Battle of Maroun al-Ras
|Battle of Maroun al-Ras|
|Part of 2006 Lebanon War|
|Israel Defense Forces||Hezbollah|
Units from Air Force and Artillery
|17 fighters (Hezbollah claim)|
|Casualties and losses|
|8 killed||13 killed (official Israeli account)
7 (according to Hezbollah)
1 Amal commander killed
|No civilian casualties reported|
The Battle of Maroun al-Ras was a battle of the 2006 Lebanon War that took place in Maroun ar-Ras, a small village in southern Lebanon on the border with Israel, and Jall ad-Dayr, a nearby Hizbullah stronghold. This battle was the first serious ground battle in the 2006 Lebanon war. It was fought to a large extent by elite forces on both sides and would have huge consequences for the future of the war. Although Israeli forces captured most of the town, they did not fully secure it.
The clash at the "Nature Reserve"
There are two different Israeli versions about how the battle of Maroun ar-Ras actually started. According to Gal Hirsch, commander of the 91st Division, a unit of 18 soldiers from the elite Maglan Special Forces were sent out to occupy a Hezbollah position on mount Jall ad-Dayr, from which the nearby Israeli village of Avivim had been shelled, as well as the small nearby village of Maroun ar-Ras. If that version is true it would seem that the IDF had grossly underestimated Hezbollah strength. According to the IDF General Command however, the Maglan unit was on a reconnaissance mission and under strict orders to avoid Hezbollah strongholds or Shiite villages. According to this version the Maglan unit walked into the Hezbollah stronghold by mistake.
After a steep climb up the hill on July 19, the 18-man squad from the Israeli Maglan Special Forces finally reached the summit next to the village. The Israeli soldiers realized that they were surrounded by Hezbollah positions. The squad was instructed to make contact during daylight and a violent close range clash ensued, St.-Sgt. Yonatan Hadasi has been hit from close range and St.-Sgt. Yotam Gilboa, the squad paramedic rushed to his rescue and has also been hit from close range. Both were instantly killed and additional nine were injured. The commanding officer and some of the remaining soldiers froze out of shock. Maj. Amit Ze'evi, who took part in the mission, took over command, slapping several soldiers into action. According to the Israeli account, the soldiers then charged and attacked Hezbollah positions, killing 5 Hezbollah militants.
Most of the Maglan soldiers had no idea what a Hezbollah Nature Reserve was. Even the IDF officers who ordered the operation thought that it consisted "at most of a cave or bunker". Paratrooper commander Hagai Mordechai said after the war that it was the Nature Reserves that surprised him most in the early battles. "Nature Reserves" became IDF soldiers' slang during the war for well-fortified Hezbollah strongholds, situated outside built-up areas in Southern Lebanon. They had well-protected firing positions for Katyusha rockets, as well as bunkers and tunnels to protect the fighters, usually elite Special Force from the Nasr Unit (Arabic: وحدة نصر, Wahdat Nasr). It was surrounded by booby traps, mines and had CCTV surveillance. Uzi Mahnaimi labeled them "killing boxes". Apparently the IDF Staff tried to do away with the term for fear that the IDF would be perceived to cause some ecological damage. The Nature Reserve at Maroun ar-Ras had before the withdrawal in 2000 been an Israeli outpost, code-named "Shaked".
"We didn’t know what hit us," said one of the Maglan soldiers. "In seconds we had two dead." "We expected a tent and three Kalashnikovs — that was the intelligence we were given. Instead, we found a hydraulic steel door leading to a well-equipped network of tunnels."
The battle of Maroun al-Ras
The news about the clash at the Nature Reserve came as a shock to the Israeli General Command. The IDF paratroopers' Recon Company was quickly sent as reinforcements to Maroun al-Ras to help evacuate the entangled Maglan unit. On the night of the 19th of July, the paratroopers moved towards the village accompanied by 2 tanks of the 7th regiment. On the morning of the 20th, the 2 tanks had reached the outskirts of the village and were ambushed by anti tank missiles. The paratroopers suppressed the village, helping the tanks to evacuate, and sent a team of 6 to enter a house to secure the parameter from above. As they entered the house the paratroopers found it to have big windows, which endangerd them, thus deciced to move on to another house. As the commander of the team left the house he was caught by heavy fire, including missiles on the house. The house was burning, and so the commander and another soldier tried to enter the house from the southern part, to meet the entangled soldiers inside, yet were fired upon again. At this time, a Hezbollah fighter threw a grenade on the two soldiers, yet the commander took the grenade and threw it back, killing the Hezbollah fighter. The two soldiers couldn't make it into the burning house, so they reached another house where the major was stationed. Several Hezbollah fighters charged into the house, but were repelled and killed from effective fire fired on them from the house. After five hours, the trapped soldiers could make it outside the burning house, covered by artillery and helicopters, and reached the main house, whilst capturing a Hezbollah radio transmitter. The forces listened to Hezbollah fighters, and acquired knowledge of their whereabouts. The soldiers used sniper fire on the remaining Hezbollah fighters, and in the evening the Hezbollah commander ordered a withdrawal from the village. None of the paratroopers were injured during this battle.
