Last Saturday at dusk, the huge transport helicopters began landing at a field somewhere in northern Israel. The dozens of Blackhawk choppers were organized in one row, their engines working, clouds of dust rising from the ground and painted red by the setting sun's rays.
The nearby area where troops were gathered looked like a central bus station. Hundreds of regular and reserve paratroopers applied black, brown, and green camouflage face paint on each other, while sharing macabre jokes and exchanging friendly slaps. Then they were divided into groups and checked their equipment.
Load supervisors walked around, made records and checked dog tags – the atmosphere was almost celebratory.
"This time, we'll show them," I was told by Benny, a reserve officer I've known from the first Lebanon War. Others, mostly reservists, thought we missed the train. We should have done this at the outset of the fighting.
"Now it's too little, too late," one fighter told me.
Largest airborne operation in IDF history
This was supposed to be the largest airborne operation in IDF history. A force comprising regular and reserve paratroopers was slated to land and deploy deep in southern Lebanon's central sector. The mission: Considerable minimization of short-range rocket fire. Thousands of those Katyusha rockets were fired from villages east of Tyre.
We took off an hour and a half behind schedule. "We're terribly late," I'm told by Omer, a young paratroop career officer who left his university studies and asked to join his friends. "The moon will be rising in four minutes and it will expose us." He's worried.
Paratroopers in helicopter (Photo: Ron Ben-Yishai)
About 40 fighters are sitting on the helicopter's benches and floor, along with missiles and huge quantities of weapons and ammunition. It's not a good idea to even think about what will happen if the chopper is hit. People sweat as a result of the heat, excitement, and fear. Below us we see the bright lights of northern communities. We cross the border and continue to float above dark Lebanese territory.
A full, round and large moon appears at the window and lights up the faces of those inside the chopper. The first group of helicopters landed successfully. Now is our turn. We're glued to each other as we run out. Momentarily I spot two other choppers that already unloaded the fighters taking off above us.
The sound of an explosion and a loud noise cause me to look up. I see the pink flame of the missile's engine chasing the helicopter that took off. The chopper is hit about 300 hundred meters (roughly 1,000 feet) away from us but continues to falter, engulfed in flame, for another 500 meters or so, before leaning on its side and collapsing on the ground.
The forces freeze. It's obvious Hizbullah identified the landing zone and prepared an ambush. The commander, Hagai Mordechai, decided there's no point in sending a force to the crash zone in order to look for survivors or bodies. There's also no point in attacking the site where the missile was fired from. The entire area is surrounded by forces from a reserve division and any movement can lead to friendly fire incidents.
Precious 24 hours lost
Time is running out. We still have ahead of us a long journey in a mountainous, steep terrain before we reach our destination. We must get there and hide before daylight, so we don't become sitting ducks. The Air Force commander calls Hagai using the encrypted phone and asks for first-hand details regarding the hit chopper. His voice is quiet and stable, but he sounds worried. Several minutes later Hagai is ordered by headquarters to stop. The chopper landings will be halted for fear of more missiles, and the forces that already landed won't be moving forward to their targets. Instead, they're ordered to hide at dominating positions near the landing zone and wait for the next night.
Hagai heads paratroopers (Photo: Ron Ben Yishai)
It's hard to see Hagai's facial expression, but every fighter knows that casualties are no reason to stop the operation, particularly since such incident was to be expected. Hagai tries to explain that he accumulated enough force, more than 200 fighters, which allows him to carry out the mission. The reserve division also has significant forces in the area, but the officers at headquarters insist: Don't move. The sudden change in the mission, which is militarily unjustified, turns us into an immobile target. The decision to stop the landings can be understood, but someone has to investigate why all of a sudden the operation was frozen and the forces lost precious 24 hours.
The next morning, we suddenly hear a loud noise through the ongoing artillery fire, followed by a distant explosion. A reserve anti-tank force destroyed a rocket launcher. Soon after, an armored Hizbullah vehicle is destroyed in another village.
Hagai talks to headquarters quietly and tries to convince them to allow us to move to the original destination tonight. The permission is given. Hagai issues orders ahead of the night. The day passes by slowly.
Stench of Hizbullah bodies
We prepare to move as night falls, meet other forces that were hiding in the area like us, while being careful not to be subjected to friendly fire. Such huge mass of forces in a relatively small area is an invitation for disaster. We still have enough water and tuna for another 24 hours, but the water is running out quickly. Yet it looks like we're back in business, the forces under Hagai's command start their journey to the target, and then, suddenly, we stop.
Soldier resting (Photo: Ron Ben-Yishai)
"What happened? I ask him. I see Hagai's face hardening under the moonlight. "The mission has been cancelled," he said. "Headquarters informed me that the prime minister himself issued an order forbidding us from moving forward because the ceasefire will go into effect in a few hours."
The journey back to Israel is difficult and slow. We pass near a few villages. Some of them have been ruined to a larger degree than others. Here and there we see candlelight at windows. A powerful stench of bodies comes from bunkers and buildings where Hizbullah men were hiding, before apparently being hurt by our airpower and artillery fire.
At dawn, we cross back into Israel, symbolically enough, exactly at the same spot where the two reserve troops were abducted by Hizbullah members a month and three days ago.
The Prime Minister's Spokesman's response: "According to the government decision Sunday, Israel accepted the ceasefire called for Monday at 8 in the morning. At no stage before that has the prime minister directed the military echelon to hold its fire. If the operation was indeed halted, it was done due to military considerations rather than government considerations."