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Translation From Hebrew: The Canyon of Death

The Canyon of Death


Yediot Aharonot August 16, 2006
Interviews with soldiers by Nava Tzuriel and Eitan Glickman
translated by Adam Keller - Gush Shalom

"The commanders told us that the infantry had already cleared the area, and then the tanks started getting hit, tank after tank. Why did they send us into this hell? Why did they send us into the missile trap? We already though we were going to go home smiling and with the flags flying - and instead, we go to our fellows' funerals."

Yesterday, a bit after 10.00 am, the tank soldiers of the 401th Brigade left Lebanon in a long and dusty convoy, and at long last they could breath freely. They did not have many such moments since Saturday noon, the bitter time when they tried to cross Wadi Saluki in the Western Sector of South Lebanon, only to find that they had blundered into a well-prepared Hizbullah anti-tank ambush. Yesterday they could at last embrace each other, call their parents, ask for the condition of their wounded comrades - but the hard questions did not stop for a moment. "Why did they send us into that hell?" one of the soldiers asked angrily. "Why did they send us directly into the missile trap? Now everybody sees that the last days of the fighting were not sufficiently prepared".

It was one of the hardest and most tragic battles which the IDF had known in this war. Nine tanks were hit by missiles, there in the Saluki. 12 soldiers were killed, a few hours after the UN security Council unanimously adopted a resolution calling for a cease-fire in Lebanon. Already one day after the battle there were IDF officers charging that entering the wadi (canyon) was hurried and unnecessary, that the tanks should not have been sent into the steep-banked wadi and made into movable targets, and that the area was not cleared of terrorists by the IDF.

The blows which the fighters suffered on the field were painful - but perhaps the most painful blow came later, when the soldiers heard the words of several senior officers. "This was a Battle of Awareness against the Hizbullah" an unnamed senior officer told Yediot Aharonot two days ago [August 14]. "We have proven that this legend, as if a regular army cannot fight guerillas, is not true".

As much as the fighters are now angry at the insufficient preparation and the mistakes in the conduct of the battle, they feel deeply insulted by those who sent them to the field of slaughter and who now tell them that the battle was not really necessary - that it was just a kind of "Battle of Awareness", a kind of show designed to demonstrate to Hizbullah who is the Boss.

This is not the first blow which the IDF gets in Wadi Saluki.Lebanon veterans remember well earlier tough fights in this small stream below the village of Randuriya. The worst mishap in the Saluki, up to the present, was in August 1997. Soldiers of the Golani Brigade had set a routine ambush when news came of six Hizbullah men having infiltrated the area. IDF artillery opened fire a kilometre away, but failed to knock out the infiltrators. Due to the intensity of the shelling, a fierce brush fire broke out, and four of the Israeli soldiers were trapped and burned to death.

The Armoured Corps soldiers were notified of the present Saluki action several days before being sent in, and were told that infantry soldiers of the Nahal brigade would go in well in advance of them to clear out the terrorists and ensure a smooth passage to tanks.

The situation on the ground, however, turned out to be very different. Hizbullah squads had prepared their positions in the villages above the wadi long in advance, and when the tanks arrived they were subjected to a relentless attack. "We thought we were going into a lightly-defended, easily-passed area, and we found ourselves in a fiery hell" says with pain one of the fighters. "The Nahal went away, we got the order to go in with the tanks and we got anti-tank fire from all directions. Nobody believed we could possibly get into such a trap. It is a total fiasco. Why did nobody check to make sure there were no anti-tank squads in the upper ridges, before sending us to be totally exposed to fire from these ridges?".

"And why was it needed to go to this whole operation to start with, when everybody knew that within two or three days there would be a cease-fire?" wonders one of the junior commanders. "Did nobody worry about anti-tank fire? Did the higher command not think about it? Everything was foggy, unclear. When we went in we knew that there will be a battle, that there will be terrorists, we were prepared for being attacked, but going into battle was slow and clumsy. All this time the other side was preparing and organizing, with high-grade missiles. I don't know why the people whose mission was to prepare for this kind of situation just did not do their job, they just did not do what was needed to prevent this damn fiasco".

The forces which went out of Lebanon heard of the mutual recriminations between Armour and Infantry regarding the responsibility for the grave results of the Battle of the Saluki. "The fighting was hard" says one of them "but the lack of coordination between the forces on the ground, between what we were told was going to happen and what actually happened was the biggest mishap in the last days of the Lebanon fighting.

"It is as if nobody had prepared" accuses another fighter. "There was no clearing out of the terrorists by the Nahal Brigade infantry. I don't understand why they did not let the Nahal finish their job before sending us in. We thought that we were entering the Saluki after the area had been cleaned up, but then the terrorists came out of the houses and hiding places and started shooting at us as if we were in a shooting range. Nobody really had any idea how big the terrorist forces were".

