سيث ج. فرانتزمان/جيروسالم بوست: كابتن في الجيش الإسرائيلي يتذكر حرب عام 20016 مع حزب الله ويناقش الحرب المقبلة/Jerusalem Post: A soldier remembers the last war with Hezbollah in 2006 – and discusses the next
A soldier remembers the last war with Hezbollah in 2006 – and discusses the next سيث ج. فرانتزمان/جيروسالم بوست: كابتن في الجيش الإسرائيلي يتذكر حرب عام 20016 مع حزب الله ويناقش الحرب المقبلة Seth J. Frantzman/Jerusalem Post/August 24/2019
Some 13 years ago, the sirens warning of incoming Hezbollah rockets blared across Kiryat Yam and southern suburbs of Haifa. They sent families, many unprepared for the war, into shelters. Today, Kiryat Yam is enjoying a pleasant summer, families relaxing outside on the beach. But everyone knows that one day the rocket sirens could sound again and war may come – not just to areas around Haifa, but to the whole of Israel.
Gabi Grabin, a captain in the reserves, is from Efrat in Gush Etzion and remembers the struggles Israel faced 13 years ago vividly.
“We try to keep our eyes on what they do. I am a company commander and we train every year to be prepared for when we are forced back in [to fight Hezbollah].” In 2006, he was a team leader in an engineering unit of Golani; today he is in the Carmeli Brigade (Hativat Carmeli), a reserve infantry unit.
The 2006 war hangs over Israel today like a distant storm whose clouds have gathered again and threaten to break over the country. Hezbollah’s leadership has warned that their rockets, bolstered by precision guidance and new technology from Iran, can strike all of Israel. Former chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot said earlier this year that Israel struck more than 1,000 Iranian targets in Syria, often to interdict Iranian weapons shipments to Hezbollah. In December last year, Israel launched “Northern Shield,” an operation to clear Hezbollah tunnels from the border. The tunnels stretched into Israel. They had been constructed over many years under the noses of UN observers who were supposed to document these violations of UN Resolution 1701.
Hezbollah isn’t even supposed to be on the border, or an armed state within a state, but it has only grown in power since 2006. Prior to the 2006 war, Hezbollah appeared to be sitting on a wire in Lebanon. Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri had been assassinated in a bombing in 2005 and Lebanese protested against Syria’s occupation of Lebanon. Syrian soldiers left and Hezbollah lost some of its main support.
But Hezbollah was watching Israel and specifically Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. Its guerilla war against Israel in southern Lebanon from the 1980s to 2000 had encouraged Israel under Ehud Barak to leave Lebanon. In 2006, it thought it could continue its war against Israel with minimal consequences and maximum public effect, showcasing how it was “resisting” Israel. This was and is the Hezbollah mantra. It is “defending” Lebanon and resisting what it claims is Israel’s continued control of the Sheb’aa Farms or Mount Dov, an area disputed between Lebanon, Syria and Israel.
The real story is that Hezbollah uses Israel as its excuse to stockpile weapons and to increasingly digest Lebanon, taking over ministries and involving itself in a wide-ranging campaign in Syria in support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Hezbollah has largely profited from that. Now Israel’s concern is that it might turn its attention back to Israel.
GABRIN IS representative of the generation of Israelis who had to contend with Hezbollah in 2006 as young men and are now in their 30s, knowing that another round may take place. He was also one of the last Israelis in Lebanon in 2006, going from room to room in houses and near villages, finding Hezbollah bunkers. He showed bedrooms inside the bunkers to CNN in video broadcasted after the war. Israel demolished the Hezbollah infrastructure before withdrawing.
“I had a very Zionistic education. I joined Golani. My older brother was in the unit and that got me excited to be in the unit.”
It was an interesting time. The Second Intifada was at its height in 2002. Israel had launched Defensive Shield to break the Palestinian suicide terrorism. Grabin saw many operations.
“There were suicide bombers and then the Disengagement during my officers’ course and then in Gaza after Gilad Shalit was kidnapped [on June 25, 2006].”
Grabin enjoyed his training. He saw action in the West Bank and Gaza. In an engineering unit, one is the tip of the spear in combat operations, responsible for dismantling or identifying minefields, breaking barriers and conducting regular infantry operations.
“We felt we were the front of the army where it was needed, in Shechem and then in Gaza after Shalit was kidnapped and we were sent up north,” Grabin recalls. He was being sent wherever the hottest spot was.
