Hezbollah’s irregular fighters stood off the modern Israeli army for a month in the hills of southern Lebanon thanks to extraordinary zeal and secrecy, rigorous training, tight controls over the population, and a steady flow of Iranian money to acquire effective weaponry, according to informed assessments in Lebanon and Israel.
"They are the best guerrilla force in the world," said a Lebanese specialist who has sifted through intelligence on Hezbollah for more than two decades and strongly opposes the militant Shiite Muslim movement.
Because Hezbollah was entrenched in friendly Shiite-inhabited villages and underground bunkers constructed in secret over several years, a withering Israeli air campaign and a tank-led ground assault were unable to establish full control over a border strip and sweep it clear of Hezbollah guerrillas -- one of Israel’s main declared war aims. Largely as a result, the U.N. Security Council resolution approved unanimously Friday night fell short of the original objectives laid out by Israel and the Bush administration when the conflict began July 12.
As the declared U.N. cease-fire went into effect Monday morning, many Lebanese -- particularly among the Shiites who make up an estimated 40 percent of the population -- had already assessed Hezbollah’s endurance as a military success despite the devastation wrought across Lebanon by Israeli bombing.
Hezbollah’s staying power on the battlefield came from a classic fish-in-the-sea advantage enjoyed by guerrillas on their home ground, hiding in their own villages and aided by their relatives. Hasan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, summed up the guerrilla strategy in a televised address during the conflict when he said, "We are not a regular army and we will not fight like a regular army."
The group’s battlefield resilience also came from an unusual combination of zeal and disciplined military science, said the Lebanese specialist with access to intelligence information, who spoke on condition he not be identified by name.
The fighters’ Islamic faith and intense indoctrination reduced their fear of death, he noted, giving them an advantage in close-quarters combat and in braving airstrikes to move munitions from post to post. Hezbollah leaders also enhanced fighters’ willingness to risk death by establishing the Martyr’s Institute, with an office in Tehran, that guarantees living stipends and education fees for the families of fighters who die on the front.
"If you are waiting for a white flag coming out of the Hezbollah bunker, I can assure you it won’t come," Brig. Gen. Ido Nehushtan, a member of the Israeli army’s general staff, said in a briefing for reporters in the northern Israeli village of Gosherim. "They are extremists, they will go all the way."
Moreover, Hezbollah’s military leadership carefully studied military history, including the Vietnam War, the Lebanese expert said, and set up a training program with help from Iranian intelligence and military officers with years of experience in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. The training was matched to weapons that proved effective against Israeli tanks, he added, including the Merkava main battle tank with advanced armor plating.
Wire-guided and laser-guided antitank missiles were the most effective and deadly Hezbollah weapons, according to Israeli military officers and soldiers. A review of Israel Defense Forces records showed that the majority of Israeli combat deaths resulted from missile hits on armored vehicles -- or on buildings where Israeli soldiers set up observation posts or conducted searches.
Most of the antitank missiles, Israeli officers noted, could be dragged out of caches and quickly fired with two- or three-man launching teams at distances of 3,200 yards or more from their targets. One of the most effective was the Russian-designed Sagger 2, a wire-guided missile with a range of 550 to 3,200 yards.
In one hidden bunker, Israeli soldiers discovered night-vision camera equipment connected to computers that fed coordinates of targets to the Sagger 2 missile, according to Israeli military officials who described the details from photographs they said soldiers took inside the bunker.
Some antitank missiles also can be used to attack helicopters, which has limited the military’s use of choppers in rescues and other operations. On Saturday, Hezbollah shot down a CH-53 Sikorsky helicopter in Lebanon, killing all five crew members, according to the Israeli military. As of late Sunday, Israeli troops still had been unable to retrieve the bodies because of fierce fighting in the area of the crash.
The Hezbollah arsenal, which also included thousands of missiles and rockets to be fired against northern Israel’s towns and villages, was paid for with a war chest kept full by relentless fundraising among Shiites around the world and, in particular, by funds provided by Iran, said the intelligence specialist. The amount of Iranian funds reaching Hezbollah was estimated at $25 million a month, but some reports suggested it increased sharply, perhaps doubled, after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took over as president in Tehran last year, the specialist said.
Fawaz Trabulsi, a Lebanese professor who helped lead Palestinian-allied militia forces against the Israeli army in 1982, noted that Hezbollah’s fight has differed in several respects from that mounted by the Palestine Liberation Organization during the 1980s. In that war, Israeli forces punched straight northward and reached Beirut in a few days with only minor resistance, he recalled, saying Israeli officers seemed to think they could duplicate that performance against Hezbollah.
One reason for the sharp difference is that Israeli intelligence had much less detail on Hezbollah forces, tactics and equipment than it had on the PLO, which was infiltrated by a network of spies, said Trabulsi, now a political science professor at Lebanese American University. "Hezbollah is not penetrated at all," he said.
Nehushtan, the Israeli general, said the Israeli military had enough information to appreciate the fighting ability and weaponry of Hezbollah as the conflict opened. In addition, Israeli warplanes have hit pinpoint targets throughout the fighting, presumably on the basis of real-time intelligence reaching the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv through drones and other surveillance equipment. Other observers, however, said the sweep of fighting over the last month -- when Israel on several occasions said it controlled the terrain, only to continue fighting in the same border villages -- suggested intelligence had not provided an adequate appreciation of the battlefield.
"I think it’s no secret that the Israeli military didn’t have the intelligence on this," said Richard Straus, who publishes the Middle East Policy Survey newsletter in Washington. "They didn’t know what Hezbollah had, how it had built up, what it was capable of."
Another difference that gave Hezbollah fighters an edge is the experience they acquired in combating Israeli troops during the nearly two decades of Israeli occupation in southern Lebanon that ended in 2000. In contrast, Palestinian guerrillas had gained most of their experience fighting Lebanese militias in the civil war here -- using nothing more than assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades -- and were unprepared and unequipped to resist the advance of Israel’s modern army.
"The difference is in training, the difference is in weapons, but the big difference is that most of the Palestinians had never engaged in fighting Israel," Trabulsi said. "They were used to fighting a civil war in Lebanon."
Hezbollah’s resistance to penetration by Israeli intelligence was part of a culture of secrecy extreme even by the standards of underground guerrilla forces. The code fit with a tendency toward secrecy in the Shiite stream of Islam, called faqih . It also fit with a sense of solidarity against others that Lebanese Shiites have been imbued with since the beginning of their emergence as a political force in the mid-1970s, when their first organization was called the Movement of the Deprived.
One young Lebanese doctor learned that her brother had been a Hezbollah fighter for several years only when the movement notified her he had been killed, colleagues said. Similarly, a Lebanese man found out his brother was a senior Hezbollah militia officer only when informed of his death; the brother had cloaked occasional trips to Tehran by saying he was trying to start an import-export business.
Reporters who over the last month went to the bombed-out sections of southern Beirut suburbs where Hezbollah had its headquarters were approached within minutes by young men asking who they were and what they were doing there. Interviews with the people living there, most of whom were ardent Hezbollah supporters, were not allowed, the young men said. Around the battlefields of south Lebanon, however, the militia was busy fighting Israeli troops and hiding from airstrikes.
Reporters were free to move as much as they dared, since they, too, feared being hit by Israeli jets.
Even the movement’s political leadership was kept in the dark about many military and intelligence activities, Trabulsi noted. Ghaleb Abu-Zeinab, a member of Hezbollah’s political bureau, said in an interview, for instance, that he was not informed about operations on "the field," Hezbollah shorthand for the villages and hillsides across southern Lebanon where the battle raged.
"They have a military and intelligence organization totally separated from the political organization," Trabulsi said.
A dramatic example of the secrecy and careful preparations for conflict with Israel was Hezbollah’s al-Manar television. The station has kept broadcasting its mix of news and propaganda from hidden studios throughout the fighting, despite repeated Israeli airstrikes against relay towers and antennas across the country. Lebanese said some of the broadcasts seemed to include coded messages to Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon. But as with most things about Hezbollah, they were not really sure.
Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, used al-Manar to make a number of speeches rallying his followers and explaining his strategy. With his cleric’s turban and student’s mien, appearing on the screen in pre-taped broadcasts, he was perhaps the biggest secret of all, hunted by Israeli warplanes and hiding in a location about which Lebanese could only guess.
Moore reported from Jerusalem. Correspondent Jonathan Finer in Gosherim contributed to this report.