The more information coming out on the Israeli commando raid at the Dar al-Hikmah hospital in the Hizballah stronghold of Baalkbek Tuesday night, Aug.1, the clearer it is that most of its goals were missed.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report that this was not the first Israeli assault on the targeted Baalbek hospital.
On Sunday, July 16, four days after Hizballah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and killed eight triggering the Lebanon war, Israeli troops burst into the hospital facility in search of the missing Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev.
Knowing they had both been injured during their seizure, they were thought to have been taken to Dar al-Hikmah hospital for treatment in the closed, well-guarded wing set aside for high-ranking Hizballah officers and commanders.
It was feared that this was but a step before Hizballah handed the two soldiers to Iran to share the fate of the Israeli navigator Ron Arad, who was captured in Lebanon in 1986, handed to Iran and never heard of again.
The Dar al Hikma hospital was high on the list of suspected hiding places because it was run at the time by high Iranian officials. Its departments were headed by Iranian physicians sent to Lebanon by the Imam Khomeini’s Charity Organization. The hospital was also supervised by the foundation’s officers, the cover used by Iranian Revolutionary Guards officers attached to Hizballah’s military command. It also served as Hizballah’s regional command headquarters.
Straight after the abduction, Israeli military intelligence-AMAN warned the general staff of the danger that the Hizballah might quickly whisk Goldwasser and Regev across the border into Syria. Since the Assad regime would not wish to be compromised by holding the two captives on Syrian territory, arrangements would be made to move them on. AMAN suggested two likely destinations: Iran or Shiite underground organizations in Iraq which maintain close operational and intelligence ties with Hizballah.
In either place, the two men would be beyond reach. Therefore, every possible action was recommended to prevent their captors from bundling them across any borders.
The first commando raid order by the IDF general staff hoped to find the missing soldiers and rescue them, and in any case abort any attempt to spirit them out of Lebanon.
The targeted hospital had gone underground
An exclusive DEBKA-Net-Weekly rundown of the never-before told story of that first commando raid of the Baalbek hospital offers an insight into the rationale behind the second raid this week.
The first raid was accompanied by a massive, round-the-clock bombardment of all the roads leading to and from the hospital and the Baalbek region north and east. Gas stations were blown up to ground fleeing vehicles, but no cars were attacked in case they were carrying the missing soldiers. Therefore, although Baalbek’s buildings were thoroughly blasted by Israeli warplanes and helicopters, its roads were the safest place in Lebanon for vehicular traffic.
On July 16, CH-53 Yasur military transport helicopters dropped two groups of Israel Air Force Unit 669 special commando force and the army’s Sayeret Matkal special forces over the Dar al-Hikma hospital.
The first 30 men made a dash for the hospital and broke in.
The second force of 100-120 special forces combatants, armed with anti-tank weapons, mortars and explosives, provided cover for the first team. After the assault mission was over, they stayed behind on the ground, splitting up into three sections to operate behind Hizballah lines.
Their assignments were to blow up the new command centers Hizballah had established in northern Lebanon after fleeing Israeli bombardments in Beirut and central Lebanon, and to seek out Hassan Nasrallah’s hideout and that of his high command and either take them prisoner or kill them.
Their tasks were also to destroy Hizballah’s long-range Zelzal-2 missile launchers and caches. Their 250 km range brings Tel Aviv within reach of attack.
When the IDF reported last week that two-thirds of Hizballah’s long-range Zelzal-2 missiles had been destroyed, the reference was to the work performed by this unit – not the air force,
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military experts note the high priority the IDF command attached to saving Tel Aviv rather than halting the Katyusha barrage against the northern third of the country.
But the smaller team searching the hospital found the birds had flown. There was no sign of the two kidnapped soldiers, or even of medical staff; and the hospital beds were deserted.
Israeli intelligence later accounted for the mystery.
They discovered that the hospital and Hizballah’s Beqaa command personnel had moved to the hill district overlooking the town, where the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Building Foundation, called Bonyad Sandezani, had built a series of deep underground bunkers to house the Hizballah command staff, ammunition stores and underground hospital facilities.
