I went to South Lebanon looking for Lebanese civilians who witnessed the July War between Israel and Hezbollah and who could, perhaps, clarify some controversial claims. Did Israel bomb indiscriminately? Did Hezbollah use human shields?
Some civilians did testify that Hezbollah used people in their village as human shields. And I found evidence that Israel at least sometimes struck with precision, if not at all times.
Lebanese civilians, though, weren’t the only witnesses to the war. Hezbollah was there, too — although I’m officially blacklisted with the organization and am denied access to interviews.
The Israeli Defense Forces also were there. I found a soldier who spent the entire war in and out of South Lebanon. He was willing to talk to me by phone even though our interview was illegal — he’s still in the army and is not supposed to talk to anyone in the media about what he did and what he saw. He did anyway, though, and he did not say what I thought he would say. The number of people killed in South Lebanon may be more heavily tilted toward Hezbollah fighters than most of us realized.
To preserve his anonymity I can only identify him as “an Israeli soldier in a long-range patrol unit.” So I’ll just call him Eli, which isn’t his name. Our conversation by phone was recorded. Here is the transcript.
MJT: There is a controversy about whether or not Hezbollah was using the civilian population and infrastructure as shields, whether were hiding behind people and apartment buildings and the like.
Eli: Did they use populated areas to fire? It was clear that they did. Except Israel also dispersed flyers ordering all the civilian population of South Lebanon to leave. So it was in those villages after the, I don’t remember the date, except anyone who was in those villages was probably helping Hezbollah fighters.
MJT: Where in Lebanon was your unit?
Eli: We went all around the West. Opposite Metulla there’s all these villages called Hula, Abbasieh, Markaba, Jwayya. It was 15 kilometers in. So we would go in 15 kilometers, mark targets.
MJT: So you were marking targets yourself? What kind of targets were you marking? I was on the border at the end of the war, and I watched a lot of Israeli artillery being fired, but it was impossible to tell what you guys were shooting at.
Eli: I can’t explain exactly what we use, but we use very advanced scopes and thermal scopes and stuff like that so you can see exactly what’s going on in villages at night or during the day or whenever. We could see armed personnel walking around there, carrying big bags. So as long as they’re armed they are targets for us to mark, for Air Force and artillery.
MJT: The reason I ask what kind of targets you were marking is because the majority of people inside Lebanon think the Israelis were firing at civilians deliberately.
Eli: If you ask me what should have been done in the villages in Lebanon during this war, I think Israel wasn’t harsh enough. Now, I’m not right-wing, I’m not…I just think that if we are in a war…it’s like, if you play with fire, people get burned. There’s nothing you can do about it. These whole villages, they were empty, just filled with Hezbollah terrorists. They should have been totally wiped off the map. Except Israel left them standing. Many of our soldiers were killed because of that, so Israel wouldn’t be blamed after the war for war crimes and destroying civilian houses.
When they say that Israeli artillery was aimed at civilian targets, I can tell you a bit about how the artillery works. If I find a target in the middle of a village, like one house that I see that there are armed people going in, and I will aim artillery, heavy artillery, on it. Not Air Force, not like pin-pointed targets. Artillery will dispense rounds 100 meters from that target also. It’s not accurate. Anyway, even if a target is next to it, these houses were empty. No civilians were walking around South Lebanon. I know. I was in their villages. In their houses. Anyone who was there was definitely working for the Hezbollah or working as a Hezbollah fighter.
MJT: So you didn’t see any women? It was mostly men and no children?
Eli: I never saw one woman or any children in Lebanon. I was going in and out for the whole time since the day when the soldiers were kidnapped. We flew from my unit straight to the north in helicopters, and since then we were there until a week after the cease-fire.
MJT: An article was recently published in the Washington Times, and it wasn’t sourced very well, that said…Hezbollah is known for doing charity work in South Lebanon. One of the things that they had supposedly done, according to the article, was build houses for poor people with Katyusha rocket launchers embedded inside the center of the house, walled off on four sides in sealed rooms so the residents didn’t even know they were there. And supposedly when the war started Hezbollah peeled off the roofs and fired rockets from inside the houses. Did you see anything like this?
Eli: I didn’t see any Katyusha rockets being installed inside houses. But I’ve seen stuff…like we went toward this house, we were fired upon from inside the house. We went into the house. We cleared the house. Anyone who was in the house was neutralized. We went down to the basement. And also in the basement everything was neutralized. And we saw a periscope in the basement that was looking up toward the main road.
MJT: A periscope like something they use in a submarine?
Eli: Yeah, a periscope. You know, you can be underground and see above. It was a pipe that had mirrors that were reflecting up. And a small kind of detonator. Our team checked it out. There were 500 kilos of explosives under the road waiting for Israeli tanks. There were really ready. They built these houses for that purpose because they knew this was going to happen some day. They were just waiting for the tanks to roll in.
MJT: Do you have any idea when you found houses that were being used militarily if they were Hezbollah houses per se, or had they taken over other people’s civilian houses?