On the same morning of July 20, the commander of the elite Egoz Special Forces unit, Lieutenant Colonel Mordechai Kahana, was summoned to his brigade officer and was ordered to help extricate the supposedly trapped paratroopers. Egoz was created in 1995 specifically for the purpose of fighting Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon. Kahana at first rejected the notion of advancing through open terrain in broad daylight. "This is a suicide mission," he claimed but in the end he complied.
By the end of the day "thousands" of Israeli soldiers were operating in South Lebanon, apparently mainly in and around Maroun ar-Ras. The Israeli soldiers were "searching for tunnels... often dug under homes in villages". An Egoz company attacked a suspicious vehicle, apparently transporting wounded Hezbollah fighters that were injured during the battle with Sayeret Zanchanim, to nearby town Bint Jbeil. The unit was then noticed by Hezbollah units in Bint Jbeil, which attacked the Israelis with a volley of Sagger missiles, killing a senior officer, Major Benjamin Hillman, and two soldiers. Another Egoz company where sent in to evacuate the dead and the wounded but were targeted by another volley of Sagger missiles leading to further casualties. Meanwhile, the third company got into a firefight inside the village where another soldier was killed. In total five Egoz soldiers died and six where wounded that day in the fighting. It was the bloodiest day in the unit's history.
One of the Egoz casualties, Yonatan Vlasyuk, was missing and could not be found until the next day.
By evening the paratroopers succeeded in taking control of most of the village. Israeli artillery fired around 8,000 shells on the Nature Reserve and the village on the first two days of battle. Several Hezbollah fighters were killed. The paratroopers discovered a very sophisticated listening post capable of listening on IDF communications, even in the West Bank. News that Maroun al-Ras had been occupied, however, seemed premature. The fighting would continue for several more days. A tank driver from the 7th Brigade told The Jerusalem Post that "many of our tanks took hits, mainly from Sagger rockets; none of the tanks were destroyed but quite a few of our friends were wounded." The IDF claimed that Abu Jaafar, the commander of Hezbollah's central sector, was killed in an exchange of fire during the battle, which was denied by Hezbollah. Crooke and Perry also deny this claim, writing that Abu Jaafar made public comments after the end of the war. However the village commander of the Amal Movement, Hani Alawiya (Abu Ali), was killed in the clashes in Maroun ar-Ras on July 20. On July 21, Muhammad Dimashq, a Hezbollah squad commander in the Maroun al-Ras area, was killed in action. According to Hezbollah, he was shot in the head by an Israeli sniper. His body was seized by the IDF and taken to Israel. Khalid Bazzi, the commander of the Hezbollah forces in the Bint Jbeil area personally took part in the battle of Maroun al-Ras. At one point in the battle contact was lost with him at it was feared that he had been killed. He later surfaced unharmed but was killed some days later during an air raid in Bint Jbeil. On the eighth day of the battle the IDF suffered its last fatality in the battle, a paratrooper who was killed by a missile.
There are no reports of significant fighting at Maroun al-Ras in the last two weeks of the war. It is unclear whether Israeli forces eventually succeeded in taking control of the whole village. According to Farquhar the village was still "unsecured" by August 5. Israel claims that it overheard a general order to retreat towards Bint Jbeil. Crooke and Perry also maintain that Maroun al-Ras was "never fully taken". BBC reported a week after the ceasefire came into effect that Israel only occupied the southern side of the village while Hezbollah maintained a "discreet presence" in the other parts of the village. There are no clear indications that the IDF actually took control over the Jall ad-Dayr ("Shaked") Nature Reserve or whether rockets were continued to be fired from this position. According to an account later published in Israel Hayom three soldiers from the Maglan unit eventually stormed the Hezbollah position, killing five Hezbollah fighters and destroying the 'Nature Reserve' with explosives. This version is not confirmed by other sources.
