Defense Update - News Analysis by David Eshel

Monday, December 05, 2005

Al-Ghajar Village Flashpoint

Hezbollah attacked close to 15:00 in the afternoon of 22 Nov 2005, when a heavy barrage of mortars and Kaytusha rockets bombarded IDF positions on Mount Dov, the village of Ghajar, and the surrounding area. But this time the IDF was ready. Its intelligence received warning of the Shi’ite guerilla plan to try and repeat the 2000 fiasco and kidnap soldiers along the border line.

The fire soon spread throughout the entire border region, with hundreds of Katyusha rockets, mortars and anti-tank missiles striking targets inside Israel. But when a group of motorized Hezbollah special forces infiltrated into Ghajar, a well placed Israeli ambush foiled the kidnapping attempt by killing the entire group.

Israel retaliated sharply.

Speaking shortly after Israeli fighter jets attacked Hezbollah command posts in south Lebanon, Defence Minister Mofaz described it as the largest-scale response since the IDF withdrawal five years ago. The Israeli retaliation was so fierce, that Lebanon officially intervened by requesting UNIFIL to mediate an immediate cease fire. Although official reports attempted to play down the scale, unofficial, but reliable intelligence sources have revealed that the air force has virtually destroyed the entire communication and forward intelligence network built by joint Iranian/Syrian and Hezbollah effort creating a sophisticated surveillance and monitoring infrastructure probing deep into the Israeli territory. This network, experts indicate, was constructed to support a future massive rocket offensive, when the time was ready to attack Israel, should the Jewish State, or for that matter, a joint effort led by the US, attempt to destroy the Iranian nuclear and missile infrastructure by military action. As repeated intelligence reports have warned, Hezbollah has built a massive arsenal of short-medium and long-range rockets, numbering several thousands placing within range major Israeli targets, threatening large population centers, including the strategic Haifa Bay.

Hezbolla’s offensive arsenal includes, among older 122mm Katyusha ( range 20km), 240mm Fajr-3, (range 40km )and Fajr-5, (range 72km) rockets and missiles. Updated intelligence reports mentioned that the Shi’te guerilla could be deploying a Syrian modified BM-27 220mm rocket carrying a 360kg warhead and that Iran may have stationed a battery of its Zelzal-2 artillery rocket in the Beka’a Valley, which with a range of 210km and payload of 600kg could cause devastating damage to Haifa Bay and its strategic harbour installations.

IDF Intelligence chief Major General Zeevi Farkash said last Wednesday that Syria and Iran have instigated the Ghajar flare-up to stave off international pressure on both nations. General Farkash told the Knesset Defence and Foreign Affairs Committee that Hezbollah had carefully planned the attack with strategic aims, hoping to draw the IDF to retaliate, when civilian targets were hit, and thus giving way to Hezbollah rocket attacks deep into Israeli territory escalating into a massive conflagration.

The Hezbollah special forces attack on al-Ghajar should rate particular attention due to its meticulous tactical planning. As mentioned, Hezbollah opened the attack by a massive rocket barrage along the entire front, which actually served as tactical distraction to allow their special forces mobile group infiltrate into the Israeli side of al-Ghajar village, with aim to capture an IDF outpost and take its occupants prisoner. The attempt was foiled, when the Israelis already withdrawn, in time, from their original post, position, from which the attackers were surprised by flanking fire, killing four, sending the rest scurrying to a nearby Hezbollah outpost, which was later destroyed by fighter jets.

The IDF commanding general Udi Adam said in his after action report, that “ it was the first time that Hezbollah used its entire tactical arsenal”, revealed that one of the Merkava tanks received no less than seven hits by Russian made anti-tank missiles, none of which penetrated its armour and all the crew escaped unhurt. According to intelligence reports, Hezbollah have recovered quickly from their fiasco at al-Ghajar.