Hizballah leaders’ homes were deserted
Israeli bombers have since tried to strike the bunker system with US-supplied GBI-28 laser-guided bunker busters, but were only partly successful. The Israeli special operations unit left behind and the “Western observers” who recently arrived at the Baalbek scene reported that the command center is still functioning, guarded closely by large Hizballah forces to keep people away.
In 1991 and 2003, the Iranians are believed to have made a thorough study of US bombardments of Saddam Hussein’s bunker network in Iraq and adjusted their own construction system accordingly. They now build the subterranean facilities in well-separated sections, so that each suite of rooms or hall is divided from the next by fortified, zigzagging corridors and a distance of tens of meters. If a bunker buster bomb manages to penetrate and blow up one set of rooms, the others are unaffected.
The second Israeli commando raid of the Dar al-Hikmah hospital was staged on August 1 with two objectives.
1. To sabotage the Baalbek tunnels which Israeli air bombardments had not managed to penetrate. A fairly large number of troops was required for this task. The fresh contingent was therefore ordered to join up with the troops who had been on the ground from July 16.
2. After this task was accomplished, the men in Baalbek for two and a half weeks were to be lifted out before they ran into danger of detection. Iranian and Syrian intelligence officers and their electronic warfare instruments were beginning to sniff out their presence despite their skills in stealth. The rendezvous venue arranged for them to meet up with the incoming commandoes was to be the empty Dar al Hikmah hospital building. From there, they would all race to the Yasur helicopters waiting to fly them back to Israel.
Thirty-six hours after the raid, DEBKA-Net-Weekly has obtained only sketchy information about this second operation, but it is enough to question the official IDF account and the segments of filmed footage shown as representing the action.
Wanted: a morale-breaker for Hizballah
Although the film shows two helicopters bringing the commandos to and from their destined target, there are no markings to date or identify the operation and they could have been shot on any mission.
According to our sources, one group of commandoes drove up to Baalbek from deep inside Lebanon in several Mercedes 420 vehicles bearing Lebanese number plates, apparently provided by locals willing to help Israel intelligence. Another group, the 124th Rolling Sword” army commando unit and the Air Force Unit 669, came in from Israel and was dropped on the hospital roof from Blackhawk helicopters.
Their twin objectives were to strike the underground command installations, grab as many Hizballah and Iranian RG officers prisoners as they could find and bring them back to Israel. The unit also scoured their homes, the addresses of which had fallen into Israeli hands.
The overall plan was to publicly break the top command of Hizballah, which Israeli strategists say is essential for undermining the guerrillas’ high morale, as well providing a much-needed boost for Israeli spirits, to counter the effect of hundreds of Hizballah rockets on their homes in northern Israel with no end in sight.
(Thursday, two days later, more than 100 rockets claimed eight Israeli civilian lives. On the South Lebanon fighting front, three Israeli soldiers were killed when their tank was hit by a sophisticated anti-tank missile.)
But most of all, a triumphant Baalbek operation was designed to generate a more controlled environment for an international force in South Lebanon and pave the way for Israel to plan its exit from Lebanon and handover to the foreign force. A parade of captured Hizballah and Iranian officers over the world’s television screens would have climaxed the operation.
However, like the Dar al Hikmah hospital, the private residences of Hizballah senior operatives in Baalbek were found deserted. Their occupants got out only a short jump ahead of the Israeli commando hunters, leaving signs of hasty departure in some of their homes.
The Israeli effort to break into the fortified bunkers was also foiled, even after a heavy aerial bombardment to soften the targets. Every building within a 15-mile radius had been flattened when suddenly the Israeli commandos came under intense fire and had to call up reinforcements to quell it. At 02:30 local time, after a four-hour fire firefight on the ground and from the air, the Israeli high command decided to pull the commando units back to Israel before daybreak. The force returned to base without casualties.