister displayed a healthy intuition. "The question is: what is the operation's objective?" he wondered. "Is it to return the abductees? If so, we might get caught up in this way over our heads. Nobody believes that pressure alone will bring the soldiers back." Halutz agreed. "I know," the chief of staff admitted, "we had a bad experience with Ron Arad (an Israeli air force navigator who was downed in Lebanon in 1986 and is still missing despite intensive negotiations to gain information on him)." Peretz added that the IDF had to come up with a way to hit the enemy and end the story. "That's the trick, how to end it," he repeated.

The question of mobilizing the reserves was broached during the preliminary consultations. Dangot, Peretz's military secretary, felt that a general call-up was necessary given the likelihood that the conflict would escalate. Halutz's body language implied that he did not appreciate Dangot's input. "I've already given orders not to mobilize anyone," he snapped. The head of the defense minister's staff, Brigadier General Ami Shafran, was surprised. He asked Peretz and the chief of staff to look at the thin screen of the defense minister's computer where an Internet message read that Israeli reservists were being called up. Halutz gave a disparaging flick with his arm as if to say the information was wrong.

Firendly Fire, How We Failed Ourselves in the Second Lebanon War. Amir Rapaport. Sifriya Ma'ariv (2007). Editor: Yoav Keren. Graphics: Yoram Ne'eman & Yael Reshef. 382 pages.

 

 

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Photos:

Defense Minister Amit Peretz and Chief of Staff Dan Halutz in the Second Lebanon War (Photo: IDF Spokesperson)
Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah (Photo: AP)
The abducted soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser