Ali Saleh: Destroying the Merkava Myth

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A picture of Ali Saleh in Adchit, south Lebanon. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

By: Mohamed Nazzal

Published Thursday, July 12, 2012

Ali Saleh was laid to rest in the Adchit cemetery in south Lebanon. His grave is no different than all the others, except for his epitaph, which says: “The Merkava Myth Destroyer.”

In the final days of the July 2006 war, Ali Saleh arrived in Wadi al-Hujeir, the now iconic valley in southern Lebanon, to make history. He knew that the Israelis were intent on reaching the Litani river. He realized that they want to take pictures near the water, no longer out of their reach after they had entered the valley.

“We must stop their tanks at any cost,” people heard him say. And, in fact, Saleh did it. He stopped them.

His comrades watched him run from one Kornet (anti-tank missile) grip to another. He used all the missiles he had and began looking for more.

The invaders did not know that all these attacks were coming from one person, moving from tree to tree, from behind one rock to another, rarely missing his target.

A few seconds after each rocket launch, an enemy shell would explode in the same location. But years of battle experience taught him how to avoid them.

Reconnaissance planes flew over Wadi al-Hujeir trying to locate him. His comrades kept asking him to retreat, but he chose to ignore their pleas. The Israeli tanks must be destroyed at any cost. It was his prime directive.

The martyr now has his disciples in the “anti-tank” school. Speaking about his heroic deeds mystifies them, for they are many. Saleh has become their sacred icon.

The Israelis dubbed the Wadi al-Hujeir battle as a war within a war. It completely changed the course of the campaign.

Unit 162 of the invading army faced “nothing but hellfire,” as one participating soldier told Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. He could not believe that he would come out of it alive. “You gaze at death and shake its hand,” he said.

Saleh had shattered the illusions of Israeli paratroopers. They landed in the village of Ghandourieh to secure the tank columns moving through Wadi al-Hujeir and to detect ambushes set up by the resistance.

But neither did the Merkavas arrive nor were the ambushes detected. While Saleh took care of the tanks, his comrades neutralized the paratrooper unit. It was reported that 13 of its members were wounded or killed.

Saleh had fought on several fronts during the 33 days of the war. He was last seen in his village of Adchit, north of the Litani, four days before the “Merkava Massacre” in Wadi al-Hujeir.

The resistance command did not want to lose him. The war could drag on and if the tanks crossed the river, he would be needed on the field. But Saleh could not wait.

He could have ordered some of his personal trainees for this mission. But mistakes were forbidden in this particular battle. “I am all for it. Please,” he insisted to his commanders.

Indeed, it was his. The resistance counted around 15 Merkavas destroyed by Saleh. Bilal (Saleh’s nom de guerre) did not realize that the operation to capture the Israeli soldiers on the morning of 12 July 2006 would be his last.

Today, Saleh’s companions admit that he was the hero of al-Ezzieh battle against an Israeli post before liberation. He was the one who sent the guided missile through the hole in the guards’ barricade. He was one of the most skilled Malotka and Sagger anti-armor missile launchers.

The image of the flying Israeli soldier is still remembered by all those who saw the video. The operation did much damage to the Israelis, due to the sensitivity and strategic importance of the military post.

Everyone knew about it, but no one was told then who was its hero. Only a handful of fighters knew it was Bilal, but kept the secret in their hearts, as usual.

Today, Saleh’s spirit hovers over the hills of Jabal Amel. His name can now be openly shared, and those events attributed to him.

Bilal was involved in many battles. He was wounded three times before liberation. In 1995, he was injured in the arm and leg on the Nabatiyeh front. But his comrade Abul-Fadl’s wounds were more threatening.

They were hit by a shell from an Israeli tank. Saleh’s vendetta against Israeli tanks is old.

He ignored his injury and carried his comrade away from the battle with the help of Abbas Yassine, who was later martyred in another operation.

Years later, in another clash on the same front, he climbed up an Israeli tank, dropped a grenade inside, and pulled away, watching the flames coming out, injuring and killing all its crew.

That was one of the courageous “escapades” remembered by a comrade who had been watching nearby. In this operation, “he was also injured. His hand was broken. He could not bear the cast and hurried back to the front.”

Fourteen years later, another of Saleh’s comrades still cannot comprehend how the latter managed to choke a guard dog. His unit’s was on a mission deep into enemy territory. If the dog had barked, their location would have been disclosed, the mission would fail, and everyone could have gotten killed. He did it and put his hand on the dog’s head saying, “Forgive me, I had to.”

His mother refers interviewers to the village residents to learn about her son. He is not different from other resistance martyrs: serious in his work, humble among people, a good companion, and helpful to the extent of calling himself “the servant.”

He did not earn a high academic degree but was very bright and had “the eyes of an eagle.” He rarely missed a target. “Why can’t we hit the source of fire?” Israelis would surely wonder.

But this did not last for long, he was caught by a smart missile from an MK plane. But he did not die immediately. He fought death and was taken to the hospital with the rest of the injured.

He spent 20 days between life and death. He woke up one day and learned that the war ended with a victory. Saleh could then close his eyes forever.

Following the ceasefire, an Israeli military analyst called the battle of Wadi al-Hujeir, “one of the most important confrontations faced by the [Israeli] army in the last 20 years.”

Saleh became a martyr at 31, leaving behind three children and a pregnant wife. It is said that Hassan Nasrallah cried when he heard the news. His last son, born after he was killed, was named Bilal.

One of his companions was visiting Saleh and his comrades’ graves a few days ago. “We will remember them with every breeze of southern winds. We will remember them whenever a bird sings in the proud trees of Jabal Amel. For thirty-three days we fought and refused to kneel. We won, and in their hearts instilled despair forever...But they never once heard us say ouch,” he said.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


Reading the story of Ali Saleh reminded me of Leonel Rugama, the young Nicaraguan poet who in 1970 held off a battalion of the US-backed dictator Antonio Somoza, in a siege that lasted for several hours. In 1988 I met the mother of this hero, in Nicaragua, and she repeated the story. His companions were killed early in the siege and, in the end, Leonel emerged and was shot down. But he had held out for several hours. Somoza had televised the siege of the house that held them, hoping to demonstrate how he could crush any Sandinista rebellion. Instead, the television showed that one man had held off a whole battalion for many hours. Here is a report on Leonel, in Spanish -

God bless his soul!

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