2006 Hezbollah cross-border raid
Using rockets fired on several Israeli towns as a diversion, Hezbollah militants crossed from Lebanon into Israel and ambushed two Israeli Army vehicles, killing three soldiers and abducting two other soldiers. Another five soldiers were killed inside Lebanese territory in a failed rescue attempt. Hezbollah demanded the release of Lebanese prisoners held by Israel in exchange for the release of the abducted soldiers. Israel refused and launched a large-scale military campaign across Lebanon in response to the Hezbollah incursion. This marked the start of the 2006 Lebanon War. Two years later, on 16 July 2008, the bodies of the two abducted soldiers were returned to Israel by Hezbollah in exchange for Samir Kuntar and four Hezbollah prisoners.
In 2000 Israel suddenly reversed its policy towards Lebanon and after 18 years of occupation it withdrew from the southern part of the country. Hezbollah considered this a great victory. Hezbollah still had issues with Israel, in addition to purely ideological ones. Radical elements within Hezbollah, led by Intelligence chief Imad Mughniya, in 2000 formed a "Committee for the Elimination of Israel" inside the movement.
According to Hezbollah Israel still occupied Lebanese territory. It did not recognize the "blue line" drawn by the United Nations. Most importantly it claimed the area of the so-called Shebaa farms which was occupied by Israel in 1967 in the war against Syria but according to Lebanon the area had been Lebanese. Later studies conducted by the United Nations has confirmed that the area in fact was Lebanese.
In a landmark prisoner exchange via German mediation in January 2004, 450 Lebanese prisoners held in Israeli jails were exchanged for the bodies of three Israeli soldiers and a captured IDF colonel. The long-time Lebanese prisoner Samir al-Quntar was excluded from the deal. The government of Israel, however, had agreed to a "further arrangement", whereby Israel would release Samir al-Quntar if it was supplied with "tangible information on the fate of captive navigator Ron Arad".
According to Harel and Issacharoff the second phase of the prisoner exchange deal was only a "legal gimmick". Israel was not satisfied with the information supplied by Hezbollah and refused to release al-Quntar. "Cynics may well ask whether it was worth getting entangled in the Second Lebanon War just to keep Kuntar (…) in prison for an extra few years."
The covert war between Hezbollah and Israel was slowly heating up. Hezbollah leader Ghaleb Awali was assassinated in a car bomb attack in the Dahiya in Beirut in July 2004. Israel was the main suspect. As Zvi Bar'el commented; "Awali's killing sends a new message: Israel can get to Hezbollah anywhere in Lebanon". Hezbollah retaliated by letting a sniper in Ayta ash-Sha'b shoot two Israeli soldiers at the Nurit post just across the border.
In January 2005 Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah confirmed that "all options are open" concerning the means to get al-Quntar and the remaining prisoners back. The Lebanese government also demanded that Israel return all Lebanese prisoners and bodies to Lebanon.
A third issue was the alleged systematic violations of Lebanese territory by Israel since its withdrawal in 2000. According to the speaker of the Lebanese parliament, Nabih Berri the Lebanese had violated the Blue Line less than 100 times between 2000 and 2006, while "the number of Israeli violations was 11 782 times, by air, sea and land" during the same time.
On 21 November 2005, Hezbollah guerrillas infiltrated Ghajar in a failed attempt to abduct Israeli soldiers. Four Hezbollah fighters were killed, and in response, Israel launched air strikes and artillery at Hezbollah positions in southern Lebanon. During the brief clash, Hezbollah also launched rockets at towns in northern Israel.
On 28 May 2006, less than two months before the Lebanon War began, Hezbollah fired rockets into northern Israel in response to the killing in Lebanon of Mahmoud al-Majzoub. Israel retaliated by launching air strikes on Hezbollah bases in Lebanon and firing artillery across the border. The fighting was described as the most intense since the Israeli withdrawal in 2000, though it was over quickly due to a UN-sponsored cease fire.
The IDF wanted to avoid all confrontations with Hezbollah but was frustrated by the lack of action on the political level. It knew that Hezbollah was not interested in hitting Israeli civilian targets. It adopted a policy of "zero targets" implying that IDF presence was reduced to a minimum whenever the risk of Hezbollah abduction attempts was deemed to be high. Ironically, during alerts, the "red zones" along the border became off-limit to military personal but were open to civilian traffic. On 8 July, Udi Adam, the head of Northern Command, even took his wife for a drive in a civilian car in one of the red zones.
The head of Northern Command Maj. Gen. Adam warned, only a day before the abduction, in a meeting with Prime Minister Olmert, Defence Minister Peretz Chief-of-Staff Halutz and some generals: “We’re on the verge of another event on the Lebanese border…It’s a stagnant swamp there. If we don’t progress on the Shaba’a Farms issue and the Lebanese prisoners, this story will blow up in our faces”
In the months leading up to 12 July attack, Lt. Col. Ishai Efroni reported seeing increased activity across the fenceline, including more brazen Hezbollah patrols. He had repeatedly seen burden-laden donkeys, which he had believed were being led by innocent farmers, but after the incident suspected were laden with arms and equipment. After the 28 May rocket attack, the colonel, who at 41 had spent much of his career along the northern border, "got the feeling something had changed."
Hezbollah had carved a hollow from the underbrush, just above the Israeli border patrol track. The "camp was stocked with food, water, radios, rifles, antitank missiles and diagrams detailing the insignia and size of Israeli military units."
