Israel’s Wounded Describe Surprisingly Fierce, Well-Organized and Elusive Enemy
For an Israeli tank gunner, Sgt. Or Bar-On, the war in Lebanon lasted all of 90 minutes. The wounds will last a lifetime.
Sergeant Bar-On’s Merkava tank was sent about a mile across the Israeli border to rescue soldiers in a military bulldozer hit by Hezbollah fire in the Lebanese town of Marun al Ras on July 20. But before his crew reached the stricken bulldozer, a rocket pierced the tank’s armored skin, shredding both his lower legs. They were subsequently amputated just below the knees.
“I was gushing blood, and I felt pain like I’ve never felt before,” Sergeant Bar-On said. He screamed for help and crawled out the back of the tank.
Dragged to safety by fellow soldiers, the sergeant was delivered by helicopter to the Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa, about 20 miles south of the border. He arrived with extreme blood loss. “I wanted to pass out, but I knew if I did, I would die,” he said.
There are dozens of wounded soldiers here in northern Israel’s main hospital, and all seem to have stories of unexpectedly fierce ground battles with Hezbollah. They describe Hezbollah as heavily armed, well organized and maddeningly elusive. The fighters, well concealed in bunkers and tunnels, emerge to fire automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and antitank rockets, they say, and then quickly disappear again.
In Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon — which led to the birth of Hezbollah — Israeli troops stormed north and reached the outskirts of the capital, Beirut, within two weeks. The goal this time is limited to driving Hezbollah out of rocket range, yet it has proved far more difficult.
After a month of fighting, some 10,000 Israeli soldiers are still waging daily firefights in towns and villages that are five miles or less from the border. In fact, the fighting has sometimes been visible from the Israeli side of the frontier.
Of the more than 80 Israeli soldiers killed in the fighting, 45 have died in the past week as the ground campaign has intensified.
Now that the Israeli government has approved an expanded offensive, the recovering soldiers say they remain confident Israel can drive Hezbollah back from the border, but acknowledge it will involve tough fighting that could last weeks, in contrast to the swift and decisive victory many of them expected when the fighting began.
Capt. Hanoch Daub, 26, explained the difficulties of fighting an enemy who lives among civilians and dresses like them.
On Tuesday, Captain Daub, a company commander in the tank corps, faced a nightmarish mission. Two Israeli soldiers were badly wounded and had taken cover in a house in a valley in the center of Bint Jbail, a Hezbollah stronghold that has been the scene of heavy fighting for more than two weeks.
The wounded needed to be moved out urgently. Captain Daub guided his tank into the town center in broad daylight, knowing in advance that his tank would be fully exposed to a furious Hezbollah assault.
“We were under constant fire,” Captain Daub said. “They never stopped hitting us.” The tank reached the two wounded soldiers and delivered them to safety. But as Captain Daub tried to rejoin his company on the outskirts of town, his tank was blasted again, and his face, neck and leg were peppered with shrapnel.
“Hezbollah is everywhere, but they are very hard to find,” he said. “They work in small units or two or three men. They wear civilian clothes. You don’t see them. You just see their fire.”
On Wednesday, his eyes were still red from the searing heat of the attack. Two of three other soldiers in the tank were also wounded, including the gunner, Vladimir Noboychiko, who dozed in the next bed.
Hezbollah has nicknamed Bint Jbail the “capital of resistance,” a title dating to the fighting in the 1980’s and 90’s. When Israeli ground troops entered southern Lebanon in the current campaign, the town was one of the first targets, and fighting was first reported on July 23. Captain Daub said that as of Tuesday, Hezbollah was still attacking Israeli armored vehicles on hilltops at each end of the town, and the valley in between was even more treacherous.
“No place there is safe,” he said.
Captain Daub has fought the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in recent years, and like other Israeli soldiers, he said there was no comparison to the combat in Lebanon.
“You can tell Hezbollah has been trained in guerrilla fighting by a real army,” he said.
In the six years since Israel pulled out of southern Lebanon, the Israeli military has warned that Hezbollah was building fortifications and stockpiling weapons. Yet even the Israeli soldiers said they had not anticipated the full-scale battle that erupted.
Just a few days ago, Staff Sgt. Nir Yousef, 21, was preparing to complete his three years of mandatory military service. He had already turned in his rifle and his bulletproof vest in advance of his discharge, which was set for last Monday.
But when his combat engineering unit was ordered into Lebanon, he volunteered to stay. On Saturday, the unit entered Lebanon to clear a road to the village of Debel.
As soldiers entered homes in the village, they found hundreds of explosives and weapons. On Monday morning, Sergeant Yousef fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the door of a heavily barricaded house the troops planned to enter.
He hit the door, but it was so well reinforced it did not open, and instead sprayed bits of burning metal back at him, puncturing his abdomen in six places.
“Hezbollah spent six years preparing for us,” Sergeant Yousef said. “We took precautions. We came at night, but they were ready to fight.”
As the soldiers recuperated in their beds, the thumping of incoming helicopters was audible outside, as more wounded came in from the battlefields of Lebanon.
With wounds still raw, the soldiers at the hospital are already contemplating their future.
Captain Daub said he hoped the doctors would clear him to return to the command of his company as soon as next week.
Sergeant Yousef, who is facing six months of recovery, according to his doctors, expressed regret that he would not be returning to his unit.
And Sergeant Bar-On strummed his guitar in bed, saying the loss of his lower legs would not keep him from performing in his heavy metal band, Vendetta.