METULLA, Israel – Israeli soldiers returning from the war in Lebanon say the army was slow to rescue wounded comrades and suffered from a lack of supplies so dire that they had to drink water from the canteens of dead Hezbollah guerrillas.
"We fought for nothing. We cleared houses that will be reoccupied in no time," said Ilia Marshak, a 22-year-old infantryman who spent a week in Lebanon.
Marshak said his unit was hindered by a lack of information, poor training and untested equipment. In one instance, Israeli troops occupying two houses inadvertently fired at each other because of poor communication between their commanders.
"We almost killed each other," he said. "We shot like blind people. ... We shot sheep and goats."
In a nation mythologized for decisive military victories over Arab foes, the stalemate after a 34-day war in Lebanon has surprised many.
The war was widely seen in Israel as a just response to a July 12 cross-border attack in which Hezbollah gunmen killed three Israeli soldiers and captured two. But the wartime solidarity crumbled after Israel agreed to pull its army from south Lebanon without crushing Hezbollah or rescuing the captured soldiers.
A total of 118 Israeli soldiers were killed in the fighting, and the army was often caught off guard by a well-trained guerrilla force backed by Iran and Syria that used sophisticated weapons and tactics. Soldiers, for instance, complained that Hezbollah fighters sometimes disguised themselves in Israeli uniforms.
Military experts and commentators have criticized the army for relying too heavily on air power and delaying the start of ground action for too long. They say the army underestimated Hezbollah, and that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert set an unrealistic goal by pledging to destroy the guerrilla group.
This week, Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz appointed a former army chief to investigate the military's handling of the war.
Some of the harshest criticism has come from reservists, who form the backbone of the army. Israeli men do three years of mandatory service beginning at age 18, but continue to do reserve duty several weeks a year into their 40s.
Israeli newspapers quoted disgruntled reservists as saying they had no provisions in Lebanon, were sent into battle with outdated or faulty equipment and insufficient supplies, and received little or no training.
"I personally haven't thrown a grenade in 15 years, and I thought I'd get a chance to do so before going north," an unidentified reservist in an elite infantry brigade was quoted as telling the Maariv daily.
Israel's largest paper, Yediot Ahronot, quoted one soldier as saying thirsty troops threw chlorine tablets into filthy water in sheep and cow troughs. Another said his unit took canteens from dead guerrillas.
"When you're thirsty and have to keep fighting, you don't think a lot, and there is no time to feel disgusted," the unidentified soldier was quoted as saying.
The newspaper said helicopters were hindered from delivering food supplies or carrying out rescue operations because commanders feared the aircraft would be shot down. In some cases, soldiers bled to death because they were not rescued in time, Yediot Ahronot said.
The Israeli military said it was aware of the complaints, had tried to address them in the course of the fighting and was still looking into them. It had no comment on specific complaints.
Comrades of the two soldiers captured by Hezbollah sent a petition to the prime minister Thursday accusing the government of abandoning the men.
"We went to reserve duty with the certainty that all of Israel's citizens, and the Israeli government, believe in the same value that every combatant learns from his first day in basic training — you don't leave friends behind," the soldiers wrote. "This is a moral low point. The Israeli government has abandoned two IDF (Israeli Defense Force) combatants that it sent on a mission."
The petition was being circulated Friday; it was unclear how many soldiers had signed it.
While such sentiments aren't shared by all soldiers, even some senior commanders acknowledge the army came up short in Lebanon.
When soldier Gil Ovadia returned home, his commander made no mention of victory in an address to their battalion. Instead, the commander told them the war was over, said they did a good job, and advised that they be prepared to come back soon and fight again.
"We'll be back in Lebanon in a few months, maybe years," Ovadia said.