Battle of Bint Jbeil shocks ground troops
THE Israeli military suffered the worst day of its two-week offensive yesterday with at least 10 soldiers killed. Nine died in fierce fighting around the Lebanese border town of Bint Jbeil while an officer was killed and three other soldiers wounded in the village of Maroun al-Ras. Black Hawk helicopters and military ambulances waited for hours before finally evacuating the dead and wounded from around Bint Jbeil, an Hizbollah stronghold that Israeli commanders claimed to have brought under control less than 24 hours earlier.
THE Israeli military suffered the worst day of its two-week offensive yesterday with at least 10 soldiers killed.
Nine died in fierce fighting around the Lebanese border town of Bint Jbeil while an officer was killed and three other soldiers wounded in the village of Maroun al-Ras.
Black Hawk helicopters and military ambulances waited for hours before finally evacuating the dead and wounded from around Bint Jbeil, an Hizbollah stronghold that Israeli commanders claimed to have brought under control less than 24 hours earlier.
The Israeli army confirmed 25 casualties in the area, but would not say how many were dead.
Hizbollah said that it had killed at least 13 Israeli troops.
Hizbollah claimed to have ambushed an Israeli unit as it tried to enter the town.
The four-day battle for Bint Jbeil, and the continued barrage of Hizbollah rockets on northern Israel, with more than 125 yesterday alone, have begun raising doubts about the operation.
"Has the army failed?" and "No goals attained" were headlines in the Haaretz newspaper, while Ma'ariv's military analyst Amir Rappaport wrote that Israeli generals feared the war had become "bogged down" in "Hezbollahland."
He said intelligence indicated that the roads had been mined with bombs that looked like rocks or walls.
Israeli soldiers have been shocked by the strength of Hizbollah's resistance, and say that the biggest threat comes from Hizbollah's anti-tank landmines and missiles.
Major Eran Carasso said: "It seems that in the last six years they have had a lot of training . . . It's much more dangerous than it was."
Bint Jbeil, just four kilometres north of the Israeli border, is a particularly potent symbol.
It was known as the "capital of the resistance" during Israel's 18-year occupation of southern Israel, and is the place where Hizbollah's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, held a "festival" to celebrate Israel's withdrawal in May 2000.
Brigadier General Shuki Shachar, deputy commander of Israel's northern forces, said: "Bint Jbeil has been done in less than two days.
"That means every place that the Israel Defence Forces . . . decide to act we have no problem to do so."
Describing the battle as "typical" guerrilla warfare against "highly-motivated" fundamentalist fighters and expertly camouflaged fortifications, General Shachar admitted that many weapons stores were too far underground to be destroyed by air.
"People were building a new house and in the basement instead of putting a billiard table they put Katyusha rockets. And then they don't understand why from time to time they are hit by Israeli forces." Israeli commanders claimed to have "almost accomplished all our missions" in the town, conceding only that they had not taken "every square inch."
But reports began to trickle out of serious Israeli - and Hizbollah - casualties.
Yesterday officials confirmed only that there was "very intensive fighting" around the town.
Last night the Israeli military said that it had suffered several more casualties during fighting in the nearby village of Maroun al-Ras.
Meanwhile, Israeli forces killed 23 Palestinians in fighting across the Gaza Strip yesterday, including at least 11 militants, three children and a handicapped man, according to medics and witnesses.
Israel has stepped up air strikes and launched raids into Gaza to stop rocket attacks and recover a soldier captured by militants on June 25.
The army has killed 140 Palestinians since it began its assault. About half were civilians.
Yesterday's death toll in Gaza was the highest in two weeks.
Among those killed were eight loyalists of the governing Hamas militant group and one gunman from the kindred Islamic Jihad faction. Another two gunmen were killed later, one from the militant group Popular Resistance Committees. Medics said two girls, one an infant, died when a tank shell struck a house near Jabalya, a Hamas stronghold. A three-year-old girl was killed earlier in the day.
Nearly 75 people were wounded. Six were in a critical condition.
* Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was rushed to the intensive care unit of a Tel Aviv hospital yesterday to undergo a form of dialysis.
Sharon's condition had deteriorated significantly earlier in the week.
Sharon has been in a coma since suffering a massive stroke on January 4. (© The Times, London)