KIBBUTZ GOSHRIM, Israel—As Israel prepares to expand its war against Hezbollah deeper into southern Lebanon, its army is discovering that its opponent is no ragtag guerrilla force.
Hezbollah fighters are defending their strongholds from a system of well-stocked bunkers that allow them to battle on for days. They're using Russian-made anti-tank rockets in ways that have startled—and killed—their Israeli antagonists. They're proving to be as willing to attack as to defend and run.
Military officers along the northern border now refer to Hezbollah as a serious army and predict that the next phase of the war will be measured in weeks, if not months.
"In these types of wars, a new definition of victory is in place. Nothing like a white flag will arise from a battle of this sort," said Brig. Gen. Ido Nehushtan, the senior Israeli commander who briefed reporters on Thursday. "How do you know when it's over? When it's over."
That suggests a long and bloody campaign that is likely to significantly increase Israeli casualties.
Already, the prospect of an expanded ground war is fraying the support that many Israelis had shown for the war.
The Peace Now movement, which had been supportive of the offensive, called its first protest for Thursday night in Tel Aviv outside the Defense Ministry. The group was founded by left-leaning Israelis during the bitter 1982-85 invasion of Lebanon and was instrumental in organizing protests that turned public opinion against Israel's presence there. Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000 after 18 years of troubled occupation.
"Even if the military offensive will be positive and go smoothly, eventually we have to find a way out," said Peace Now Director Yariv Oppenheimer. "And I don't see how we can get out after we get inside."
Three of Israel's most acclaimed authors—Amos Oz, David Grossman and A.B. Yehoshua—called a news conference Thursday to declare their opposition to an expanded offensive.
Israeli troops in Lebanon are facing a tactical dilemma. They're trying to hamper Hezbollah's ability to attack them by constantly moving from village to village, engaging Hezbollah without holding static positions. But that means Hezbollah fighters have been able to return to towns and villages to resume the fight. Despite Israel's airstrikes on roads and bridges, Hezbollah also has been able to resupply, Israelis suspect, using civilian cars to carry missiles, ammunition and reinforcements who pose as civilians.
The strategic predicament became crystal clear Wednesday when Hezbollah fighters killed 15 reserve soldiers, 13 of them near two southern villages with anti-tank missiles. One missile was fired through a building where troops had apparently bivouacked; another pierced Israeli armor.
The first details of a sophisticated underground Hezbollah bunker system emerged Thursday in a Haaretz newspaper article by Israel's most respected military correspondent, Zeev Schiff.
He described well-camouflaged underground bunkers stocked with weeks' worth of food and ammunition. He reported that the bunkers have electricity and, in one instance, air conditioning.
Another dramatic illustration came at this once-idyllic frontier kibbutz, now surrounded by artillery emplacements firing deafening rounds into Lebanon night and day. Israeli officers here gave a video tour of what they said was a command-and-control center captured two days ago in a four-bedroom house in a village called Mis-a-Jebel.
The video showed a night-vision video camera linked to a computer that was capable of firing Russian-made Sagger anti-tank missiles by remote control. The video also showed that the house was stocked with missiles, assault rifles, grenades, rocket launchers and a wall-sized aerial photo of Kiryat Shemona, the Israeli city across the border that's been hit with more than 700 rocket strikes in the past month.
"This is a system we can find in every serious army in the world," said Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz.
Rafowicz wouldn't say what happened to the four brothers who lived in the home, but he estimated that it was the headquarters for a 200-fighter Hezbollah operation.
Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser, until recently chief of intelligence analysis, told McClatchy Newspapers that the network of well-supplied bunkers and tunnels capable of hiding up to 20 fighters has been key to Hezbollah's element of surprise in the two-week ground war.
"They stay in hideouts, and once the Israelis get a little bit farther away, they come out and attack," he said.
Israeli commanders also have been alarmed by the Shiite fighters' unorthodox use of anti-tank missiles. Not only have they fired them on the vaunted armored corps, destroying an undisclosed number of tanks, but they also used them to blast through at least two buildings that Israeli soldiers had taken positions in, with extraordinary lethality.
On Thursday, reporters in the Israeli town of Metulla watched as a Hezbollah rocket struck an Israeli Merkava tank in Lebanon, forcing its crew to abandon it for the safety of another tank. An Israeli recovery vehicle later towed the blackened hulk back to Metulla.
The sheer number of anti-tank rockets also has surprised Israel's military.
"If there is one more tactical surprise, at least to me, it is the number of sophisticated anti-tank missiles that Hezbollah had," said Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland, the former director of Israel's National Security Council. "Most of these new weapons are Russian weapons that have been supplied to Syria. You're talking about the most advanced anti-tank missiles, and the number of these missiles, at least I am a little bit surprised, and I think that the army is surprised as well."
Casualty figures from a month of war suggest lopsided losses. Eighty-two Israeli soldiers have died and Israel claims 550 Hezbollah dead—150 in the last two days of fighting.
But that fighting, much of it in and around the Christian village of Marjayoun, led to the greatest one-day Israeli death toll of the war on Wednesday when 15 soldiers were killed.
The fighting continued into Thursday, with expectations that the Israeli death toll would rise.
Simon Diab Singer, a Marjayoun resident reached by telephone from Beirut, described heavy fighting that he said began when several hundred Israelis pushed in from the south long before dawn. Nearly 200 people in the village rushed into the church for shelter.
Backed by Merkava tanks and Apache helicopters, the troops went house to house looking for Hezbollah fighters, knocking down doors and firing countless shots, Singer said. Tanks bulldozed through town, rolling over parked vehicles and firing volleys that exploded near the church.
Just outside Marjayoun, the Israelis battled for hours with about 150 Hezbollah fighters, who were firing anti-tank rockets. At daybreak, the shelling quieted somewhat.
From in the church, Singer said it was difficult to judge the number of casualties, but it appeared to residents that Israeli soldiers had holed up in a hospital just outside Marjayoun to regroup and prepare to push farther north. Though not a staunch Hezbollah supporter, Singer said the guerrillas put up a tough fight.
"It was a hell night," he said 12 hours later, adding that much of the town was still burning. "We smell only fire."
Ironically, Marjayoun was the headquarters for the South Lebanon Army, which had been staunchly allied with Israel until it withdrew from Lebanon six years ago. Thousands of SLA members moved to Israel at that time, though many have returned to Lebanon since.
(Rosenberg reported from Kibbutz Goshrim, Israel; Nissenbaum, from Jerusalem. McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Shashank Bengali in Beirut contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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