Eli: I don’t know.
MJT: You couldn’t tell.
Eli: No. But they could take any house they wanted because the whole place was empty. Everyone left. When we were fighting we were fighting from house to house. They would just skip houses, they would go a different house. We would detonate one house, they would fire a few from another house, and skip to yet another house. They would go wherever they want, it was their area in South Lebanon. It’s not like they thought about them as civilian houses.
MJT: What do you know about that went on in South Lebanon that has been under-reported in the media?
Eli: Not so much in South Lebanon, but in Israel. The way the Israeli army and the prime minister and the chief of staff, the chief of military staff, used the war and controlled the war, if you ask me, was wrong.
MJT: In what ways?
Eli: The chief of the military in Israel did not come from the army. He came from the Air Force. He used to be an Air Force Commander. He was not an army grunt. And the first three weeks of the war he tried to really win this war with air strikes, in the South and in the area in Beirut, what do you call it?
MJT: The dahiyeh.
Eli: Yeah, the dahiyeh. The dahiyeh area. He did not use the ground troops as well as he should have. He would send ground troops one kilometer in, they would stay for a few days, and walk out. Only during the last week of the war did the army take up the war. And every time we went in and went out, people got killed.
MJT: Do you think the air war was effective at all? Or should the war have been fought on the ground only?
Eli: Of course it should always be together, air and ground. You can’t win one without the other. You have to place your air strikes exactly where you need them. Just dropping thousands of tons of bombs on that area in Beirut was useless if you ask me.
Because they couldn’t get Nasrallah. He’s planned this out for how many years? I mean, he knew where he was going to go and how to avoid Israeli intelligence in Lebanon. The bottom line is that they should have aimed more air strikes in the area of South Lebanon.
For the first few weeks they called it a mission. They didn’t call it a war. The enemy was firing rockets from inside Lebanon. And Israel went out to stop that enemy. Which is…kind of like a war. It is war. In any war civilian houses get damaged and there’s nothing you can to do stop it. When you play with fire, people get burned.
Israeli troops went into standing villages where they just were ambushed. Our unit was ambushed also once. And I know lots of other units who were ambushed. Standing villages were there. There could have been nothing, we could have rolled into rubble.
MJT: Hezbollah claims they tried to keep their fighters away from civilian areas, that they keep their fighters away from the towns and the villages and more out in the countryside. So, when you say that you were ambushed, were you inside one of the towns when this happened?
Eli: Yes. We were also ambushed in more open areas. They have these small bunkers, they built bunkers and caves and stuff in open areas. They were ready. They had machine guns welded in windows. They were welded in already. They were ready. They were ready for urban warfare. That’s where they killed the most Israeli soldiers, in urban warfare.
In open warfare? They didn’t have much of a chance. It’s in urban warfare where they can skip house to house and leave very large amounts of explosives under asphalt where you can’t even see it.
MJT: So you’re saying that a lot of the damage done in South Lebanon towns was done by Hezbollah themselves, not all of it was by the Israeli Defense Forces?
Eli: I can tell you about the places I’ve been. Some of the places you’ve heard about, like Bint Jbail, I haven’t been there. My unit didn’t go there.
We got to one village one time and the information was that there weren’t going to be very many armed Hezbollah. It was just going to be like a few helpers or spotters. So the whole village was going to be left standing and there was not going to be any problem.
As soon as we got around 500 meters from the village they started firing everything they had at us. From inside the village. So of course Israel retaliated with a few rounds of artillery, some war planes came down on the place. It wasn’t really…a round of artillery won’t bring a house down. It will make a big hole in it. And the airplane, unless it’s a big bomb, it won’t bring a house down. You know, maybe it will make it an unsafe house to live in. So you’ll see big holes in walls, and some tank shells blew holes in walls. Except the only reason why those holes are there is because they were shooting from these villages. They were shooting from within mosques. They were firing Katyushas from behind mosques and stuff.
MJT: Were they also firing from churches?
Eli: I didn’t see any churches. I wasn’t in any Christian villages. Most of the Christian villages, the Israelis detoured around them because they thought they were probably anti-Hezbollah, that Hezbollah would not be in there. Except the Hezbollah, they often dressed up as Israeli soldiers.
MJT: Did you actually see this yourself? Hezbollah wearing Israeli uniforms?
MJT: Really. How many Hezbollah soldiers did you see wearing Israeli uniforms?
Eli: Once they hit us with a few anti-tank missiles. And I saw straight away like six of them.
MJT: Was it just the one time that you saw this?
Eli: I’m not the only one who has seen this happen in Lebanon. There are lots of other people from lots of other units who have seen this. It’s, it’s guerilla warfare.
MJT: Where do you suppose they get the uniforms? Do they make them themselves? Or are they stealing them?
Eli: Well, all of them are probably stolen. When Israel left Lebanon in 2000 they left a ton of army supply stuff.
