The 33-Day War
Hizbullah's victory, Israel's choice
November 2, 2006
Nov 2, 2006
35 Min read time
Hizbullah's victory, Israel's choice.
The central tragedy of the war that raged for 33 days this summer between Israel and Lebanon was the death of at least 1,000 Lebanese and 39 Israeli civilians and the maiming of many hundreds more. Of course, soldiers also died: Hizbullah killed 117 members of the Israel Defense Forces, and the best estimate is that the IDF killed somewhere between 150 and 170 Hizbullah fighters and 43 Lebanese security-force personnel. Vital national infrastructure was also destroyed, especially in Lebanon, where, according to the UN, Israel destroyed 15,000 homes, 900 businesses, 77 bridges, and 31 utility plants. In Israel, the level of physical destruction was far lower.
All that destruction and suffering—and for what? Two men stood at the center of the confrontation: in Israel, Ehud Olmert, a relatively new prime minister who had never had national-security responsibilities before, and in Lebanon, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah’s secretary-general and a man who, though 15 years Olmert’s junior, had spent almost his entire adulthood perfecting the art of waging asymmetrical warfare against Israel.
Neither of these protagonists craves violence for its own sake. (My study of Hizbullah and the political skills of Nasrallah was published in the April/May 2005 issue of Boston Review.) Each was directing the forces at his command in what he considered to be a rational pursuit of strategic political goals. A careful examination of the course of the war reveals that, at its core, it was about two central issues: reestablishing the credibility of each side’s deterrent power and achieving dominance over the government of Lebanon.
Both sides won the first contest. The ceasefire that went into effect August 14 has proved remarkably robust. Given that no outside force has been in a position to compel compliance, that robustness must reflect the reemergence of an effective system of mutual deterrence.
In the second contest, however, Nasrallah has emerged the clear winner. Indeed, not only did Olmert fail completely in his bid to persuade Beirut to crack down on Hizbullah, but the destructive power that the Israeli air force unleashed upon Lebanon significantly strengthened Hizbullah’s political position.
This outcome should not be surprising. The history of countervalue bombing—the strategic targeting of cities and civilians rather than military sites—tells us that only rarely does it effect sweeping political change. My mother had two miscarriages in London during Hitler’s 1940–41 Blitzkrieg against the city, and numerous others suffered far worse. But neither the Blitz against London nor the Allied bombing of Dresden sapped the defiance of those cities’ defenders. In Japan, the Allies’ repeated firebombings of Tokyo were even more lethal, yet similarly unsuccessful politically. It was only the considerably more shocking and awful events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that finally persuaded the emperor and his people to surrender.
In Israel, however, Olmert and his chief of staff, General Dan Halutz, believed that strategic bombing could turn Lebanon’s government and the majority of its people against Hizbullah. Some reports indicate that Halutz reached this conclusion after noting what he judged to be the U.S. Air Force’s success in Serbia in 1999 and in Afghanistan in 2001. Perhaps, too, Halutz overvalued air power because of his lengthy experience in the air force, where he had been chief of the air staff before becoming the first air-force officer appointed chief of the IDF’s overall staff. And a prime minister and defense minister little versed in strategic leadership may have been easily swayed by the advice of a brainy-sounding senior military officer.
But whatever the reasoning behind Olmert’s decision to launch a broad war against Lebanon, it ended up serving him ill. He failed to bend the Lebanese government to his will. He failed to secure the unconditional release of the two soldiers whose capture by Hizbullah had triggered the war. And in the months since the war’s end, while Nasrallah and his party have been riding high, Olmert and his government have been in a serious slump; controversy over the various tactical and strategic debacles has paralyzed much of the IDF general staff; and Olmert’s primary political project of undertaking a limited unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank lies in tatters.
How did things go so horribly wrong for Olmert? To understand this, we need to go back and trace some of the key events and decisions of July 12, 2006, and the 33 days that followed.
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At around 9 a.m. on July 12, Hizbullah launched two simultaneous operations across Lebanon’s border with Israel. One was the infiltration of a small squad that captured two IDF soldiers from a jeep-borne border-patrol unit, killing three patrol members and wounding two more. Hizbullah’s goal was to exchange the soldiers for Lebanese prisoners held by Israel. Similar prisoner exchanges had been conducted a number of times in recent years. In Gaza, militants from the fringe Popular Resistance Committees had captured another IDF soldier on June 25 with the same goal; he was still held captive.
