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Israeli soldiers attack 'dithering' leadership

Tim Butcher / London Telegraph | August 22 2006

Israeli reservists demanded a formal inquiry yesterday into the Lebanon war as returning combatants re-counted stories of shocking military incompetence.

One group spoke of how they were sent to war in the choking summer heat without water. They had to grab canteens from the bodies of Hizbollah fighters. They staged protests in several ways. Some signed a petition; others pitched tents outside government buildings in Jerusalem. But their message was clear.

They charged that Ehud Olmert, the prime minister, and his security advisers provided dithering and incoherent leadership and must be held to account. Many of the protesters simply called for the security elite to resign.

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The military is a potent constituency in a country that regards its soldiers with almost sacred respect.

Hundreds of members of the Spearhead Brigade, a reserve unit that fought in south Lebanon during the month-long conflict, signed a petition published in a newspaper that attacked the "cold feet" of their commanders.

"There was one thing we were not and would not be willing to accept," the petition said. "We were unwilling to accept indecisiveness.

"The war's aim, which was not defined clearly, was even changed in the course of the fighting. The indecisiveness manifested itself in inaction, in not carrying out operational plans, and in cancelling all the missions we were given during the fighting.

"This led to prolonged stays in hostile territory, without an operational purpose."

In scenes reminiscent of the first demonstrations that ultimately toppled Israel's leaders after blunders in the 1973 Middle East war, about 100 people, many of them reservists, marched in Jerusalem.

They set up a protest tent in a park near the government office compound. "The government didn't take seriously the lives of our troops," said Zvi Marek, a reserve infantry soldier. Another march was held near Jerusalem in honour of Rafanel Muskal, an Israeli soldier killed in the war. It was led by his father, Moshe, who did not hide his contempt for Mr Olmert's leadership.

"Many parents who lost their sons in the war will join us," he said. "Olmert is being asked to go home without any commissions of inquiry and no PR spins. This demand is taking on a wide scope and it appears the entire nation is with us."

The reservists provide the backbone of the army in wartime. Afterwards, they return to their civilian lives and are able to vent their anger.

The sense of muddle in the Israeli leadership over the war is reflected in the plethora of inquiries being prepared by various government departments. The state ombudsman announced yesterday that he would be holding his own investigation, along with one already announced by the defence ministry.

Mr Olmert is on the verge of announcing yet another, even higher-level inquiry, although there continues to be a debate over its terms of reference and powers of subpoena.

The prime minister defended himself by blaming earlier governments. "We knew for years that there was a great danger, but for some reason we didn't translate that understanding into action, like we just did," he said. "We knew what Iran was doing, what Syria was doing, in arming Hizbollah. We acted as if we didn't know."

Mr Olmert denounced those demanding a full inquiry into Israel's conduct of the war. "I won't be part of this game of self-flagellation," he said.

He spoke after reports that four Israeli soldiers were wounded and up to three Hizbollah killed in a clash in southern Lebanon yesterday. The army said it opened fire in response to a "threatening approach" from fighters.

The clash underscored the fragility of the week-old truce that ended 34 days of fighting. Israel is keeping troops in southern Lebanon until Lebanese soldiers and United Nations peacekeepers take up positions under the UN-brokered truce agreement.

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