Their Iranian instructors have taken this incident very seriousely and reacted by sending anti-armour specialists from Tehran to their training base located in the Lebanese Beka’a valley, which has become even more formative after the Syrian army withdrawal earlier this year. Unconfirmed reports indicate the arrival in Lebanon of the new Russian AT-14 Kornet anti-tank missile, or an Iranian version of the weapon, which is capable in penetrating advanced armour suites. Israeli tank experts have mentioned the Hezbollah video shots from the action at al-Ghajar, clearly displaying hits on the Merkava tank. They believe that Iranian instructors have carefully studied these displays by looking for “blind” spots in which Merkava could be vulnerable to Kornet fire.

Hezbollah tactics have become substantially refined over the years. From individual attacks on lone vehicles, night ambushes, and sporadic rocket attacks, the fighting in the south Lebanon security zone had escalated into highly skilled guerrilla operations, some of which have proved extremely successful against the Israeli Army. The Shi’ite guerillas became quite professional in using Russian anti-tank missiles against IDF Merkava Mk1 and Mk2 versions. In one incident, second generation AT-4 Spigot ATGM scored severn hits on one tank, but only one penetrated into a vulnerable ‘blind’spot killing the driver.

The IDF rallied quickly to the threat and upgraded its so-called ‘Batash’ Merkava with additional armor plating and also trained crews in the ‘Sagger Watch’ drill, a technique which envisages tanks operating in teams. Each team member searches key points in the terrain to locate enemy ATGM teams hiding out. If an area is suspected, it is covered by main gun, machine gun, or onboard mortar fire, or blinded by smoke. The watching vehicle will give warning to the rest of the team, which opens fire in that direction. When a Sagger ( or other wire guided ATGM) is spotted in flight, the tank fires in the direction of the launcher, hoping to distract the enemy gunner’s concentration during the critical navigation phase, or obscure his vision by smoke.

The village of al-Ghajar, where the main action took place, has become the most dangerous flashpoint along the volatile Israel-Lebanese border is one of those enigmatic political curiosities, which unfortunately occur when short-sighted decisions are made on crucial geo-political arrangements. When the IDF withdrew, in compliance with UN Resolutions 425, from its self-declared “Security Zone” in south Lebanon in May 2000 it left some severe topographical constraints, creating flashpoints for future confrontation with Hezbollah. The Shi’ite militia took over the void, pending refusal by Lebanon, under Syrian pressure, to deploy its armed forces along the international border and restore its sovereignty in south Lebanon.

Disregarding vehement Israeli objections, the UN officials decided creating the so-called ‘Blue Line’, insisting that this was a temporary measure, due to Beirut’s refusal to co-operate in designating the “real” international border, which itself was a historical farce made by the post- WW1 colonial powers.

Populated by Alawites, a strange anomaly in this mostly Shi’ite region, al-Ghajar is situated at a highly strategic location along the Israel-Lebanese border. On the banks of Hasbani river and alongside the Wassani springs, important water reservoirs for both Lebanon and Israel alike, it was captured during the 1967 war by Israel and its residents have voted for Israeli citizenship.

When the UN surveyors probed the area, they depicted al-Ghajar as “two thirds inside Lebanon and one third within the Israeli occupied Syria”, which immediately provoked angry demonstrations by the villagers. Since Israel’s withdrawal five years ago, al-Ghajar remains divided, despite the clamour of its residents.

Hezbollah has shrewdly exploited the situation, by dominating the Lebanese part, which placed its guerillas within feet of the IDF position in Israel’s part of the village- a deadly combination.

There is may be a ray of hope, which could eventually solve this perilous condition. Following growing pressure by the United States, the traditionally anti-Israel, UN Security Council issued, for the first time in its history, a stern reprimand over Hezbollah’s unprovoked attack. It was surprisingly reached unanimously by all attending members including Algeria. This new trend and continued pressure on Syria and Iran, could perhaps indicate new calls to dismantle the Shi’ite militia according to US Security Council Resolution 1559 and encourage the Beirut government to deploy its forces along the international border, putting an end to the notorious Hezbollaland in south Lebanon.

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