Hizbullah’s second attack—undertaken as a diversion from the first—was the launching of several rockets from Lebanon toward two other IDF positions on the border. The strategy worked. It took the local IDF commanders half an hour even to learn about the ambush of the jeeps. Once they did, they sent a force of tanks and armored personnel carriers into Lebanon in pursuit of the group that was presumed to be holding the abducted soldiers. Around 11 a.m. a land mine destroyed one of these tanks almost completely, killing its four crew members. It took the IDF many more hours—and one more soldier’s life—to recover the damaged tank and the bodies of the crew members.
Throughout the day Israeli air and naval forces bombed bridges and other choke points along the routes to the north that they thought the abductors might take. At some point that day, too, the Olmert government decided to unleash a far broader bombing campaign. That evening Olmert publicly declared that the cross-border raid was “not a terror attack, but an operation of a sovereign state without any reason or provocation … The Lebanese government, which Hezbollah is part of, is trying to undermine the stability of the region, and the Lebanese government will be responsible for the consequences.”
This was a crucial declaration. Olmert’s language distanced Israel’s actions from Washington’s broader “war on terror” and invoked classic rules of war. (Later, his discourse would shift back toward that of the global “war on terror.”) And Olmert was declaring full-scale war against Lebanon, even though its U.S.-backed prime minister, Fouad Siniora, had taken pains to dissociate his government from Hizbullah’s actions.
That same day Israel’s military leaders spelled out what this decision meant to them. Major General Udi Adam, the head of the IDF’s Northern Command, said, “Once it is inside Lebanon, everything is legitimate—not just southern Lebanon, not just the line of Hezbollah posts.” And Halutz told Israel’s Channel 10, “If the soldiers are not returned, we will turn Lebanon’s clock back 20 years.”
On July 13 Israel bombed Beirut’s Rafiq Hariri International Airport, Lebanese air-force bases in the Beqaa Valley and northern Lebanon, and other targets, killing 44 civilians. (Two Israelis were killed by Hizbullah rockets that day.) On July 14, the IDF bombed Hassan Nasrallah’s home in south Beirut and many civilian targets around the country. On July 14, too, Olmert spelled out three concrete demands for the Beirut government: the unconditional return of the abducted soldiers, the cessation of Hizbullah’s rocket attacks, and the full implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls for the disarming of Hizbullah. In response to Siniora’s increasingly anguished pleas for a ceasefire, Olmert insisted that Israel would agree to a ceasefire only if all three demands were met. Winning Beirut’s full commitment to the disarming of Hizbullah was clearly a central aim of Olmert’s war.
But there was another. Many influential members of the Israeli political right had been arguing for some years that Israel needed to reestablish the credibility of Israeli military deterrence, not only with Hizbullah but throughout the region. They argued that Ehud Barak’s government’s unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 and Ariel Sharon’s decision to pull troops and settlers out of Gaza unilaterally in 2005 had badly damaged this deterrent capability. On and after July 12, these individuals vociferously advocated the destruction of Hizbullah’s military capacity in Lebanon as a lesson to potential foes everywhere. The Olmert government apparently embraced this broader goal. When the American strategic analyst Anthony Cordesman visited Israel later in the war, “restoring the credibility of Israeli deterrence” was one of the five war goals he heard enunciated by an unnamed top official.
Nadav Morag, a former security aide to Ariel Sharon, described this goal succinctly in The Christian Science Monitor on July 20: “The targeting of roads and bridges, power plants, and, in the case of Lebanon, ports and airports, as well as the cutting off of Gaza and Lebanon from the outside world, is … designed to illustrate Israel’s overwhelming military might. It must convince not only Hizbullah and the Palestinian groups that they should abandon their attacks on Israel, but also send a broader regional message that proxy wars against Israel executed by Iran and Syria will no longer be tolerated.”
Morag stressed that Israel needed time to succeed. “Keeping the international community at bay” was crucial, he argued. That job was eagerly taken on by the Bush administration: President Bush, Condoleezza Rice, and other administration officials argued for three long weeks that it would not be “helpful” or “appropriate” to seek an immediate ceasefire. On July 20, another former Sharon security aide (and former Mossad director), Efraim Halevy, told an interviewer, “We’ll have at least another eight days of fighting.”
With the Bush administration (and British Prime Minister Tony Blair) blocking Security Council calls for an immediate ceasefire, the bombing and destruction continued inside Lebanon. They continued inside Israel as well, since the IDF was never able to suppress Hizbullah’s rocketeers.
Hizbullah continued to rain around a hundred rockets a day onto Israel’s northern borderlands and as far south as Haifa. This bombardment had significant political effects. First and foremost, it greatly angered Jewish Israelis, and thus gave the government much stronger popular support for the war. Many Israelis had for a long time seen their country’s earlier military interventions in Lebanon as more or less their Vietnam. In 1982 and again in the late 1990s, large Lebanon-related peace movements grew strong enough to sway official policy: one persuaded Barak to undertake the unilateral pullout from Lebanon in 2000.
