A Disciplined Hezbollah Surprises Israel With Its Training, Tactics and Weapons

By STEVEN ERLANGER and RICHARD A. OPPEL Jr.

New York Times

August 7, 2006

JERUSALEM, Aug. 6 — On Dec. 26, 2003, a powerful earthquake leveled most of Bam, in southeastern Iran, killing 35,000 people. Transport planes carrying aid poured in from everywhere, including Syria.

According to Israeli military intelligence, the planes returned to Syria carrying sophisticated weapons, including long-range Zelzal missiles, which the Syrians passed on to Hezbollah, the Shiite militia group in southern Lebanon that Iran created and sponsors.

As the Israeli Army struggles for a fourth week to defeat Hezbollah before a cease-fire, the shipments are just one indication of how — with the help of its main sponsors, Iran and Syria — the militia has sharply improved its arsenal and strategies in the six years since Israel abruptly ended its occupation of southern Lebanon.

Hezbollah is a militia trained like an army and equipped like a state, and its fighters “are nothing like Hamas or the Palestinians,” said a soldier who just returned from Lebanon. “They are trained and highly qualified,” he said, equipped with flak jackets, night-vision goggles, good communications and sometimes Israeli uniforms and ammunition. “All of us were kind of surprised.”

Much attention has been focused on Hezbollah’s astonishing stockpile of Syrian- and Iranian-made missiles, some 3,000 of which have already fallen on Israel. More than 48 Israelis have been killed in the attacks — including 12 reservist soldiers killed Sunday, who were gathered at a kibbutz at Kfar Giladi, in northern Israel, when rockets packed with antipersonnel ball bearings exploded among them, and 3 killed Sunday evening in another rocket barrage on Haifa.

But Iran and Syria also used those six years to provide satellite communications and some of the world’s best infantry weapons, including modern, Russian-made antitank weapons and Semtex plastic explosives, as well as the training required to use them effectively against Israeli armor.

It is Hezbollah’s skillful use of those weapons — in particular, wire-guided and laser-guided antitank missiles, with double, phased explosive warheads and a range of about two miles — that has caused most of the casualties to Israeli forces.

Hezbollah’s Russian-made antitank missiles, designed to penetrate armor, have damaged or destroyed Israeli vehicles, including its most modern tank, the Merkava, on about 20 percent of their hits, Israeli tank commanders at the front said.

Hezbollah has also used antitank missiles, including the less modern Sagger, to fire from a distance into houses in which Israeli troops are sheltered, with a first explosion cracking the typical cement block wall and the second going off inside.

“They use them like artillery to hit houses,” said Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser, until recently the Israeli Army’s director of intelligence analysis. “They can use them accurately up to even three kilometers, and they go through a wall like through the armor of a tank.”

Hezbollah fighters use tunnels to quickly emerge out of the ground, fire a shoulder-held antitank missile, and then disappear again, much the way Chechen rebels used the sewer system of Grozny to attack Russian armored columns.

“We know what they have and how they work,” General Kuperwasser said. “But we don’t know where all the tunnels are. So they can achieve tactical surprise.”

The antitank missiles are the “main fear” for Israeli troops, said David Ben-Nun, 24, an enlisted man in the Nahal brigade who just returned from a week in Lebanon. The troops do not linger long in any house because of hidden missile crews. “You can’t even see them,” he said.

With modern communications and a network of tunnels, storage rooms, barracks and booby traps laid under the hilly landscape, Hezbollah’s training, tactics and modern weaponry explain, the Israelis say, why they are moving with caution.

The Israelis say Hezbollah’s fighters number from 2,000 to 4,000, a small army that is aided by a larger circle of part-timers who provide logistics and storage of weapons in houses and civilian buildings.

Hezbollah operates like a revolutionary force within a civilian sea, making it hard to fight without occupying or bombing civilian areas. On orders, some fighters emerge to retrieve launchers, fire missiles and then melt away. Still, the numbers are small compared with the Israeli Army and are roughly the size of one Syrian division.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guards have helped teach Hezbollah how to organize itself like an army, with special units for intelligence, antitank warfare, explosives, engineering, communications and rocket launching.

They have also taught Hezbollah how to aim rockets, make shaped “improvised explosive devices” — used to such devastating results against American armor in Iraq — and, the Israelis say, even how to fire the C-802, a ground-to-ship missile that Israel never knew Hezbollah possessed.

Iranian Air Force officers have made repeated trips to Lebanon to train Hezbollah to aim and fire Iranian medium-range missiles, like the Fajr-3 and Fajr-5, according to intelligence officials in Washington. The Americans believe that a small number of Iranian operatives remain in Beirut, but say there is no evidence that they are directing Hezbollah’s attacks.

But Iran, so far, has not allowed Hezbollah to fire one of the Zelzal missiles, the Israelis say.

The former Syrian president, Hafez al-Assad, was careful to restrict supplies to Hezbollah, but his son, Bashar, who took over in 2000 — the year Israel pulled out of Lebanon — has opened its warehouses.

Syria has given Hezbollah both 220-millimeter and 302-millimeter missiles, both equipped with large, anti-personnel warheads. Syria has also given Hezbollah its most sophisticated antitank weapons, sold to the Syrian Army by Russia.

