The Lebanese Hizballah’s Tehran-backed kidnap of two Israeli soldiers, 200 meters behind Israeli lines, traps Israel behind three warfronts, Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank, or even four, should Syria go on the offensive.
An examination by DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources and analysts, of whether Israel is militarily capable of taking on all four at one and the same time, turned up difficulties.
One in particular stood out in Operation Summer Rain, which was launched in Gaza on June 28, three days after Corporal Gilead Shalit was kidnapped in a Palestinian Hamas cross-border assault from Gaza that left two Israeli soldiers dead.
As this operation progressed, the Israeli government kept on changing its objectives’ a symptom of confusion at the top. Prime minister Ehud Olmert, defense minister Amir Peretz and chief of staff Lt. Gen Dan Halutz originally defined the objects of Operation Summer Rain as being to rescue the soldier from Hamas and halt the Qassam missiles raining down daily on the communities of southwestern Israel.
Sixteen days later, neither objective has been attained.
Similarly, Wednesday, July 12, the Olmert government launched Operation Just Rewards in Lebanon for the purpose of recovering the two captured Israeli soldiers.
The next day, there was a change in direction.
General Halutz and senior military spokesmen declared that the Israel Defense Forces was determined to “exact a heavy price from Lebanon for the kidnap of its two soldiers.” Lebanon was placed under a sea, land and air blockade “to force the Beirut government to send its army to the south to take over Hizballah posts and disarm the Shiite terrorist group.”
Both these moving objectives share the same fallacy.
Lebanon, like the Palestinians, is governed by a powerless regime. The Fouad Siniora government lacks the military strength to impose its will on the Hizballah; likewise the Palestinian Authority is a broken vessel with no power over the Hamas terrorists.
But there are differences between the two arenas. In Gaza, Hamas has only a limited capability to hit back at Israel’s military pressure, mainly by firing Qassam missiles at civilian communities and taking advantage of the Israeli army’s reluctance to enter into densely populated built-up areas of the Gaza Strip.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are the key to the defense system outside Gaza
In Lebanon, on the first day of combat, the IDF found that, despite its unchallenged aerial superiority, Hizballah, with Iranian and Syrian help, was well prepared with unanswerable counter-measures.
As the Israeli air force bombed Beirut international airport, Hizballah command posts, roads and bridges in the first 24 hours of its operation, Hizballah drew on its arsenal of Katyusha-107 and Grad 122mm rockets made in Iran, to blast dozens of towns and communities in northern Israel and, at day’s end, Haifa.
More than 700,000 Israelis were ordered to take cover in shelters. Thousands of inhabitants fled south out of harm’s way.
Haifa is Israel’s third largest city and the site of its petrochemical industry. Hizballah’s Fajar and Zalzal 2 with a range of 150km can reach points south of Haifa, as far as Hadera, which is 50 km north of Tel Aviv and site of the biggest national power station.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources reveal that the barrage of 100 Hizballah rockets, injuring 90 Israelis, killing two, and causing heavy damage in such towns as Safed and Nahariya, exposed the Israeli air force’s main shortcoming: a shortage of unmanned aerial vehicles. These drones in sufficient quantity are the best means of knocking out the batteries shooting the rockets at Israel’s towns.
Israel is a pioneer and major manufacturer of the UAV, selling them to many countries. However, the deep slashes in Israeli defense spending on acquisitions and development of the last five years, together with their endless calls to beat down Palestinian missiles, have taken their toll and left the military short.
In September 2005, when Israeli troops pulled out of Gaza, a new defense system was built around the Palestinian territory. It depends heavily on electronic surveillance of the evacuated territory based on a dense concentration of drones maintained overhead 24 hours a day.
A second batch of UAVs is used to keep track of Palestinian terrorist activity on the West Bank. A third keeps watch over Israel’s southern borders for al Qaeda intrusions by land or sea.
UAVs missing for pre-empting Hizballah rocket barrages
Finally, a certain number of drones are required for routine operational activity.
When the Gaza offensive was launched on June 28, the IDF massed most of its UAVs at this front to compensate for the skirting of Palestinian population centers by ground forces in order to avoid heavy casualties on both sides. This constraint is maintained, even though that is where the terrorist organizations have embedded their command posts, hideouts and missile sites. The drones were used to track and pinpoint the movements of armed men and suspects.
Wednesday night, July 12, the UAVs should have been shifted from the Gaza Strip front up north to pre-empt Hizballah’s cross-border rocket attacks by spotting the rocket batteries aimed at northern Israel. This would have eased the military pressure against
Hamas-led missile and terror strikes from Gaza.
In this way, Tehran would have achieved one of its main strategic goals in opening a second warfront against the Jewish state. The seizure of two Israeli soldiers by its proxy, the Hizballah, was meant to force Israel to divide a prime tactical resource between the two fronts.
But the UAVs were left in Gaza and the Israeli air force was accordingly ordered Thursday night to concentrate its raids on strategic sites in Lebanon, rather than Hizballah rocket batteries. Israeli war planners figured that the Israeli air force has more stamina and lasting power than the Hizballah and in the long run the Shiite terrorist group would snap first.
Another Israeli weakness emerging from the Lebanon operation is its inability to blockade Lebanon by land, as well as air and sea, as Israeli military spokesman claimed Thursday. Air strikes managed to cut off the main Beirut-Damascus highway as well as bridges, but the air force alone cannot sever all the side roads running to and from the Beqaa Valley on the Syrian border and Lebanon’s mountains, especially when UAVs are in short supply.
Western military experts watching the developing engagement commented to DEBKA-Net-Weekly that for the sake of a rapid resolution, Israel has made the most extensive use of its air force in combat since its 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
The Iranian officers permanently stationed at Syrian air force headquarters in Damascus, are no doubt staring hard the IAFs’ performance to learn as much as they can about Israel’s aerial capabilities.