Israeli army faces `different kind of fight'

Officials express surprise at sophisticated military hardware being used by Hezbollah


HAIFA, Israel -- During his three years as an Israeli paratrooper in the West Bank and Gaza, Gadi Wiasman was wounded once, when a rock thrown by a Palestinian chipped his tooth.

But after three days of fighting in Lebanon, the 35-year-old reservist lay in a hospital bed yesterday recovering from extensive shrapnel wounds from two Hezbollah shells that struck his combat unit Wednesday, killing one soldier and wounding seven.

"It's a different kind of fight," said Wiasman, his left arm and leg wrapped in white gauze. "That was an intifada. This is a war."

Just how different and difficult an enemy Israel faces in Lebanon is becoming disturbingly clear to Israeli military officials with each helicopter arriving from the front lines loaded with new casualties.

Hezbollah, which Israel considers a terrorist group, continues to surprise the Israeli army with some of the most sophisticated military hardware available in the world that allows its fighters to monitor Israeli forces in the dark, launch rockets by remote control and destroy Israel's tanks.

Israel is expected to experience more deadly surprises from Hezbollah if it decides to push ahead with a major new ground offensive deeper into Lebanon, which the government authorized Wednesday. So far Israel has kept this new campaign on hold to give more time for negotiators to broker a cease-fire.

There were encouraging signs yesterday of progress on the diplomatic front, although Israel warned that it would not hesitate to go ahead with an expanded offensive, showering downtown Beirut with leaflets threatening a "painful and strong" response to Hezbollah attacks, the Associated Press reported.

Early today, eight powerful explosions resounded across Beirut, and local media reports said Israeli jets were pounding Hezbollah strongholds in the southern Dahieh suburb. The reports said a bridge was hit in Akkar province, 60 miles north of Beirut. There was no immediate word of casualties.

Israeli ground troops took control of the mainly Christian town of Marjayoun before dawn yesterday and blasted away throughout the day at strongly fortified Hezbollah positions in several directions.

By taking Marjayoun, the Israeli army was closer to Beirut than at any time since the fighting began July 12 after a cross-border raid in which Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers and killed three.

At least 715 people -- most of them civilians -- have been killed in Lebanon since fighting erupted. The Lebanese government's Higher Relief Council put the number higher -- at 973, wire services reported.

Authorities in Israel said 120 Israelis have been killed, including 82 soldiers and 38 civilians. Wednesday was the Israeli army's deadliest day so far in this conflict, with 15 soldiers killed.

During a presentation to reporters yesterday, Israeli military officials said Hezbollah's success on the battlefield during the past month was partly due to its surprising stockpile of military technology and hardware.

Officials showed video footage taken this week of a Hezbollah command headquarters inside a home in southern Lebanon. Walking from room to room, soldiers found an aerial map offering detailed images of northern Israel, night-vision equipment connected to banks of computers that, military officials said, offer Hezbollah fighters real-time images to shoot anti-tank missiles and other projectiles at Israeli forces.

"These are systems we can find in any serious army in the world," said Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz, an Israeli army spokesman.

Rafowicz said that Iran was the main supplier of weapons to Hezbollah, providing the group with $100 million in equipment and training before this conflict.

What makes Hezbollah so effective on the battlefield, however, is that it combines its sophisticated weapons with guerrilla tactics.

By simply tying together tree branches, for instance, Hezbollah creates natural canopies where it can hide its rocket launchers from Israeli warplanes, Israeli officials said. Missiles are transported in civilian cars. Hezbollah fighters keep their membership in the guerrilla group a secret, even from the closest members of their families, making intelligence-gathering difficult.

Fighters and their military equipment melt into the landscape, Israeli officials said, making Hezbollah a dangerous foe even for Israel's better-trained and better-equipped military.

"We are witnessing the evolution of terrorism," said a senior Israeli military official. "We are seeing the advent of a terrorist army."

Most Israeli soldiers, like Wiasman, gained their battlefield experience in the West Bank and Gaza against poorly trained and poorly equipped Palestinian militants, making them ill-prepared for the discipline and organization of Hezbollah.

"They have very different equipment and a different attitude," he said.

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