Israel’s war on Hizbullah/Lebanon in 2006 was a disaster even before it began. On July 14, Hizbullah fighters ambushed two Israeli Humvees patrolling along the armistice line. The ambush had been well-prepared, preceded by attacks on military outposts that cut off communications with the convoy. The two Humvees were destroyed, three soldiers were killed and the two who were captured later died of their wounds.
In line with the Israeli military’s ‘Hannibal directive,’ according to which attempts must be made to rescue captured soldiers even at the risk to their lives, a Merkava tank and armored personnel carriers, covered by a helicopter, were sent into Lebanon. This mission ended in disaster when the tank ran over a 300-kg IED and was blown up, four more soldiers being killed.
The ambush was the trigger for the war which followed. All of Israel’s wars in the Middle East have to be regarded as joint Israeli-US operations and this one was no exception. The US held the door open for 34 days, giving Israel far more time than it said it needed to destroy Hizbullah, but even this was not enough. Humiliated, it finally had no option but to withdraw.
A recently released classified US cable underscores the nature of US-Israeli cooperation during the war. Posted online in the Snowden archive, it is dated October 12, 2006, and was written by an NSA (National Security Agency) staffer assigned as a temporary SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) liaison officer to Tel Aviv from early July to August, 2006, covering the entire period of the war.
The despatch – written for in-house reading – is a summary of the interaction between the US and Israeli intelligence units. It begins by noting that ISNU (Israeli SIGINT National Unit or Unit 8200) is a sophisticated and technically advanced partner and goes on to describe the Zionist state’s two objectives in going to war.
One was to “obliterate” Hizbullah’s capacity to carry out cross-border raids and simultaneously effect the return of the two “kidnapped” (captured) soldiers and the other was to cause such damage as to turn the Lebanese civilian population against Hizbullah. This would be no easy task, it was admitted, as Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied south had given Hizbullah time to strengthen its positions.
The Israeli military estimated that it would be facing 3000-4000 Hizbullah fighters in the south. It believed the war could be won in seven to ten days. Its early attacks were limited to search and destroy missions, but what it found in this period was that Hizbullah was “well dug-in, extremely motivated and much better equipped and prepared to withstand that type of limited military operation.”
Hizbullah’s logistical apparatus was “hard to identify” and its ability to blend into the civilian population “even more problematic.” (In fact, Hizbullah was defending towns and villages which the Israeli forces were attacking). To drive the point home, the ISNU liaison office in Washington provided the NSA with helicopter gunship photos of Hizbullah missile launching points “near populated civilian areas.”
With Israel unable to win the war within its own time frame, its signals intelligence unit was “pushed to the technical and resource limits to support the IDF campaign.” The unit’s commanding officer, Brigadier-General Dani Harari, eventually called in all personnel for a review in which he “characterized the fighting as a type of war Israel had never seen before and cautioned ISNU to prepare for a long engagement.”
By this stage, hundreds of reservists had been called up to take up positions at ISNU headquarters or were being moved forward to military positions in the north. The US SIGINT officer notes that the war took a “somber turn” when “several members of the ISNU ELINT [electronic intelligence] center were killed during the missile strike on the Israeli warship Hanit.” This appears to be a revelation, as the Israeli government and the mainstream media referred only to four “crew members” who had been killed when the ship was hit on July 14.
What was concerning Israel at this stage was whether Hizbullah had acquired and might use long-range missiles against Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. If this happened, the military would regard Hizbullah as the “firing pin” and Iran as actually pulling the trigger. With Israel soon bogged down, it put greater pressure on the NSA for assistance.
In the words of the US liaison officer “ISNU’s reliance on NSA was demanding and centered on requests for sensitive tasking, including tactical ELINT and receipt of geolocational information on Hizballah [sic.] elements … the latter request was particularly problematic and I had several late-night, sometimes tense, discussions with ISNU detailing NSA’s legal prohibitions on providing information that could be used in targeted killings. Even with his full understanding of the US statutes, BG Harari sought assistance from NSA for an exemption to this legal policy. To ISNU this prohibition was contrary not only to support Israel in its fight against Hizbullah but overall to support the US Global War on Terrorism.”
