Israeli Army Readies for Future Conflicts with Hezbollah

Fighting between Hezbollah and Israel ended almost three months ago. Now Israeli forces along the northern border are preparing for potential conflicts in the future. Some Israeli soldiers say they are concerned Israel isn't employing the lessons it learned from its recent conflict with Hezbollah.

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And just across Lebanon's border, the military forces of Israel are preparing for the possibility of another war. There is a peace agreement with the Lebanese group Hezbollah. The soldiers say they're hoping the peace holds, and they say they're getting ready just in case it doesn't. But soldiers and analysts say the Israel defense forces are not absorbing enough lessons of this summer's war against Hezbollah.

Here's NPR's Eric Westervelt.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Israeli Army Lieutenant Colonel Guy Hazut stands atop a cement wall at a military post on the Israel-Lebanon border, pointing across to a former Hezbollah fighting position just a few hundred yards away.

Lieutenant Colonel GUY HAZUT (Israeli Army): This is why this war was so important for us. We will not give the Hezbollah the opportunity again to sit on this hill again.

WESTERVELT: Today Lt. Col. Hazut sees success in the green tents that dot the former Hezbollah post. They're tents of the Lebanese Army, now deployed along this border, where the Iranian-backed guerrillas were camped just over three short months ago. But Hazut is chief of staff for the Galilee Division, the Israeli unit responsible for protecting this still-tense border. And he says his soldiers are preparing themselves, should the U.N.-backed ceasefire fall apart.

Lt. Col. HAZUT: This is the Middle East, and in the Middle East everything can happen. If Hezbollah will try again to build some of this post under the Iranian sponsor, we will stop him.

WESTERVELT: But many of the soldiers who fought Hezbollah this summer wonder if their army is adequately preparing and absorbing the lessons from a war soldiers complain was hardly the Israeli Army's finest hour.

Major Yakir Segev is a platoon commander with a reservist infantry unit that played a key role in this summer's war. The 29-year-old says his government's decision not to appoint an independent commission to investigate shortcomings in wartime leadership and prewar preparation has undermined trust in the leadership.

Major YAKIR SEGEV (Platoon Commander, Israeli Army): They should have done something very decisive and something very brave in order to restore that public trust. And once they didn't do it, it gives legitimacy to civilians also to avoid what they have to do, kind of why the hell should I join and leave my kids, leave my work, if someone up there is going to screw things up.

WESTERVELT: On the battlefield, the Israeli military had no tactical answer to Hezbollah's Katyushas, highly mobile 122 milimeter rockets, artillery technology that originated in World War II. The army is now accelerating efforts to buy new anti-missile systems to try to knock down future Katyusha strikes. But that technological fix is expensive, unproven and, military sources say, several years away from deployment.

An even more immediate concern is training. The war was already raging before Major Segev's unit spent a week retraining for combat.

Maj. SEGEV: We were caught unready and unprepared.

WESTERVELT: Segev's unit was hardly the exception. Many reserve units hadn't undergone major combat training maneuvers in four or five years. Many soldiers and military thinkers here say a major training overhaul is needed, and they see few signs that that's happening fast enough. The Israeli army changed dramatically during the second Palestinian uprising, or intifada. After decades preparing to face off against big Arab armies, the Israel Defense Force, by the end of 2002, had transformed itself into a kind of giant police SWAT team whose main job was arresting or killing Palestinian militants in crowded urban areas in the occupied West Bank or Gaza.

So when war broke out this summer in the rocky terrain of south Lebanon, even many of the full-time active duty soldiers were ill-prepared for a wider fight, says historian and analyst Michael Oren.

Dr. MICHAEL OREN (Shalem Center): They had not the right training, and they didn't even have the right weapons for countering Hezbollah. Hezbollah was firing at them with rockets with ranges of three kilometers. They had nothing that could fire back to three kilometers. They had very good weapons for fighting in hallways in Janine, but nothing for fighting in the hills of southern Lebanon.

WESTERVELT: Oren and others say the Israeli army once again has to restructure to become a more agile fighting force able to take on a guerrilla army. In part because of public criticism that reservists were doing too much of the fighting and taking too many casualties during the second intifada, in 2001 the army began to remove some reservists from direct combat duty and reduce combat training. Oren says this summer's war highlighted an urgent need for a new modern model of how to use Israel's reservists.

Dr. OREN: The old model doesn't work anymore. The reserve duty has to be slimmed down to accommodate the new high-tech capitalist economy, but it can't be eliminated, certainly. We're still going to have to have reservists. And maybe they're going to have to have more combat duty, more intense type of training.

WESTERVELT: A government-appointed committee is yet to finish its work examining wartime failings, but soldiers here continue to call for top officials, including Army Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, to resign before the committee's recommendations come out. As one soldier put it, quote, "Halutz must step down in order for any real change to occur."

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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