Israel looks north and sees defeat

Forces leave Lebanon without recovering kidnapped soldiers, disarming Hezbollah


AVIVIM, Israel -- Traffic is moving slowly this week on the roads leading south from the Israel-Lebanon border. Trucks loaded with armored vehicles and other war machinery inch down the winding, narrow roads from the front lines. Clutches of weary soldiers with rifles slung across their backs wait in the shade for bus rides. Other soldiers trudge in the August heat, flagging down passing cars for lifts home.

There is little fanfare to this war's end. No honking of horns, no pumping of fists, no victory signs. Nor should there be, many soldiers say, because Israel's conflict with Hezbollah ended in defeat.

"The reason for the war was to release the hostages and defeat Hezbollah, and we didn't do this," said Avi, 27, a reservist who was allowed to use only his first name. He walked along the road looking for a ride back to his family in Tel Aviv.

"We did too little, too late," added his traveling companion, Yosef, 23, also a reservist, who had slipped out of his military uniform into a T-shirt, baggy jeans and a floppy hat for the journey home.

Israelis are not used to wars ending like this. Raised on the triumphant history of Israel's past conflicts over its Arab neighbors, the Israeli public has come to expect clear, resounding victories.

But the 34-day conflict with Hezbollah fighters has left Israelis bewildered by their army's performance, angry with the government's preparedness and feeling cheated by the terms of the cease-fire agreement.

Israel's casualties included the deaths of 116 soldiers and 43 civilians in the conflict that began July 12, when Hezbollah fighters crossed the border and captured two soldiers. After vowing to fight until Israel won the soldiers' freedom and crushed Hezbollah, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert settled for far less, signing a truce that failed to achieve either goal

Public opinion polls released this week reflect Israeli frustration over the war. Fifty-three percent of the people surveyed in a poll commissioned by Ma'ariv newspaper said they believe Israel should have refused the cease-fire terms and continued to battle Hezbollah. A poll conducted for Yedioth Ahronoth found that 70 percent of Israelis believed that Israel should not have agreed to a cease-fire without the return of the kidnapped soldiers.

"I'm not a judge and I'm not a jury. There will be an investigation and they will decide who is responsible for this fiasco," Avi said.

Responding to the growing public criticism, Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz created a committee this week to investigate Israel's handling of the war. Made up of business executives and retired generals, the committee will be chaired by former army chief of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak. It is expected to report preliminary findings within three weeks.

There is a long tradition of soul-searching and investigations here after military failures. When Israel was caught off-guard by Egypt and Syria at the beginning of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, a commission was appointed to pinpoint what went wrong.

Its finding led to the resignation of the army's chief of staff and the removal of senior officers from their posts. Golda Meir, Israel's prime minister at the time, soon resigned as well.

Even before the fighting against Hezbollah ended Monday, the Israeli public was confounded by some of the armed forces' tactics.

The air war brought mass destruction to Lebanon's airport, bridges and roads, and death to hundreds of civilians, but it did not stop Hezbollah rockets from falling on northern Israel.

Later the army organized a ground offensive, but it, too, failed to subdue the enemy. Soldiers and officers expressed surprise about Hezbollah's capabilities. Then as the United Nations Security Council was voting on a resolution to stop the fighting, Israel made an 11th-hour push into Lebanon, rushing north to the Litani River. The offensive resulted in the highest one-day death toll of the war for Israel, with 24 soldiers killed.

Perhaps the most bitter issue is that the two Israeli soldiers whose abduction by Hezbollah triggered this conflict were not released as part of the cease-fire deal.

Uzi Dayan, former head of Israel's National Security Council and a general in the army reserves, said the government should have done more to push for the soldiers' release or at least required Hezbollah to produce evidence that they remained alive, and demanded they be seen by the International Committee for the Red Cross.

Dayan is now pressuring nations that will help pay for Lebanon's reconstruction to demand information on the soldiers' conditions and their release before giving Lebanon any money.

He is also calling for an independent investigation into the war to replace the committee called for by Peretz.

"I don't think the minister of defense can inquire and search for the right lessons because he is part of the problem and not part of the solution," he said.

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