During its onslaught on Lebanon in 1982, Israel hunted down Yasser Arafat from house to house in Beirut. Ariel Sharon regretted that he had not succeeded in having him killed then, a lost opportunity retrieved in 2004 when almost certainly he personally arranged the murder of the Palestinian leader.
Now, in 2006, during another war, there was one particular individual Israel wanted to assassinate, with help from the US. It could have been any senior Hizbullah figure, but the obvious choice would have been Hasan Nasrallah. With or without formal US support, Israel went ahead. In 2009 former Israeli army chief of staff Dan Halutz admitted that Israel had tried to kill Nasrallah in 2006 but had failed.
In the end, the NSA staffer observes, a new “framework” was reached that defined the parameters and methods of what could and could not be shared with the Israelis. Expecting the ISNU to be operating at fever pitch and “more aggressive than usual,” the staffer found “that was the case” during discussions with the Israeli unit.
In an April, 2007 review of the “information-sharing” experience with the Israeli intelligence unit, the NSA noted that the Israelis experienced “high anxiety” during the fighting and were heavily reliant on the US agency. One slide shown during the presentation read: “What did ISNU want? Everything!” (‘Israel relied heavily on NSA during the 2006 Lebanon war, new Snowdon documents reveal,’ Times of Israel, June 1, 2019).
In a second cable, the NSA liaison officer in Tel Aviv said that while life there appeared to be normal during the war, “one visible sign of distress was the lack of hotel rooms as large numbers of people from the north migrated to the safety of the cities.” Residents were warned that they had less than a minute to take shelter in a basement during a missile attack.
With Israel withdrawing after 34 days, the Israeli media quoted defense intelligence director Amos Yadlin, “a frequent visitor to the NSA,” as saying that further confrontation with Hizbullah would only be a matter of time. Other Israeli officers said that the ceasefire simply meant that “round one” was over.
In fact, it was not round one, but round two, following Israel’s retreat from southern Lebanon, except for the Shaba’a farms, after a round that had lasted from 1978 to 2000. (After its invasion of 1978, code-named Operation Litani, Israel retreated from the south only after setting up its puppet South Lebanon Army of occupation. In 1982 it returned until it was driven out 18 years later).
Since 2006, Israel has been preparing assiduously for the next round, its soldiers being trained to fight the kind of war the military did not expect last time. The exercises include fighting in tunnels and combat in mock Lebanese villages.
The war also marked a change in recruitment and promotion patterns, as the military command looked for soldiers who would fight with the same zeal as Hizbullah’s fighters. In recent years the balance between secular and religious in the officer corps has been steadily tipping towards the latter, with an estimated 50 percent of officers in staff training colleges now coming from a religious background.
Whereas secular recruits are looking for non-combatant roles, those from a religious background are volunteering for infantry units and in time are expected to hold down most ranks of the battalion commander.
Their rabbis cast the war with Israel’s enemies as an eschatological conflict, with no mercy to be shown to civilians as well as soldiers. This is certainly consistent not just with the way Israel has fought all its wars, but in its ruthless general treatment of Palestinian civilians, as demonstrated yet again in the recent demolition of an apartment building in Jerusalem on the basis that it had been built too close to the ‘separation’ wall that is the manifestation in concrete of the apartheid practiced against the Palestinians at all levels in the Zionist super-colony.
Palestinian families were tipped into the street with nowhere to go and no provision for their accommodation made by the Israeli government. They were beaten and slapped by soldiers when they resisted. Zionist colonists cheered as the building came down but as this has been going on for more than seven decades, it can hardly be regarded as a morally shocking aberration.
*(Top image: Israeli flag photo via Zachi Evenor/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Tank photo via IDF/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed. Courtesy of DailyDot)
Jeremy Salt has taught at the University of Melbourne, Bosporus University (Istanbul) and Bilkent University (Ankara), specialising in the modern history of the Middle East. His most recent book is “The Unmaking of the Middle East. A History of Western Disorder in Arab Lands” (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.)