According to the "official Israeli account of the battle" 13 Hezbollah fighters were killed in Maroun ar-Ras. When the head of the IDF Northern Command Gal Hirsch heard the news he was delighted and informed the Head of Northern Command Adam. Adam was under heavy pressure to present a "victory" and demanded proof in the form of pictures of the dead Hezbollah fighters. The commanders in the field were reluctant to comply, claiming that this would endanger Israeli soldiers. This was probably justified, but shows just how precarious Israeli control of the village was at the time. At the Ministry of Defense there was a widespread suspicion that the claim of 13 killed Hezbollah fighters was just "bragging".
Chief of Staff Dan Halutz ordered all the 13 bodies to be brought to Israel to be shown to the media. Udi Adam and the paratroopers characterized this as a "waste of time". In the end only six bodies of Hezbollah fighters were carried to Israel on stretchers. These six bodies, out of a total of about ten during the entire war (the remainder apparently from the fighting around Bint Jbeil) were later returned to Lebanon in the prisoner exchanges in 2007 and 2008. Other semi-official Israeli estimates claim that 26 Hezbollah fighters died in the battle. According to Hezbollah officials Maroun al-Ras was only defended by 17 fighters, seven of whom died in the battle.
Hirsch had ordered the military police in Israel to prepare prisoner facilities for 100 prisoners. None were taken in the battle of Maroun al-Ras.
The battle of Maroun al-Ras became a watershed in the Lebanon war. After realizing that the standing army was not enough to defeat Hezbollah, Israel finally decided on July 22 to call in the reserves. This decision increased the options available to Israel and would eventually lead to the decision at the end of July to commence ground operations. Operation Change of Direction 8 was initiated on July 31 with the aim of taking control of a 6- to 8-kilometer-wide "security zone" along the entire Lebanese border, an aim that was never realized. On August 9 Israel launched Operation Changing Direction 11, which aimed at occupying South Lebanon up to the Litani river.
At Maroun al-Ras IDF experienced for the first time sustained Hezbollah attacks with anti-tank rockets and guided missiles and especially the deadly effect of the "swarming" technique. As a member of Egoz later told: "What can you do when a missile is being fired at you other than say your prayers?" IDF Northern command banned the introduction of vehicles to Lebanon, with exception of tanks and heavy APCs, such as the Achzarit. This would have a detrimental effect on IDF's ability to supply its troops later in the war. The battle at Maroun ar-Ras, however, showed that not even these heavy armored vehicles were invulnerable to Hezbollah missiles.
The most painful lesson that the IDF learnt at Maroun al-Ras was the deadly effectiveness of Hezbollah "Nature Reserves". After the battle the head of IDF Northern Command Maj. Gen. Udi Adam forbade any further attacks on Nature Reserves. "A nature reserve can swallow an entire battalion," he said. This prohibition would remain in force throughout the war and would to a large extent determine the outcome of the war. The well-entrenched Nature Reserves were not vulnerable to artillery or air bombardment. The decision not to attack these positions, sometimes only hundreds of meters from the Israeli border, made it possible for Hezbollah to continue firing rockets over Northern Israel throughout the war. Most of the short-range Katyusha rockets fired on Israel during the war were fired from Nature Reserves. Human Rights Watch concluded in a report that "Hezbollah stored most of its rockets in bunkers and weapon storage facilities located in uninhabited fields and valleys" and "fired the vast majority of its rockets from pre-prepared positions outside villages."
A report on the war written by the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee sharply criticized the decision not to attack Nature Reserves and claimed that it "played into Hezbollah's hands".
Israeli IDF fatalities
Israel officially confirmed that eight soldiers were killed in the battle:
July 19, 2006
- St.-Sgt. Yonatan Hadasi (Maglan), 21, of Kibbutz Merhavia
- St.-Sgt. Yotam Gilboa (Maglan), 21, of Kibbutz Maoz Haim
July 20, 2006
- Maj. Benjamin (Benji) Hillman (Egoz), 27, of Maccabim Re'ut
- St.-Sgt. Refanael Muskal (Egoz), 21, of Mazkeret Batya
- St.-Sgt. Nadav Baeloha (Egoz), 21, of Karmiel
- St.-Sgt. Liran Saadia (Egoz), 21, of Kiryat Shmona
- St.-Sgt. Yonatan (Sergei) Vlasyuk (Egoz), 21, of Kibbutz Lahav
July 26, 2006
Hezbollah reported losing 7 fighters in the battle. The official Israeli account stated that 13 Hezbollah fighters were counted killed. General Udi Adam claimed that Hezbollah's death toll was in fact higher, but could not be fully counted because he had ordered his soldiers not to risk their lives to recover enemy dead. An Israeli officer who took part in the battle estimated that at least 30 Hezbollah fighters were killed.
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