Aug 2, 2006 | 19:19 GMT

5 mins read

Lebanon: Israel's Strategic Raid on Baalbek

The morning of Aug. 2 saw the completion of a daring Israel Defense Forces (IDF) raid deep into Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, the heart of Hezbollah operations. Beginning at 10:20 p.m. local time Aug. 1 — three hours before the official end of the Israeli air force's (IAF) self-imposed 48-hour cease-fire — IAF planes struck targets in and around the town of Baalbek, more than 62 miles inside Lebanon. Electrical power was the first to be taken out. IDF commandos, who rely primarily on stealth, reportedly landed from helicopters near the Dar al-Hikmah hospital, supposedly run by Hezbollah. Hezbollah, however, discovered the commandos' movements toward the hospital, resulting in a four-hour firefight that forced Israel to call in either airborne reinforcements or those on alert nearby. As events unfolded, Hezbollah claimed it had trapped Israeli commandos inside the hospital, although it is now unclear whether that was the case or whether the commandos had to fight their way out. IDF has said it killed 10 Hezbollah fighters during the operation, and that Israel lost no troops. Baalbek is one of Hezbollah's most significant strongholds, and any in-town fighting would have quickly drawn nearby supporters and Hezbollah fighters. Thus, the scale of the Israeli raid was not small. IDF commandos have repeatedly demonstrated the ability to operate in large groups. Therefore, given the hostile environment, any raid would have deployed in force. Several aspects of this raid do not add up, however. Local citizens reported seeing dozens of attack helicopters in the skies over Baalbek. Even if the sightings are exaggerated, 10 attack helicopters is one-eighth of IAF's fleet of AH-64 Apache and AH-1 Cobra helicopter gunships. In the midst of a surging ground campaign spread across southern Lebanon, weeks of high-tempo operations and two crashes involving three Apaches, this is an enormous allocation of a highly coveted resource. Something of strategic significance was, or is, going on in Baalbek. IDF reports that five low-level Hezbollah militants were captured and flown back to Israel also seem strange. IAF demonstrated quite clearly its intentions to take out the highest echelons of Hezbollah leadership when it dropped 23 tons of ordnance on a single bunker complex July 19 in an attempt to kill Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. Captured enemy forces are extremely valuable as intelligence assets, but the amount of resources allotted for this operation is well in excess of its achievements. There are some indications that intelligence suggested that senior Hezbollah figure Sheikh Muhammad Yazbek was being treated at the hospital or that it was a major Hezbollah command center. But even taking into account the Qana air raid that killed 54 civilians and the resulting Israeli hesitance to bomb a hospital, the risks taken and resources allocated do not fit. Hezbollah, especially in the south, is decentralized enough that destruction of a command center will not have an appreciable effect in the near term on deployed Hezbollah units' ability to fight — which makes such a rushed and massive allocation of resources all the more strange. Lebanese sources also indicate that illumination rounds — bright flares that hang from small parachutes so they remain in the air between 30 seconds and a minute to give a glimpse of the battlefield at night — were fired. These usually are fired from either artillery or mortars, although attack helicopters also can deploy illumination flares. Each attack helicopter probably carried one or two external fuel tanks to allow it to loiter deep in Lebanese territory. Thus, there would be one or two fewer weapons pylons on which to mount offensive ordnance; an illumination flare dispenser would take the place of one of those rocket pods or anti-tank missiles. Entering this deep into enemy territory, both pilots and ground commanders would want to maximize offensive ordnance. There is no direct indication these were Israeli illumination rounds, but though Hezbollah certainly possesses mortars, illumination rounds would not be its priority for stocking ammunition, given its logistical constraints. Although illumination rounds are only slightly larger and heavier than standard rounds, each one supplied would be one less high-explosive round in the arsenal. Nevertheless, if Hezbollah units did have illumination rounds, firing them would be the perfect way to catch a commando unit out in the open. The product of a previous generation of warfare, illumination rounds have several purposes, even for a force with a robust night-vision capability (they are still carried by both U.S. and Israeli units). They can be used to coordinate attacks between units and also for their traditional purpose — a glance at enemy movements at night. By being timed to burst close to the ground, the flare will continue to burn once it hits the ground — clearly marking a target that might not be apparent from the air. The really telling aspect of the use of illumination rounds, if they indeed are Israeli, is the capability to fire them. Baalbek is well beyond any artillery battery thus far identified on the battlefield, suggesting that IDF mortar platoons are operating in the vicinity. Though part of infantry units, mortars have a heavy logistical tail and their presence traditionally indicates a company- to battalion-size presence. Furthermore, mortars are not often deployed with special forces because the fire support they need must come in the form of close air support, since they are so far behind enemy lines. With such a heavy presence of air assets, it would be very odd if a commando team took on the extra weight of mortars. Ultimately, there is more going on in Baalbek than meets the eye. These are matters of great — and as yet unknown — strategic significance to IDF. Meanwhile, we watch for the continued presence of larger units in and around Baalbek.

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