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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Israelis See Futility in Russian Fight




JERUSALEM -- In a cemetery in Krasnodar in southern Russia, not too far from Chechnya, lie the remains of an army sergeant cut down at the age of 23 by a mortar fired by Islamic guerrillas.


Nikolai Rappaport laid down his life not in Chechnya but in south Lebanon. A Russian immigrant to Israel and a soldier in the Jewish state's army, he was killed in February 1998 in a "security zone" that Israel has come to regard as a quagmire.


But as Russia now talks of creating a similar zone or cordon sanitaire in separatist Chechnya, military experts say two decades of Israeli military involvement in Lebanon hold bitter lessons.


"This is a prescription for endless war that you cannot win. That's our experience," said retired General Avraham Rotem, a former member of the Israeli army general staff and analyst at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies near Tel Aviv.


"Very soon it will be exactly like our place, a low-intensity war with a regular army with tanks and planes and artillery that are useless against guerrillas fighting a dirty war.


"It is the classic place for guerrillas to make your life hell," Rotem said.


Israel first sent troops into Lebanon in 1978 in an operation against Palestinian guerrillas who were attacking and infiltrating its territory from south of the Litani River. The country is now trying to extricate itself.


Prime Minister Ehud Barak, elected in May, has promised to bring the troops home by next July.


Israel set up its present 15-kilometer deep security zone in south Lebanon in 1985 with the declared aim of preventing guerrilla attacks on its northern communities.


It has since found its soldiers, supported by a South Lebanon Army client militia, bogged down in a war of attrition against well-trained, highly-motivated fighters from the Shi'ite Moslem movement Hezbollah. Israeli troops are largely confined to fortified outposts, which, with the convoys that resupply them, are prime targets for mobile guerrillas with intimate knowledge of the terrain, expertise in ambushes and roots in the local community.


Russian troops have advanced deep into Chechnya in pursuit of Islamic rebels Moscow says are hiding in the region.


It says it intends to establish a protective buffer zone on Chechen territory to prevent rebel infiltrations.


"From the military perspective, it is a very effective step," said Brigadier General Shlomo Brom, who has just published a study on Israel's involvement in south Lebanon for the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.


"It's a basic concept of the military to have strength in depth. You need space to prevent infiltration and a security zone gives you space," he said.


But he echoed Rotem's message that a regular army could not defeat indigenous guerrillas. And he said the price for Russia's government each time a soldier is sent home in a coffin might, just as in Israel, eventually prove too high.


"Let's say that on a weekly basis, a monthly basis, you have to notify the public that there are casualties," Rotem said. "They will start to ask why."