On July 12, his unit was in Gaza in the operations dubbed “Summer Rains” after the kidnapping of Shalit. Word came that there had been attacks in the north. Hezbollah had struck at IDF positions near Zarit in the hills overlooking Lebanon.
Shlomi had also been attacked and five civilians injured. Hezbollah’s other prong of attack was an ambush of two Humvees on patrol, killing three soldiers and kidnapping Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. At the time it was thought they were alive, like Shalit; it would be revealed only when their bodies were returned in 2008 that they were killed.
Grabin’s unit heard the news and knew they would be sent north.
“I remember it was unclear as the days went by, there were air raids and it wasn’t clear if the infantry would go in. We were moved up north, planning and preparing.”
Israel had decided on a strong response and IDF chief Dan Halutz and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ordered airstrikes against Hezbollah. It wasn’t until July 19 that the IDF began to cross the border, eventually culminating in the battle of Bint Jbeil from July 24 to August 11.
“We had no doubt that this would happen,” recalls Grabin. His men knew it would be a different kind of war in Lebanon than facing the Palestinians. It was crossing into a different country and meant preparing for days inside Lebanon.
“Preparing for that, people were quiet and dealing with packing their own gear. There is a close comradeship. There is this feeling of being part of something larger nationally, but you have your fears and the worst scenarios go through your mind, especially as a commander and you have an uplifting feeling of what you trained for.”
In the West Bank or Gaza, soldiers would go out at night on raids and be home by the weekend, he notes.
“We were used to that vibe. We knew that once we crossed the border in Lebanon, we could be there for several days or longer. Hezbollah is a different enemy than Hamas, it is big and well-funded by an enemy country like Iran. We knew it would be a different story. They were well trained.”
Underneath the ground, awaiting the IDF, were tunnels and bunkers. Not all of them were known. Hezbollah’s system of bunkers were nicknamed “nature reserves.” They honeycombed areas of southern Lebanon.
“We didn’t know much about the tunnels. We searched and demolished two areas of those tunnels during the ceasefire.”
Later, the IDF would learn just how extensive the tunnels and Hezbollah systems were, and how close they were to the border.
“While we were prepared, there were two smaller operations and each unit came back with casualties. We knew that anyone who crosses the border comes back with casualties, so we had a big operation aimed at Bint Jbail.”
EVERY YEAR on Rememberance Day, Grabin remembers that first night going into Lebanon.
“I remember my night vision goggles and watching the soldiers pass and the feeling of responsibility of this team I’m responsible for and hoping I’ll make the right decisions, hope it goes according to plan and that we can do what we are meant to do.”
The men in their green uniforms are cautious and there is concern about entering a new country aganst an enemy that is waiting. For days, Israel had been pounded by hundreds of Hezbollah rockets, striking fear into places like Kiryat Yam and Kiryat Shemona.
Children were in shelters. Israel’s air force and artillery firing from behind the border had been unable to fully silence the enemy.
Grabin says he still recalls the feelings of “being part of something amazing and crazy and special in the history of this country, and I hope it goes well and we can bring them back safely. That’s the feeling we went in with.”
Less than a kilometer up a mountain, there were mortar shells fired at the soldiers. Behind the lines, the Israeli news has been broadcasting details about the operation. Hezbollah seems to be as aware of the IDF movements as the army.
“It was too open to the public and I think the army learned a bit after on keeping the news further back,” Grabin recalls.
The first night, the soldiers on Grabin’s team got to a building. They were under constant fire, including up to 20 anti-tank missiles fired at their area.
“We all survived. An anti-tank missile could be fired from kilometers away and we were waiting for the following night to go and get to a different place.”
Eventually, they moved deeper into Bint Jbeil.
“We were trying to get into posts where we were not seen and then stop Katyusha rockets being fired into Israel and be able to target Hezbollah terrorists.”
The town had been evacuated by civilians. Israel artillery had caused extensive damage. Pamphlets dropped from the air had warned the Lebanese to leave.
“Many buildings were hit severely. It was a ghost town, Hezbollah had put down infrastructure. So we were looking for Hezbollah command posts or anything with maps and armed personnel. Our unit did encounter them, but not my team during the first two nights.”
Nevertheless, the anti-tank missiles remained a threat. One of the rooms Grabin’s men were staying in was struck by a rocket.
