Friday, August 18, 2006

METULLA, Israel — Soldiers returning from the war in Lebanon say the Israeli army was slow to rescue wounded comrades and suffered from a lack of supplies so dire they had to drink water from the canteens of dead Hezbollah guerrillas.

“We fought for nothing. We cleared houses that will be reoccupied in no time,” said Ilia Marshak, a 22-year-old infantryman who spent a week in Lebanon.

Mr. Marshak said his unit was hindered by a lack of information, by poor training and by untested equipment. In one instance, Israeli troops occupying two houses inadvertently fired at each other because of poor communication between their commanders.

“We almost killed each other,” he said. “We shot like blind people. … We shot sheep and goats.”

The war has cost Prime Minister Ehud Olmert much of his political capital. With approval ratings plummeting, he has been forced to shelve his West Bank pullout plan and is struggling to ride out a growing public storm over the government’s wartime bungles.

At the height of the war in Lebanon, Mr. Olmert asserted that the fighting could create momentum for a West Bank pullout, prompting angry accusations that he was trying to hijack the war for a divisive political agenda.

However, in meetings this week, the prime minister told Cabinet ministers and key legislators that the West Bank plan was being shelved.

The war in Lebanon ended with considerable losses for Israel — 118 soldiers killed, hundreds wounded, hundreds of thousands displaced — but no clear gains.

The war was widely seen in Israel as a justified response to a July 12 cross-border attack in which Hezbollah gunmen killed three Israeli soldiers and captured two. Another five Israeli soldiers died in an unsuccessful rescue attempt

But the wartime solidarity crumbled after Israel agreed to pull its army from south Lebanon without crushing Hezbollah or rescuing the captured soldiers.

In a nation lionized for decisive military victories over Arab foes, the stalemate after a month of war in Lebanon has surprised many.

The Israeli army was often caught off guard by a well-trained guerrilla force backed by Iran and Syria that used sophisticated weapons and tactics. Soldiers, for instance, complained that Hezbollah fighters sometimes disguised themselves in Israeli uniforms.

Critics are demanding an official commission of inquiry, with the power to dismiss top government officials. Such a commission forced Ariel Sharon to resign from the defense minister’s job after Israel’s 1982 war in Lebanon.

Some of the harshest criticism has come from reservists, who form the backbone of the army. Israeli men do three years of mandatory service beginning at age 18, but continue to do reserve duty several weeks a year into their 40s.

Israeli newspapers quoted disgruntled reservists as saying they had no provisions in Lebanon, were sent into battle with outdated or faulty equipment and insufficient supplies, and received little or no training.

“I personally haven’t thrown a grenade in 15 years, and I thought I’d get a chance to do so before going north,” an unidentified reservist in an elite infantry brigade was quoted as telling the Ma’ariv daily.

Israel’s largest paper, Yediot Ahronot, quoted one soldier as saying thirsty troops threw chlorine tablets into filthy water in sheep and cow troughs. Another said his unit took canteens from dead guerrillas.

“When you’re thirsty and have to keep fighting, you don’t think a lot, and there is no time to feel disgusted,” the unidentified soldier was quoted as saying.

The newspaper said helicopters were hindered from delivering food supplies or carrying out rescue operations because commanders feared the aircraft would be shot down. In some instances, soldiers bled to death because they were not rescued in time, Yediot Ahronot said.

Comrades of the two soldiers captured by Hezbollah sent a petition to the prime minister Thursday accusing the government of abandoning the men.

“We went to reserve duty with the certainty that all of Israel’s citizens, and the Israeli government, believe in the same value that every combatant learns from his first day in basic training — you don’t leave friends behind,” the soldiers wrote. “This is a moral low point. The Israeli government has abandoned two [Israeli Defense Force] combatants that it sent on a mission.”

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