KIRYAT SHEMONA, Israel—Amir hunkered down in a battered apartment building, praying to God as Hezbollah fighters fired volley after volley at the Israeli soldiers working to drive the militants from southern Lebanon.
This isn't the kind of fighting Amir and his Nahal Brigade comrade Assaf imagined when they joined the Israeli army.
"I didn't expect it," said Assaf, a 21-year-old first sergeant whose Israeli unit repelled a fierce Hezbollah attack last week in the southern Lebanese town of Taibe. "I thought it would end, like, two weeks ago."
After years battling untrained and ill-equipped Palestinian militants, Israel's young soldiers now find themselves fighting a disciplined, well-armed Hezbollah force putting up surprisingly strong resistance.
All along the border, dirty, tired, shell-shocked and surprised Israeli soldiers emerged from Lebanon this weekend for a brief respite before being sent back in to try to push Hezbollah farther north. So far, about 10,000 soldiers have fanned out across southern Lebanon where they have methodically worked to seize key towns after weeks of air strikes.
Although the United Nations may call for an end to the fighting early this week, the Israeli cabinet will meet Sunday to consider sending thousands more soldiers to drive Hezbollah out of the bottom fifth of Lebanon.
The job has proved to be more difficult than the Israeli military had imagined. In just over three weeks of fighting, 46 Israeli soldiers have been killed by Hezbollah ambushes, anti-tank missiles and firefights.
The Israeli military describes Hezbollah fighters as being equipped with sophisticated equipment, from night-vision goggles to a seemingly endless arsenal of missiles.
"That's the most scary situation," Amir, a 21-year-old medic, said while taking a break with other members of his brigade at a hotel a few miles south of the Israel-Lebanon border. Like Assaf, he declined to give his last name. "When they shoot missiles, there's nothing you can do but lay on the floor and pray to God. It's only destiny if you get out of it."
Until Hezbollah sparked the conflict on July 12 by capturing two Israeli soldiers and killing eight others in a border clash, most of the young Israeli soldiers had seen little serious combat.
Many have spent time fighting Palestinian militants in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Few considered them worthy adversaries.
"We're not used to people who know how to fight," said Assaf. "Here, it's scary. It's like a war."
Until last week, the most serious action Alon Gelnik had taken part in was arresting a 16-year-old Palestinian boy for throwing rocks at a section of Israel's electronic security fence.
"It was such a different war," said Gelnik, a skinny 20-year-old. "Hezbollah is a regular army, a terrorist organization that is really well organized. In the territories, it was a bit different."
Before the clash started, Gelnik spent months standing guard along the Israel-Lebanon border no more than 60 feet from a Hezbollah outpost. Every day, Gelnik stared at a graphic poster Hezbollah fighters tied to the fence that featured the bodies of decapitated soldiers as a kind of warning to Israel.
They shot at the poster and once torched it with a Molotov cocktail. But, every time, Hezbollah put it back up.
Last Sunday, Gelnik crossed into southern Lebanon with his Nahal Brigade to take control of the small town of Adeisa.
While holding a house in Adeisa, Gelnik heard a distant explosion—maybe a mortar or an anti-tank missile. Then a second one struck closer to the house. Before the third one hit, a commander told the soldiers to get out.
That blast so rattled his friend that he refused to go back inside the house and isn't going back into Lebanon, Gelnik said.
And that was before the fourth Hezbollah attack hit a yard outside the window, sending sparks and debris flying, "I felt real fear," said Gelnik. "Now, we're stuck. And it's going to be very sticky."
The challenges facing Gelnik and the Israeli military in the coming days were clear on Saturday to the dozens of soldiers taking a short break at a Kiryat Shemona hotel.
As soldiers munched on cookies and sweets laid out in the hotel lobby, the air raid sirens began blaring, but few of the battle-weary paid much attention. Then the Katyusha rockets began rattling the hotel windows.
As dozens of rockets crashed into the surrounding hillsides and streets, some soldiers took cover in the stairwells and the bomb shelter.
Among those taking shelter downstairs were Amir and Assaf. As their commanders studied maps of Lebanon in an adjacent room, the two soldiers voiced exasperation that, despite more than three weeks of air strikes, the number of Hezbollah rockets was still on the rise.
"We can capture all of Lebanon in a few days," said Amir. "But we have the same problem the Americans had in Vietnam. You can't win this war. If you kill 100, it won't finish this war. What will finish this war? I guess only politically, not militarily."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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