In their bloodiest ambush in 17 months, Hizbullah fighters Tuesday killed three Israeli officers and wounded five other soldiers, rekindling the debate in Israel over its occupation policy with calls for a punitive military offensive competing with demands for a withdrawal.
With the Israeli army reeling over the loss of officers from an elite commando unit, an embattled Premier Benjamin Netanyahu demanded that Syria rein in Hizbullah guerrillas.
The fatal ambush was “a very, very bitter blow” and a “very big toll for Israel. It’s a hard day,” he told reporters in Jerusalem.
“It’s clear that if Syria wanted to stop these attacks it has the power to do so. We expect them to curtail aggression against Israel,” Mr. Netanyahu said.
The battle shattered the recent lull in the volatile period before Israeli elections in May.
Victims of Tuesday’s ambush on the edge of the eastern sector of the zone belonged to the Paratroop brigade’s reconnaissance company. They were attempting to penetrate north of the zone in the Jabbour hills near the deserted village of Meidoun in the western Bekaa when the guerrillas struck at 12.30 A.M.
Describing the pitched battle as a “heroic epic,” Hizbullah said a “special forces” team had lain in wait for the Israeli patrol. “The resistance surprised the Israelis when they were four meters away and fired at them with machine guns and hand grenades,” a statement from the group said.
The Israeli commanding officer, Major Eitan Balahsan, 30, was killed almost instantly along with two lieutenants when the guerrillas opened fire. The wounded included another officer. One man was in serious condition, three in moderate condition and one slightly hurt.
The guerrillas were able to withdraw under covering mortar fire from their colleagues leaving the Israeli troops “in a state of extreme loss and confusion,” the Hizbullah statement said.
Israeli warplanes fired several missiles into the area while helicopter gunships combed the surrounding wadis and artillery units fired around 200 shells in a bid to hit the retreating fighters.
Other helicopters attempted to land to evacuate the casualties and withdraw the troops but came under heavy ground fire from Hizbullah mortar teams.
The fighting continued for three hours with warplanes returning at dawn to launch more missiles into the area.
The clash resulted in the first Israeli fatalities this year and the highest casualties in south Lebanon since September 1997, when 12 soldiers were killed in a bungled commando raid on Insariyeh.
Last year, 24 Israeli soldiers were killed in the south and scores more were wounded.
Security sources remarked that the clash had occurred in a usually quiet sector of the zone and suggested that the Israeli commandos were after a specific target rather than on a routine search-and-destroy mission.
Observers noted that given the general lack of hostilities in the area, Hizbullah’s ambush was unlikely to have been staged by chance. Instead the guerrillas appeared to have had advance information of an Israeli unit heading north out of the zone.
The ambush was well-planned. The ambush squad would have remained in contact with the mortar teams to the rear to relay the map coordinates pinpointing the approaching patrol, allowing the mortars to be calibrated. It was a testimony to the accuracy of the Hizbullah mortar operators who were dropping rounds very close to their comrades once the shooting began.
Later Tuesday, at a mountain cave less than 5 kilometers from the scene of the battle, the five guerrillas who staged the ambush displayed a blood-stained shirt and M16 rifle they said belonged to one of the dead Israeli officers.
“We expect Israel to retaliate and we’re ready for them. It’s business as usual,” said one of the unidentified fighters, clutching a balaclava in his hand.
In Israel, Avigdor Kahalani, Israel’s Internal Security minister, repeated his view that Lebanon’s infrastructure should be targeted every time an Israeli soldier is killed in the south.
Yossi Beilin, a Labor party MP and leading advocate of a unilateral withdrawal, wrote to Defense Minister Moshe Arens and urged him to pull the troops out of Lebanon.
“I call on you to end the foolish Israeli march and give life to soldiers who may otherwise have to continue to sacrifice their lives on Lebanon’s moloch (child-devouring) altar,” he wrote. with agencies