In July 2006, however, few Jewish Israelis opposed Olmert’s war. From July 12 through early August, the veteran Peace Now movement remained noticeably split, with many of its leaders and supporters—including such luminaries as the novelists Amos Oz and David Grossmann—expressing continued support for the war. As for the moderate Labor Party, it had been coopted by the government since Olmert first formed it in early May. Labor leader Amir Peretz—Olmert’s defense minister, despite his lack of experience in national-security affairs—was an essential member of the war cabinet.
Hizbullah’s rocketing of northern Israel also gave Olmert an ongoing casus belli with some validity. It can be seen as having prolonged the war—though from its early days Nasrallah was also calling loudly for a rapid, reciprocal, and unconditional ceasefire. Why, then, had he ordered that first provocative raid against Israel on July 12, and why did he continue rocketing Israel even after it was evident that these continuing attacks were prolonging the war and the suffering of Lebanese people?
On August 27, in a lengthy interview with Mariam al-Bassam, the political editor of Lebanon’s liberal New TV station, Nasrallah answered the first of these questions. He denied that the abduction of the IDF soldiers had been particularly provocative, saying that Hizbullah had launched even larger-scale operations against Israel since the Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon in 2000; but those operations had not sparked anything like the furious response of July 12. (Nasrallah saw no need to remind his mainly Lebanese audience that Israel had violated the recognized border between the two countries many hundreds of times since 2000.) He said that it was only in the days after July 12 that Hizbullah learned that the Israelis had already been preparing to launch—with substantial help from the Bush administration—a massive “knockout blow” against Hizbullah in late September or October. It was this attack that Olmert had launched. Nasrallah said that Hizbullah’s 15-person leadership “did not see any risk, even one chance in a hundred, that the abduction operation would lead to a war on this scale.”
In the event, Nasrallah said, Olmert’s actions had proved lucky for Hizbullah, since they reduced the degree of strategic surprise and forced the IDF to fight the big war before the preparations had been completed. There is indeed some evidence that the campaign was undertaken too hastily. Yoram Peri, a seasoned analyst of Israeli military strategy, has written, “This military option was discussed in the cabinet for less than three hours, was not countered by any diplomatic option and was approved in a conceptual void. Moreover, once a path of action was adopted, something went terribly wrong in making and implementing decisions.”
Bassam did not press Nasrallah on why, once the counterattack had started, Hizbullah continued launching almost daily barrages of rockets into Israel. But in numerous public utterances during the war Nasrallah said that Hizbullah would continue to launch rockets against civilian population centers inside Israel so long as Israel did the same in Lebanon. He therefore seemed as anxious as Olmert to reestablish the credibility of his forces’ deterrent power. He also seemed eager to demonstrate the continued existence, discipline, and effectiveness of Hizbullah’s command structure. On July 31, after Kofi Annan called for a 48-hour “humanitarian ceasefire” in response to the IDF’s killing of 28 civilians in Qana, Hizbullah complied nearly completely, though Israel did not. On August 2, the rocketing resumed, and it continued until the August 14 ceasefire went into effect. When it did, the rockets stopped completely, and none have been launched against Israel since.
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Time—and in particular, the timing of the ceasefire—was an important dimension of the war. At first the Lebanese government was the party most eager for a ceasefire. Hizbullah wanted one, too—provided it was unconditional. And Israel and the United States were working hard to block that possibility. Over time, however, Israel’s calculus changed. Olmert and Halutz came to understand that airborne and other standoff weapons could do nothing on their own to suppress Hizbullah’s rockets. (Hizbullah’s anti-ship missiles kept the Israeli navy much farther away from the Lebanese coast than it had been during previous big battles there.) Yehuda Ben-Meir has written that “even by the end of the first week of fighting it became clear that … deploying ground troops to southern Lebanon was inevitable.” That had not been part of Halutz’s plan, nor was it something that Olmert or anybody else in the political echelon was keen to do given the troubled history and tragic memories of earlier ground deployments in Lebanon.
The IDF’s top commanders also understood well by that time that their ground troops were ill prepared to undertake successful offensive operations in Lebanon. As early as July 13, the Maglans, a special-forces unit of the IDF, had tried to enter the village of Maroun al-Ras, one kilometer north of the border. But, as Uzi Mahnaimi wrote in The Sunday Times, they ran into serious trouble:
“We didn’t know what hit us,” said one of the soldiers, who asked to be named only as Gad. “In seconds we had two dead … Evidently they had never heard that an Arab soldier is supposed to run away after a short engagement with the Israelis … We expected a tent and three Kalashnikovs—that was the intelligence we were given. Instead, we found a hydraulic steel door leading to a well-equipped network of tunnels.”
