Wed, Jul 26, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Israeli ground forces facing stiff opposition

HARD GOING The ground war against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, which has picked up pace in the past week, is harder than the Israeli military expected


Israeli soldiers attend a morning briefing at their artillery position near Fasuta, northern Israel, yesterday. Israel is determined to keep fighting Hezbollah and will take ``severe measures'' against the Lebanese guerrillas, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said yesterday, signaling there will be no letup in Israel's military offensive.


A military vehicle sped in from the direction of Lebanon, a few hundred meters away across the border, and drew up sharply at the camp. An Israeli soldier wearing white surgical gloves jumped down, slung his assault rifle over his shoulder and started shouting at the troops around him. Until then, most had been leaning on their rucksacks, trying to get some rest in the shade next to a couple of D-9 armored bulldozers, apparently unconcerned by the fighting in the distance.

"We almost got hit up on the hill," the soldier shouted, frantic now. "Move out of here. We've been exposed. They've got our coordinates. Move."

One of Hezbollah's rocket-propelled grenades had landed uncomfortably close to a nearby forward Israeli position.

The soldiers jumped into their vehicles, arguing with each other as they turned their tracked armored personnel carriers around on the narrow dirt road and pushed back behind the tree line, hoping to be out of range. Others sweated as they loaded a pile of heavy shells into the back of a truck.

"Get those cars out of here," shouted another soldier. "Get into the bushes. Don't move in groups. Take the ammunition. Everybody needs to leave."

A moment later Israeli tanks and field guns, positioned further back from the border, started up a volley of shelling that lasted several minutes, raining down heavy fire at several targets over the hilltops deeper into Lebanon. A column of grey smoke rose from the fields.

But the expected Hezbollah attack did not come and an hour later the soldiers were only a few hundred metres back from their original position, some still sitting in the shade, others in command tents poring over their maps.

Israel's military censorship orders prevent the naming of places where its troops are deployed or where they cross the border into southern Lebanon as part of the now extensive ground operations against Hezbollah. But it is obvious to the many civilians living in northern Israel that there are positions like these all along the border.

Thousands of troops, with tanks, armored vehicles and bulldozers, are massed in the north. It is also clear that the ground fighting, which has picked up pace in the past week, is harder than the Israeli military first anticipated. So far 20 troops have been killed.

At least 10 soldiers were injured on Monday in heavy fighting just inside the Lebanese border and one tank was destroyed.

Two crew were seriously injured when a military helicopter crashed on a hill in northern Israel, striking an electricity cable as it came down. Wreckage was spread over a wide area, setting fire to shrub land around it.

Israel says its forces have already taken the hilltop town of Maroun al-Ras and are pressing into the larger town of Bint Jbeil. From a distance Maroun al-Ras looks deserted, its dozen or so buildings sitting high on a hill overlooking northern Israel. It's strategic position is readily apparent to any onlooker.

Next to a dark grey, five-or-six-story, unfinished house is a mobile telephone tower and next to that is a smaller tower, which yesterday appeared to have fluttering from it a yellow Hezbollah flag, which has a raised fist holding up a Kalashnikov. Other identical flags stood in a small act of defiance on otherwise deserted hillsides.

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