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ISRAEL: Hezbollah news conference brings truth on botched Lebanon raid

November 7, 2010 |  9:27 pm

Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah held a news conference in August  blaming Israel for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. His evidence — footage from Israeli drones — was dismissed in Israel as a mishmash of unrelated incidents in an attempt to deflect the increasing heat from the U.N. tribunal investigating Hariri's death.

The announcement may not have helped with the tribunal, but Nasrallah's appearance did shed light on an old incident and has forced the Israeli army to finally acknowledge something that has been a bit of an open secret.

In 1997, an Israeli commando operation in south Lebanon was over before it began when an elite force walked into an ambush in Ansariya. Eleven commandos and an army doctor were killed in an ill-fated operation that became known as the "Shayetet disaster," for the "Shayetet 13" naval commando unit, which was also involved in the deadly raid on a Gaza aid flotilla this May.

Army inquiries into the 1997 operation said the force got hit in a random ambush and dismissed as highly unlikely the possibility that troops had been compromised.  But rumors persisted and doubts nagged about the circumstances that wiped out nearly the whole group of highly trained commandos.

The army held its ground, even when Israeli journalist and author Amir Rappaport wrote in 2007 that the operation had been compromised by none other than the army itself. Drones flying repeatedly over the channel the soldiers were to take revealed their route. Images from the Israeli drones were intercepted days in advance and in real time. Other things had gone wrong, and there were murmurs of a double-agent,too.

In those days, only "Sayeret matkal" — another elite unit entrusted with reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering, among other things — used drone encryption. The images taken while preparing for the Ansariya raid could be picked up on household television sets, said media reports. That's changed.

So has Israel's appreciation of Hezbollah's technical capabilities — underestimated at the time, as was the extent of Iranian support in this emerging battlefield. A Jerusalem Post editorial shortly after Nasrallah's  August news conference cautioned against "hubris" in underestimating the enemy.

After the news conference, Israeli Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi ordered a panel of experts to examine the footage shown by Nasrallah. The pictures were authentic. These days, navy commander Eliezer Marom is making the rounds of victims' families, presenting the army's findings and confirming the force was compromised.

Moshe Rodovsky, whose son Gal was killed in the incident, accused the army of a whitewash and said the families had been treated as enemies. He petitioned the court  demanding all the information the army has on the incident, including the details from the four internal committees that investigated the events. The court rejected his request, instructing him to wait for the army to respond to his requests first.

On Sunday, Marom met with Nahshon Tebi, whose son Raz was one of the victims. Four or five days before the operation, IDF drone footage was picked up by Hezbollah or another element; it is highly probable that this revealed the force's route, Marom told the family.

Tebi is still outraged. He wants the then-commanders and investigators who insisted the affair was just bad luck to apologize to him in person — and visit his son's grave — before he can forgive them for misleading the families for so many years. It hurts to learn the truth from the enemy, he told the media.

— Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem