Marie Colvin – The Sunday Times Online July 16, 2006
It was with the first sip of her morning coffee that Kokhi Hatan saw the Israeli tank explode before her eyes. “The tank had moved only a few metres into a firing position when it was blown to bits by a huge mine,” she said.
The drama she watched from her back garden in the Galilee border village of Shtulah last Wednesday, as Hezbollah gunmen ambushed an Israeli patrol on the road running along the frontier with Lebanon, was the trigger for the worst crisis in the region for two decades.
Sources in Hezbollah, the radical Islamic organisation that runs a state-within-a-state in Lebanon, say the attack was five months in the planning. The purpose was to seize hostages and hold them to ransom for prisoners in Israel.
The Hezbollah assault unit had clearly done their reconnaissance. After infiltrating overnight they smashed Israeli CCTV cameras that monitor the border and hid in a peach orchard to wait for two Israeli armoured “Hummers” to begin a daily 9am patrol.
The border area had been mostly quiet since May 2000, when Israeli forces withdrew from southern Lebanon. Now the Hatans, an Israeli Kurdish family, watched in horror.
“They waited in the best location,” said Assaf, Kokhi Hatan’s husband, pointing to a curve in the patrol road through his fields.
The two Hummers were hit by rocket-propelled grenades and went up in flames. Three soldiers were killed outright and two taken prisoner by the Hezbollah unit, which crossed back into Lebanon before a nearby Israeli base even knew what was happening.
The attack made clear how well-trained and equipped Hezbollah has become with the help of Iran, its main backer, since the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon. It has built outposts along the border, in some places only a hundred yards from the Israelis.
As Israeli reinforcements scrambled, Hezbollah units inside Lebanon began a harassing barrage. Mortars crashed with a sickening sound close to the Hatans’ back garden as soldiers with megaphones urged villagers to take cover.
About 500ft above, two Israeli Cobra assault helicopters fired missiles to stop the Hezbollah mortars. Every five seconds they released a puff of hot metal balloons to divert Hezbollah anti-aircraft rockets.
By the end of the fight, eight Israelis were dead including the tank crew, killed as they came to the rescue.
In the chaos it was 10.30am before the Israeli military realised that two soldiers — Ehud Goldwasser, 31, and Eldad Regev, 26 — had been captured. It was another 15 minutes before the military secretary to Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, passed him a note: two soldiers were confirmed abducted by Hezbollah.
Olmert could not believe what he was reading, Israeli sources said. He had been in an emotional meeting with the distressed parents of Gilad Shalit, 19, the Israeli soldier abducted in Gaza on June 25. They had just been pressing him to order an immediate exchange of prisoners to free their son.
Now he was embroiled in a second crisis involving captured soldiers, unheard of in modern Israel history. He called General Dan Halutz, the chief of staff, and said, “Danny, try to find the soldiers.”
Then he had to tell Shalit’s unhappy parents: “I’m sorry. I’ll do my best to bring back your son, but as you can see I can’t give in to the terrorists’ demands to release thousands of prisoners.”
Olmert, elected only four months ago, knew that the crisis could decide his fate. Unlike his predecessor, Ariel Sharon, Olmert has no military career to bolster his authority.
Already two weeks into a massive military assault on Gaza in reaction to Shalit’s abduction by Palestinians, Olmert ordered the opening of a second front. By midday Israel had launched a full-scale operation on its northern border.
Israeli sources said that the first air force sorties were aimed at 50 buildings where Hezbollah is thought to hide long-range Iranian-made rockets. Planes attacked 150 targets within 24 hours, dropping hundreds of tonnes of explosives.
As the confrontation grew Hezbollah rockets poured into northern Israel on an unprecedented scale — as many as 200 in the first 48 hours, according to the Israelis — and hitting as far south as Haifa, Israel’s third city, for the first time.
The Israeli response rapidly escalated into an all-out attempt to cripple Hezbollah. Israel destroyed bridges across Lebanon, power stations, roads and glass-fronted business centres in Beirut. It bombed the international airport, sent warships to enforce a naval blockade and hit the highway to Damascus, the main overland route out of the country. All the fragile Lebanese government could do was appeal for a ceasefire.
“Our aim is to smash the Hezbollah,” said a military source, “But if the rocket attacks do not stop, we’ll consider sending in ground troops.”
Israel was gripped by the drama. Everyone serves in the army and knows someone in uniform. There is a tradition of “never leaving a single soldier behind”. As a result, while the Arab world fulminated that the capture of “only” three soldiers had caused the killing of scores of civilians, and the European Union criticised Israel’s “disproportionate response”, no Israeli questioned the military onslaught to rescue three soldiers.
It was a catastrophe for Beirut, which had been in the final stages of recovery from many years of civil war, expecting a bumper crop of tourists. Now it is a city under siege.
By far the heaviest toll from the bombing has been borne by civilians. Most of the dead — 96 according to the latest count yesterday — have been civilians, hospital staff said.
In Bir al-Abed, Hezbollah’s south Beirut heartland and home of its leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, downed wires snaked across streets littered with bomb damage and young men scurried for cover as Israeli planes appeared overhead for the fourth day running.
Usually in Bir al-Abed, a teeming suburb of tenements and shops, a stranger cannot walk the crowded streets more than a few yards without being stopped and questioned threateningly by Hezbollah militants. Now the streets were deserted and the young men asked their questions in a near frenzy.
“Okay, come, see, the Israelis are killing us!” Then, “Planes, I can see them, hear that!” Bombs or missiles hit targets nearby with three loud crumps.
The ferocity of the Israeli attacks took Hezbollah by surprise. On the front line, its leaders appear nervous but resolute. It may have miscalculated the response to its raid but it was not backing down. “If you want open war, we will give you open war,” Nasrallah said to Israel in a television address in Beirut on Friday after Israeli missiles struck his house.
Dramatically, he introduced video footage of an attack on an Israeli gunboat, saying, “Now in the middle of the sea, facing Beirut, the Israeli warship that has attacked the infrastructure, people’s homes and civilians — look at it burning.”
Israel confirmed that a ship had been hit. Four Israeli sailors were reported missing.
Celebratory gunfire erupted around the city, including, it appeared, from the Lebanese army as tracer fire from antiaircraft guns arced overhead.
Although Hezbollah is unpopular in Christian east Beirut, it retains broad support because it is seen as having forced the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000. The question now is whether this crisis will increase support or eventually rebound against it.
The fragile political situation in Lebanon has become dangerously fluid. Both Iran, Israel’s arch-enemy, and Syria — the former occupying power and another Hezbollah sponsor — are manoeuvring for advantage. And Beirutis are dreading the return of their violent past.
“We are so depressed,” said Layal al-Arab, 22, a nurse. “Two days ago we had everything, shopping and beautiful cafes. Now everything is damaged — including ourselves.”
Additional reporting: Uzi Mahnaimi
Last updated 18/07/2006