Those, General Kuperwasser said, include the Russian Metis and RPG-29. The RPG-29 has both an antitank round to better penetrate armor and an anti-personnel round. The Metis is more modern yet, wire-guided with a longer range and a higher speed, and can fire up to four rounds a minute.

Some Israelis say they believe that Syria has provided Hezbollah with the Russian-made Kornet, laser-guided, with a range of about three miles, which Hezbollah may be holding back, waiting for Israel to move farther into southern Lebanon and extend its supply lines.

Despite Israeli complaints to Moscow, “Russia just decided to close its eyes,” a senior Israeli official said.

In its early years, Hezbollah specialized in suicide bombings and kidnappings. The United States blames it for the suicide attacks on the American Embassy in Beirut and a Marine barracks in 1983. The group became popular in the Shiite south and set up its mini-state there, as well as reserving to itself a section of southern Beirut, known as Security Square.

Until 2003, Timur Goksel was the senior political adviser to Unifil, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, which monitors the border. He says he knows Hezbollah well and speaks with admiration of its commitment and organization.

After fighting the Israelis for 18 years, “they’re not afraid of the Israeli Army anymore,” he said in a telephone interview from Beirut. Hezbollah’s ability to harass the Israelis and study their flaws, like a tendency for regular patrols and for troop convoys on the eve of the Sabbath, gave Hezbollah confidence that the Israeli Army “is a normal human army, with normal vulnerabilities and follies,” he added.

Now, however, “Hezbollah has much better weapons than before,” he said.

Mr. Goksel describes Hezbollah much as the Israelis do: careful, patient, attuned to gathering intelligence, scholars of guerrilla warfare from the American Revolution to Mao and the Vietcong, and respectful of Israeli firepower and mobility.

“Hezbollah has studied asymmetrical warfare, and they have the advantage of fighting in their own landscape, among their people, where they’ve prepared for just what the Israelis are doing — entering behind armor on the ground,” Mr. Goksel said.

“They have staff work and they do long-term planning, something the Palestinians never do,” he said. “They watch for two months to note every detail of their enemy. They review their operations — what they did wrong, how the enemy responded. And they have flexible tactics, without a large hierarchical command structure.”

That makes them very different from the Soviet-trained Arab armies the Israelis defeated in 1967 and 1973, which had a command structure that was too regimented.

In 1992, when Sheik Hassan Nasrallah took over, he organized Hezbollah into three regional commands with military autonomy. Beirut and the Hezbollah council made policy, but did not try to run the war. Sheik Nasrallah — said to have been advised by the secretive Imad Mugniyeh, a trained engineer wanted by the United States on terrorism charges — thereby improved Hezbollah’s security and limited its communications.

It set up separate and largely autonomous units who live among civilians, with local reserve forces to provide support, supplies and logistics. Hezbollah commanders travel in old cars without bodyguards or escorts and wear no visible insignia, Mr. Goksel said, to keep their identities hidden.

Hezbollah began by setting up roadside bombs detonated by cables, which the Israelis learned to defeat with wire-cutting attachments to their vehicles. Then Hezbollah used radio detonators, which the Israelis also defeated, and then cellphone detonators, and then a double system of cellphones, and then a photocell detonator — like the beam that opens an automatic door. Now, Mr. Goksel said, Hezbollah is working with pressure detonators dug into the roads, even as the Israelis weld metal plates to the bottom of their tanks.

Hezbollah, Mr. Goksel says, has clear tactics, trying to draw Israeli ground troops farther into Lebanon. “They can’t take the Israelis in open battle,” he said, “so they want to draw them in to well-prepared battlefields,” like Aita al Shaab, where there has been fierce fighting.

He added: “They know the Israelis depend too much on armor, which is a prime target for them. And they want Israeli supply lines to lengthen, so they’re easier to hit.”

Israeli tanks have been struck by huge roadside bombs planted in expectation that Israeli armor would roll across the border, said one tank lieutenant, who in keeping with military policy would only give his first name, Ohad.

At least two soldiers from his unit have been wounded by snipers who are accurate at 600 yards. The Hezbollah fighters “are not just farmers who have been given weapons to fire,” he said. “They are persistent and well trained.”

Another tank company commander, a captain who gave his name as Edan, said that about 20 percent of the missiles that have hit Israeli tanks penetrated the Merkava armor or otherwise caused causalities.

Col. Mordechai Kahane, the commander of the Golani brigade’s Egoz unit, first set up to fight Hezbollah, told the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot of one of the worst early days, when his unit went into Marun al Ras in daylight, and lost a senior officer and a number of men.

“Hezbollah put us to sleep” building up its fortifications, he said. “There’s no certainty that we knew that we were going to encounter what it is that we ultimately encountered. We said, ‘There is going to be a bunker here, a cave there,’ but the thoroughness surprised us all. A Hezbollah weapons storeroom is not just a natural cave. It’s a pit with concrete, ladders, emergency openings, escape routes. We didn’t know it was that well organized.”

General Kuperwasser, too, respects Hezbollah’s ability “to well prepare the battlefield,” but says, “We’re making progress and killing a lot of them, and more of them are giving up in battle now and becoming prisoners, which is a very important sign.”

Steven Erlanger reported from Jerusalem for this article, and Richard A. Oppel Jr. from Zarit, Israel. Mark Mazzetti contributed reporting from Washington.