YAROUN â€” They move on foot by moonlight. They set up hilltop sniper nests and lookouts. They hit enemy forces at vulnerable points and then quietly retreat.
Such are the tactics increasingly used by Israeli troops in south Lebanon â€” adopted, in some part, from the very Hizbollah fighters they have been trying to beat back for over a month.
The shift on the ground is the result of Israel’s painful realisation that the massive technological superiority of its air force, navy and armour is of little use against a motivated force deeply dug in around several Lebanese strongholds. And it promises a campaign on a grand scale, especially after Israel approved expanding the war this week.
“We are learning as we go, and very, very quickly,” an Israeli army officer, Lieutenant Eyal Yossinger, said during an advance on suspected Hizbollah hideouts near Yaroun village.
The most striking development is Israel’s growing preference for moving its troops on foot rather than in armoured personnel carriers (APCs) or inside capacious Merkava battle tanks. Hizbollah squads using various anti-tank rockets have turned many of those vehicles into fiery death-traps, and the belief among Israel’s top brass is that fighters are less likely to waste valuable arms on infantrymen dispersed in the field.
The battlegrounds are criss-crossed with thick white fibres that troops wade through without concern. These are the guidance wires left behind by spent Sagger anti-tank missiles.
While regular troops manoeuvre en masse under cover of dark, conducting house-to-house searches in villages with Hizbollah hold-outs, there has been a growing number of Israeli special forces’ missions designed to surprise the fighters.
Israeli sharpshooters, with spotters in tow, now deploy at strategic hilltops with .50 calibre rifles capable of hitting their would-be Hizbollah ambushers at long ranges.
Commandos have struck at suspected Hizbollah leaders deep in Lebanon, raids that cost Israel relatively little in terms of military casualties but offered morale boosts for a Jewish state rattled by hundreds of cross-border missile salvoes.
“Fighting on the enemy’s homefront, in a place where Hizbollah feels immune and protected, has profound operational significance,” said Yochanan Locker, an Israeli air force brigadier-general in charge of special operations.
The south Lebanon face-off appears for now to be a reversal of Israel’s 22-year occupation of the area, which ended in 2000.
Then, it was Israeli forces that hunkered down in fortified positions, awaiting attack by roaming Hizbollah teams. Now Hizbollah has to fend off Israeli ground assaults, with the added disadvantage of lacking good supply lines to the north.
Israeli military officials say around 20 Hizbollah men have been captured, some having surrendered and others taken asleep.
“This lack of vigilance is an indication of the extent to which Hizbollah has been exhausted, and could signify a chink in the armour of their famous resolve,” said army spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Olivier Rafowicz, adding that the captives had provided “key intelligence” on deployments.
In Beirut, Hizbollah sources disputed Israel’s account of the number of captives. One veteran foreign observer said the group’s morale also appeared not have been impaired.
“The fighters I have seen remain in good spirits and believe the war is going well for them,” said Nicholas Blanford, a Beirut-based analyst for Jane’s Defence Weekly.
Polls in Israel show public support for the war is similarly robust, and superior firepower could help Israeli forces prevail unless a diplomatic solution is found first. But few on either side dispute that the slow and bloody pace of the conflict has been a blow to Israel’s military prestige, especially to an armoured corps that, in the past, bested enemy tank divisions and is now vexed by lightly armed fighters. A half-dozen Israeli tanks, including locally made Merkavas, have been destroyed or disabled during the offensive launched after Hizbollah killed eight soldiers and abducted two in a July 12 border raid. There have been some 20 tank crew casualties, a rate unmatched in the past quarter-century of Israeli campaigns. “It makes sense for the Israelis to adapt their tactics on the ground to suit the guerrilla-style warfare they are facing,” Blanford said. “Tanks have traditionally been the Israeli army’s most valued offensive weapon on the ground, but this time around they are proving to be an Achilles’ heel.” Two Israeli weapons firms have developed electro-magnetic defence systems for armoured vehicles that destroy rockets in mid-air before they strike, but these are still at the prototype stage. Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper said production had been stepped up in order to supply tanks stationed in Lebanon.