"When the first tank was hit, we knew that the nightmare had begun" says a fighter. "You should understand that the first missile which hits is not the really dangerous missile. The ones which come afterwards are the dangerous ones - and there always follow four or five after the first. It is awesome! You just think :where can I hide?' and fear the unknown. It was hellfire, you have no idea when it will get to you. You just pray that it will end at last, that the volley will end and that you will hear on the radio that everybody is OK. But unfortunately, that is not what we heard when the shooting ended, no sir!"

"This was supposed to be the final accord of the war" says one of the soldiers. "But it was much worse than the battles in the beginning of the war. They told us that this will be just the final accord, that the cease-fire is on the way, but the tanks were hit and we lost precious fighters".

More than causing them to wonder, the talking of "a Battle of Awareness" is insulting for the fighters which left Lebanon yesterday. "To say that the fighting there was conducted in order to gain an achievement in awareness is an insult" says a junior officer of the armoured brigade. "Soldiers' parents call me since early this morning, asking me about this expression. What can I say to bereaved parents, when they hear that their son died for 'an achievement in awareness'? I feel that whoever spoke this way had hurt me personally, me and my soldiers. To say 'an achievement in awareness' after a battle from which you emerge unscathed - OK. But this was a very bitter end-of-the-war battle in which 12 soldiers got killed and ten tanks got hit by Hizbullah fire. This is an achievement in awareness? This is a failure. We just did not know what was going on?".

"I can't connect this statement about the achievement in awareness to anything which actually happened" says a senior officer. "They all the time demanded of us to produce photos of dead terrorists, terrorists with hands raised. To form the consciousness of the Israeli public. I think that first you have to kill the enemy, only then can you start taking photos of their dead bodies. And still, there is some importance from the awareness point of view to entering deep into enemy territory. To show them that we are no longer hesitating near the border, as were in the first 24 days, but passing the Saluki and moving forward. You prove to the enemy that you posses the ability to enter his territory".

What is clear now is that, while there could be some debate about the awareness, the pain of the fighters is unmistakable. "It is very sad that exactly at the end of the war, when everything is already ready to a cease-fire, we get such grave blows" says a fighter on the day after leaving Lebanon. "It should not have happened. We feel that this battle just should not have happened. Of course, we are soldiers and we fulfil every mission placed upon us, but when we look at what happened there and what surprises were waiting for us, we just were fucked. We were caught unprepared".

There are very hard feelings among the soldiers" admits a junior officer who took part in the battle. "Just in the end, when everything, the whole war, was about finished, that's when we got the big blow. Somebody should investigate what happened there in the Saluki. We already thought that we were going home smiling, with flags flying - and here we go to comrades' funerals."

A senior officer of the brigade responds: "It was a super-important mission!"

About the initial decision: "Can anybody point a better point where the Saluki can be crossed? There are several passes, all of them narrow. The one we chose was the correct one. The risk is obvious, when you get to the ground there is a chance that you will be shot at. War is a dangerous game.

Clearing the area: "The Nahal Brigade was sent to take over the area and they did that. But you can't achieve a hundred per cent clearance. You have limitations when you use a combined armour/infantry force. When there is infantry in the area, the tanks can't shoot freely.

The action: We sent in a primary force of 12 tanks, to cross the wadi. We blazed a trail and bypassed the bridge crossing the Saluki. Then we planned to send in 30 tanks because we knew that this is an inferior terrain and therefore we did not want to put big forces at risk. But the two tanks which arrived in the village of Randuriya found their route blocked by the collapse of buildings which were bombed by the air force.

The battle: While the tanks were searching for another way an explosive charge went off behind them. The road collapsed and then the first tank was hit by a missile. The entire first crew, of Company Commander Bernstein, was killed. The tank behind Bernstein tried to move back and take a new position. Effi Dafri, Commander of the 9th Battalion, was already wounded before this stage; now his deputy Shimi Batat was wounded as well. After that, the third tank was also hit, and the advance stopped.

The failure: Sending in the tanks was vital, full stop. When the infantry arrives they need a day or two to take control of the area. They have no possibility to penetrate to a depth of ten kilometres. Only the tanks can break forward. Already on the same night another battalion arrived, blazed another trail and penetrated forward with its tanks. The officers who make all this criticism don't really know what had happened there. Of 12 tanks only 2 were hit. The losses are grave but this should be placed in proportion to the fact that the mission was defined as super-important.

The withdrawal: I was surprised to get the order to withdraw from this area just a short time after we reached Randuria, at the cease-fire. I think that the fighting should have been continued westward so as to deepen the achievement.

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