Abandoned Hizbollah positions in Lebanon yesterday revealed conclusive evidence that Syria – and almost certainly Iran – provided the anti-tank missiles that have blunted the power of Israel’s once invincible armour.
After one of the fiercest confrontations of the war, Israeli forces took the small town of Ghandouriyeh, east of the southern city of Tyre, on Sunday evening, hours before a ceasefire brokered by the United Nations took effect.
At least 24 Israeli soldiers were killed in the advance on the strategic hilltop town as Hizbollah fighters were pushed back to its outskirts, abandoning many weapons.
The discovery helped to explain the slow progress made by Israeli ground forces in nearly five weeks of a war which Hizbollah last night claimed as “a historic victory.” Israeli political and military leaders are facing mounting criticism over the conduct of the offensive, which was intended to smash the Iranian-backed Shia militia.
Outside one of the town’s two mosques a van was found filled with green casings about 6ft long. The serial numbers identified them as AT-5 Spandrel anti-tank missiles. The wire-guided weapon was developed in Russia but Iran began making a copy in 2000.
Beyond no-man’s land, in the east of the village, was evidence of Syrian-supplied hardware. In a garden next to a junction used as an outpost by Hizbollah lay eight Kornet anti-tank rockets, described by Brig Mickey Edelstein, the commander of the Nahal troops who took Ghandouriyeh, as “some of the best in the world”.
Written underneath a contract number on each casing were the words: “Customer: Ministry of Defence of Syria. Supplier: KBP, Tula, Russia.”
Brig Edelstein said: “If they tell you that Syria knew nothing about this, just look. This is the evidence. Proof, not just talk.”
The discovery of the origin of the weapons proved to the Israelis that their enemy was not a ragged and lightly armed militia but a semi-professional army equipped by Syria and Iran to take on Israel. The weapons require serious training to operate and could be beyond the capabilities of some supposedly regular armies in the Middle East. The Kornet was unveiled by Russia in 1994. It is laser-guided, has a range of three miles and carries a double warhead capable of penetrating the reactive armour on Israeli Merkava tanks. Russia started supplying them to Syria in 1998.
Israeli forces were taken by surprise by the sophistication of the anti-tank weapons they faced. They are believed to have accounted for many of the 116 deaths the army suffered. Dozens of tanks were hit and an unknown number destroyed.
The missiles were also used against infantry, in one case bringing down a house and killing nine soldiers. They played an important part in Hizbollah’s tactics of using a network of concealed positions to set up ambushes for the Israelis as they inched in. Last night, Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbollah leader, said his men had achieved “a strategic, historic victory” over “a confused, cowardly and defea-ted” enemy. He said the militia would not disarm, as Israel and the UN Security Council were demanding. It would be “immoral, incorrect and inappropriate,” he said. “It is the wrong timing on a pyschological and moral level.”
As the militia leader was claiming victory, Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, defended his handling of the crisis and said that the massive air, ground and sea attack had changed the face of the Middle East. But he admitted that the military and political leadership was guilty of “shortcomings”, not least in underestimating the threat from anti-tank weapons.
Critics say that he placed too much faith in the ability of the air force to break the back of Hizbollah and delayed launching a major ground offensive until it was too late.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud Party leader and a rival, said: “There were many failures – failures on identifying the threat, failures in preparing to meet the threat, failures in the management of the war, failures in the management of the home front.”
Last night, President George W. Bush blamed Iran and Syria for fomenting the conflict between Israel and Hizbollah. “We can only imagine how much more dangerous this conflict would be if Iran had the nuclear weapon it seeks,” he said.