“There were three of us in the room, and we all came out with small scratches from glass and shrapnel. If that missile had been higher in height where it hit, the story would have been different.”
It was not like anything they had seen before. On the third night, a neighboring unit was involved in a difficult battle in which seven soldiers were killed and 30 injured.
“My team was the closest to them and we took part in it and we came in to take out wounded soldiers with paramedics and took out the bodies.”
TO THIS day, when Grabin meets his comrades they speak about this event. It began after four in the morning.
“We heard explosions and gunfire we thought it was aimed at us, and we were moving around the house and getting on the radio to see what is going on but Brigade 51 of Golani, 200 meters, way was under fire and it took time to get approval to go out and help,” he says. “It wasn’t clear where Hezbollah was, and we went over to them, what we saw was crazy. One room was full of injured soldiers, some severely.”
The Golani fighters gave their comrades ammunition. Their friends had been fighting for hours. With heroism, the IDF soldiers were able to kill more than 40 terrorists, but at a difficult cost.
“These soldiers were under fire, many for the first time, and many of the commanders were wounded or killed. We saw them fight and stand up to do what they needed to do without their commanders.”
The wounded had to be evacuated so helicopters could take them to hospital. Over several hot hours, the bodies of the dead were also brought out.
“Taking care of the wounded and carrying the bodies was something that is the story of our war from my team and that is what comes up,” he recalls. “I had a friend who was an officer in the unit who we came in to help and he was killed. I saw his body later – a friend who had been with me in the army. You don’t have time to think about the personal connection, you work automatically, but when you rest, you have time to think that you know these people and how close it is to you.”
Now it seems like a bad dream. But Grabin is still active in the reserves.
“I am training for it again and I will have to do the same thing. I was 23 in 2006 and now I’m 36 and married with two children.”
Israel should not be in a dream regarding the peace on the northern border over the last 13 years.
“The terrorist organization [Hezbollah] is heavily funded and trained more in Syria. It’s not peace. We are in the same situation waiting for the next war to start – not because we are interested in it.
I have to live my life married, kids and job and keep in mind that I will be called up and keep fit and know when we go back in – it’s not if, but when – and do the same things as when I was 23.”
Grabin says being a father changes the calculations of responsibility.
“We [Israelis] don’t live in a neighborhood that enjoys our presence, so we must be willing to pay that heavy price.” This is Israel’s challenge.
“ON A personal note, I run Jewish leadership programs called Kolami, a Jewish Agency pre-military academy for leadership that is aimed toward training young adults to take active parts in Jewish world and a large part of that is preparing for the army,” Grabin says.
“What I try to do is try to connect them to the history of those who fought in this country, even if I just talk about 1948 to 2006 and where we are today, we are part of a chain. Unfortunately, we must be willing to fight and pay the price so our families and childen can live here safely, I would love the situation to be different, but we have to do it. David Ben-Gurion said a war is a terrible thing but if it is forced upon us we must make sure we win.”
One of the issues Israel faces today is preparing for what Hezbollah has prepared in southern Lebanon. In 2006, Grabin’s men were surprised to find the extent of Hezbollah tunnels.
“We went in after the ceasefire to make the most of our time before we had to leave due to UN. These areas were in the bushes and hard to see from the air, you have to go in and we went in searching and one commander touched on some rocks and there was an opening to a tunnel system made from fiber-glass and camoflouged on top.” Underneath was an underground world stretching to just 200 meters from the border.
“We found rockets, expolosives, ammo – and all this underground with a room for food and all this extremely close [to the border], and this was made for attacking Israel, this is the idea.”
Hezbollah was preparing to attack in 2006. Israel had gone in after the July raid and discovered the evidence of Hezbollah’s preparations. “I understood this would happen again, unfortunately.”
So Grabin and his team attempted in 2006 to root out Hezbollah’s tunnels. It blew them up.
“We always prepare for a coming war, so we keep an open mind and try to think of the threats we will meet next time and not necessarily what we met last time.”
Soldiers today are highly motivated he says; the same is true in the reserves.
“I see people in their 30s walking many kilometers and carrying a lot of gear and acting out these scenarios and willing to leave everything behind when they are called on, no matter what their age is and kids and duties, or what they do for a living.” It’s amazing, he says.
Born in 1983, Grabin grew up in Efrat to American parents.