At around 9:00 a.m. local time (06:00 UTC), on 12 July 2006, Hezbollah initiated diversionary Katyusha rocket and mortar attacks on Israeli military positions and border villages, including Zar'it and Shlomi. Five civilians were wounded
A ground contingent of Hezbollah fighters crossed the border into Israeli territory, taking advantage of a "dead zone" in the border fence not visible from any of the IDF lookout posts, and may have used a wheeled ladder to climb the fence. They hid in a wadi on the Israeli side of the fence, and attacked two Israeli armored Humvees with a combination of pre-positioned explosives and anti-tank missiles as they were patrolling on the Israeli side of the Israel-Lebanon border between the villages of Zar'it and Shtula. The team knocked out the trailing Humvee, killing three soldiers inside, and abducted two soldiers from the first vehicle. Another soldier was severely wounded, another lightly wounded and a third was scratched by shrapnel. The entire incident took no more than 10 minutes.
At the same time, Hezbollah fighters fired on seven army posts, knocking out surveillance cameras and command communications with the convoy. Twenty minutes passed until First Sergeant Ehud Goldwasser, 30, and Staff Sergeant Eldad Regev, 25, were confirmed to be missing from the first vehicle. The Hezbollah fighters then escaped through olive orchards to the Lebanese border village of Aita al-Shaab.
The Hannibal Directive is a secret IDF order stating that abductions of Israeli soldiers must be prevented by all means, including shooting at or shelling a get-away car, thereby risking the lives of the captives. The Hannibal directive was invoked and this triggered an instant aerial surveillance and airstrikes inside Lebanon to limit Hezbollah's ability to move the soldiers it had seized. "If we had found them, we would have hit them, even if it meant killing the soldiers," a senior Israeli official said. Lt. Col. Ishai Efroni, deputy commander of the Baram Brigade, sent a Merkava Mark II tank, an armored personnel carrier and a helicopter in pursuit. Crossing into Lebanon, they headed down a dirt track lined with Lebanese border defenses. However, they veered onto a road near a known Hezbollah outpost along the border. The tank was destroyed by an IED with an estimated 200–300 kilograms of explosives, killing the crew of four. One soldier was killed and two were lightly wounded by mortar fire as they attempted to recover the bodies.
On 2 August, Israeli special forces raided the Dar al-Hikma hospital in Baalbek in the Bekaa valley, believed to be "the place where kidnapped soldiers... were treated after they were abducted". The soldiers were not found at the place. The Lebanese minister Ali Hassan Khalil refers in his memoirs to a conversation he had with Hussein al-Khalil, a senior adviser to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in the beginning of August 2006. al-Khalil told him that the two soldiers both survived the capture but were killed weeks later by Israeli bombardment. There were however no suggestions that Israel deliberately had targeted the two prisoners. According to al-Khalil it was Hezbollah's use of heavy rockets and Israel's response by expanding the area of bombardment that led to the two Israelis' death. The IDF dismissed these claims as "blatant fabrications" and psychological warfare. An examination of the bodies of Goldwasser and Regev later determined that the two reservists were killed during the initial cross-border attack and not in captivity. Goldwasser was killed after a rocket-propelled grenade on their IDF Hummer vehicle injured him in the chest. Regev was shot in the head, possibly while he was trying to escape.
The IDF confirmed the capture of the two Israeli soldiers on 13 July. They were both reservists on their last day of operational duty.
Hezbollah released a statement saying "Implementing our promise to free Arab prisoners in Israeli jails, our strugglers have captured two Israeli soldiers in southern Lebanon." Later on, Hassan Nasrallah declared that "No military operation will return them…[t]he prisoners will not be returned except through one way: indirect negotiations and a trade of prisoners."
The incident prompted the start of the 2006 Lebanon War. Israel responded with airstrikes and artillery shelling of Hezbollah targets, and a naval blockade against Lebanon, followed by a ground invasion. After 34 days of fighting, a cease-fire came into effect. During the war, Israeli forces took four Hezbollah fighters prisoner, and captured the bodies of ten more.
On 6 August the IDF announced one of the Hezbollah participants was captured in a commando operation.
On 27 August 2006, Nasrallah denied in an interview with New TV that the capture of the two soldiers was the cause of the war. It only advanced a long planned war for a few months. But he added: "If there was even a 1 percent chance that the July 11 capturing operation would have led to a war like the one that happened, would you have done it? I would say no, absolutely not, for humanitarian, moral, social, security, military, and political reasons. […] What happened is not an issue of a reaction to a capturing operation… what happened was already planned for. The fact that it happened in July has averted a situation that would have been a lot worse, had the war been launched in October."
Nasrallah stated on 31 October 2006 that indirect talks with Israel on hostage return had begun.
Haaretz reported in March 2007 that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert testified to the Winograd Commission that several meetings regarding Hezbollah were held upon his taking office, and that in response to the likely scenario of soldiers again being abducted, he chose one of several plans of action instead of having to make a snap-judgement if and when such a scenario occurred.
On 29 June 2008, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared the two captives dead. On 16 July 2008 Hezbollah swapped the bodies of Ehud and Eldad for Samir Kuntar, four Hezbollah prisoners captured during the 2006 Lebanon war, and the bodies of 199 killed Palestinian and Lebanese fighters, eight of whom were captured in the 2006 war.
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