MJT: They claim that they have their own uniforms.
Eli: Yeah, they have like a kind of a dark khaki colored, like dark American colors. They have camouflage and stuff like that. But they’re also wearing, they’re people walking around towns, with weapons, who aren’t wearing uniforms. They look like civilians. I mean, in every civilian house in Lebanon there is a shotgun. And that’s not because they’re against the IDF or because they’re against Israel, it’s that most people in the small villages, they’re hunters. They hunt for food. But we also saw people walking around with AK-47s and hand guns and stuff. There are definitely Hezbollah people in, in civilian clothes.
MJT: So, okay, what’s the most common appearance for a Hezbollah fighter in South Lebanon during a war? Do most wear civilian clothes? Hezbollah uniforms? Israeli uniforms?
Eli: It changes all the time.
MJT: Hezbollah claims they had some missiles from Iran, specifically the Zelzal missiles, and that they chose not to fire them. I wonder, do you know if they’re lying about that, if the Israelis perhaps took the Zelzal missiles out at the beginning of the war and that they were unable to fire them?
Eli: The greatest bulk of the long-range missiles that they had were destroyed. By the Air Force. This is what I heard, but I don’t really know, it’s not what I do in the army.
MJT: Have you fought in the West Bank or Gaza?
MJT: How much more skilled are Hezbollah than Hamas and Islamic Jihad?
Eli: Much more skilled. Much more skilled. You can’t compare with fighting against Hezbollah and fighting against Palestinians. Hezbollah has had such a long time to get prepared for these attacks. And they were dug in. Everything was planned, and the weapons, the ammunition, everything was accurate, everything. And the mortar rounds they were all fixed, everything, all the mortars were already fixed on targets where they knew the Israelis were going to come through.
With the Palestinians, it’s very amateur with the Palestinian freedom fighters or whatever they call themselves.
MJT: Alright. From where I was during the war, which was the Israeli side, it looked like the Israelis won every engagement with Hezbollah.
Eli: In the end, Israel won every engagement, this is true. Except the problem is winning an engagement against people who are fighting guerilla warfare. You will win, but you will sustain losses, heavy losses. With guerilla warfare you have one or two guys on a mountain hidden in small holes holding an anti-tank missile. And really at the end of the day he’ll shoot the missile at a few soldiers. He’ll maybe kill one or two, I don’t know. Except you won’t be able to find him afterwards. Unless you were looking in exactly the same direction when it was fired, you won’t. That’s the problem with guerilla warfare.
If there was a full-out war, you know, tanks against tanks, combat units against combat units, and everything done out in the open, Israel would definitely, totally defeat and win. Except the problem is guerilla warfare is extremely hard, it’s, I don’t know how to explain it except that it’s stressful because it’s not a real army, it’s not an army, it’s like cells. Fighting against cells that are operated by bigger cells, you don’t know where they could be, it’s not a big army.
MJT: Do you think it would be possible for Israel to defeat Hezbollah completely in a future war? If you killed every Hezbollah fighter they could always recruit more, but that aside, do you think you could eliminate all or most of them? Or would it just take too long because of the nature of the fighting?
Eli: The problem is, if you kill their combat units…which was possible, during the war the Israelis killed 700 to 800 Hezbollah fighters, which is a third of their whole combat fighters. Which is quite a lot of people.
MJT: It is, yeah.
Eli: Except killing them all…I’ve read MEMRI where there are Arab newspapers translated into English. It’s on the Internet. You can read it. Hezbollah said they were bringing in 3,000 to 4,000 Somali fighters.
MJT: I remember reading that. Did you see anybody who looked Somali, like they were from Africa?
MJT: A lot of Lebanese people think this is just Hezbollah propaganda, that it’s not true. And I suspect they’re right. Like you said, Hezbollah is a professional guerilla army, whereas Somali fighters are pretty amateurish, like Hamas or Islamic Jihad.
Eli: Hmm. You can’t compare the Hezbollah fighter to the Israeli soldier. The Israeli soldier is much better trained. He’s much more fit. Better weapons. And they’re trained for much longer. Except fighting guerilla warfare is just much harder than fighting a regular war.
Eli: That’s just it, at the end. And you asked me about getting rid of Hezbollah. Surely getting rid of all the Hezbollah fighters is not the solution. You have to get it from the root. And the root of the Hezbollah is, in the end, it’s the road toward Syria, and from Syria toward Iran. They are the big funders and the people who give Hezbollah the ok. In the end.
MJT: It looks like it’s an unresolvable problem without dealing with Syria and Iran in some way, somehow.
Eli: It’s a matter of time. Because the way I see it, the way I look at the situation now in Lebanon, at the parliament there, that within a few months or a year, I don’t know, the Hezbollah are getting stronger again. And they might push out the Lebanese government. They’ll take over the government there. And they’ll ask the UN peacekeepers to leave. And they will have to leave. And then we’ll have it all over again.
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“They Had Machine Guns Welded in Windows”