Wednesday, August 9, 2006

The Israeli Defense Forces is billed as the most high-tech, well-motivated armed forces in the Middle East — one that has won five major wars against Arab neighbors, dominating the fields of battle in the air and on the ground.

But the IDF finds itself today in a new kind of unconventional war with the terror group Hezbollah, which is just as motivated, driven by radical Shi’ite clerics bent on achieving martyrdom for the cause of Islamic rule.

Trained and financed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, Hezbollah has an arsenal of 13,000 rockets, which it uses to pummel Israel daily and then move the launchers to evade detection. Hezbollah also is displaying small-unit battle tactics to combat Israel’s overwhelming firepower.

Israel deploys main battle tanks — in this case the homegrown Merkava — to win in the villages. But military sources said Hezbollah has been able to destroy tanks using Iranian-provided rocket-propelled grenades. They worry that such weapons may show up in Iraq, adding to the woes of American troops already bedeviled by improvised explosive devices. Like U.S. forces in Iraq, Israel now finds itself fighting an unfamiliar foe on foreign land and is trying to adjust with new countertactics.

“The IDF’s capability is the best in the Middle East for fighting conventional wars,” said Richard H. Shultz Jr., author of “Insurgents, Terrorists and Militias: The Warriors of Contemporary Combat,” a new book on counterterrorism. “But they’re fighting an armed group that is following an unconventional, asymmetrical strategy. They were not ready.”

Syrian, Egyptian and Jordanian forces retreated during past wars with Israel, but Hezbollah fighters are willing to die for the cause of leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, who has pledged to destroy Israel and convert Lebanon into an Iranian-style Shi’ite theocracy.

“They actually have an adversary that doesn’t roll over and die on command,” said Robert Maginnis, a former Army artillery officer who has analyzed the IDF’s tactics. “They’re up against Hezbollah people who are trained reasonably well. They are better than a lot of their Arab counterparts. They are willing to die. … It’s a mini-Iran and they are charged up because they are the Islamic resistance in Lebanon.”

Still, military sources said they think Israel ultimately will be able to clear the scores of hamlets in southern Lebanon where Hezbollah has dug in, established bases and practiced unconventional warfare.

“It’s going better than we’re hearing,” said an Army Special Forces soldier who has deployed to the Middle East. “Some of the cease-fire overtures wouldn’t be occurring if the Israelis weren’t doing much damage. The IDF knew of the tunnels and traps waiting for them, so they softened it up with air power directed by operations. The main thing is that the links to Iran and Syria are becoming known to the public. The American people have to know who we eventually have to fight.”

Born in 1948 with the creation of the Jewish state, the IDF today stands as a near-mirror to the U.S. military. Its air force is led by F-15 and F-16 fighters, armed with U.S.-designed missiles and precision-guided munitions. Israel receives $1.8 billion annually in military aid, which is used to buy U.S. equipment.

The IDF active force numbers about 170,000 on an annual budget of $34 billion. Unique to Israel, women as well as men face compulsory service and also serve in a 400,000-member reserve force. The army is built around six divisions and nearly 1,700 main battle tanks. The air force maintains 400 combat aircraft. The naval fleet features three submarines able to fire cruise missiles, and 66 coastal boats with guns and ground-attack missiles.

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