The next morning the Maglans were still pinned down by Hezbollah fighters. The reports of the raid shocked Halutz and Lieutenant General Udi Adam, who sent in reinforcements from the Egoz brigade. Mahnaimi wrote, “Hours of battle ensued before the Maglan and Egoz platoons were able to drag their dead and wounded back to Israel … It was immediately obvious to everyone in Tel Aviv that this was going to be a tougher fight than Halutz had bargained for.” It took the IDF two more attempts, on July 22 and July 26, before it could take even that small village. Meanwhile, on July 21 the IDF announced its first large call-up of ground-force reserves.
In Beirut, Hizbullah’s leaders had been busy in politics as well as military affairs. On July 25, Siniora’s cabinet —including its two Hizbullah members— announced unanimous support for a seven-point plan that called for an immediate ceasefire and included this as point four: “The Lebanese government extends its authority over its territory through its own legitimate armed forces, such that there will be no weapons or authority other than that of the Lebanese state . . . ” The plan called for a prisoner exchange under the auspices of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Israel’s withdrawal to the international border, and the return of the hundreds of thousands of displaced Lebanese to their villages. On July 26, Siniora presented the plan at an international conference in Rome. But the American government, through Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, continued to argue that the time was not right for a ceasefire. (She and Bush still wanted to force Hizbullah to disarm.)
In Israel, the call-up of reserves was encountering difficulties. Uzi Mahnaimi quoted one reserve fighter as saying, “We arrived at our depots only to find that our combat gear had been opened and equipment given to regular soldiers . … The equipment was, of course, never returned.” Once in the field, in Lebanon, this solder recalled, “We had no fresh water as it was too dangerous to ship it to us … I’m ashamed to admit we had to drink water from the canteens of dead Hezbollah, and break into local shops for food.” By July 30, after several indecisive and damaging ground engagements inside Lebanon, the veteran Israeli strategic analyst Zeev Schiff was writing that Rice, “needs military cards, and unfortunately Israel has not succeeded to date in providing her with any. Besides bringing Hezbollah and Lebanon under fire, all of Israel’s military cards at this stage are in the form of two Lebanese villages near the border that have been captured by the IDF.” Meanwhile, the Israeli leadership had been scaling back its war goals. Peretz had once vowed to “break” Hizbullah; now the commanders in the field said that they merely wanted to “cripple” it so that the Lebanese government could come in and disarm it.
Throughout late July and early August Israel’s decision-making became increasingly shaky and riven by disagreements. By August 6 the journalist Aluf Benn was reporting that Olmert and Peretz “were at odds last night over the extent of the Israeli ground offensive in Lebanon. Peretz favors expanding the incursion as far as the Litani River, with the objective of controlling the area from which the short-range rockets are fired at Israel. He announced yesterday that he had instructed the army to do so. Olmert, for his part, is not enthusiastic about the idea; he feels that holding more ground in southern Lebanon will not solve the problem of Hezbollah’s medium- and long-range rockets.” Benn’s colleague Amos Harel wrote, “The rush to reach the Litani is controversial. Some officers fear that inadequately trained reserve units will sustain heavy losses . . . In any case, Israel intends to hold the security zone as a bargaining chip until a multinational force arrives. The bargaining chip, however, could become a burden if the troops remain in Lebanon for any length of time.”
As the debate continued in Israel, the Bush administration finally moved toward the idea of a speedy ceasefire. On August 6, Rice announced that she and her French counterpart had reached agreement on a draft ceasefire resolution, and said she was confident it could be adopted by the Security Council “in the next day or two.” This draft called for Hizbullah to cease its military operations completely and for Israel to cease merely its “offensive military operations.” There was no demand that Israel withdraw from the portions of Lebanon that it occupied. The draft called explicitly for the disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon; and it described a plan whereby a second, follow-up resolution, to be passed at an unstated date, would authorize the deployment in Lebanon of a “UN-mandated force” (which might be a force run by the UN or, as in Afghanistan, by NATO) that would operate under an openly interventionist mandate. The draft called for the unconditional release of the two captured IDF soldiers. But it did not tag that demand as an “operational paragraph,” so it had less than full force. By then the Bush administration, too, was starting to scale back its demands.
Rice’s confidence that her draft would be speedily adopted by the Security Council proved misplaced. Siniora protested that he had not been consulted and that the draft violated the terms of his government’s seven-point plan. Syria protested, too, and numerous Security Council members, including veto-wielders China and Russia, declined to support the U.S.-French draft. Even the French backed away from it.
In Israel, high-level dithering continued over whether there should be a large ground operation, and if so, what kind. It had been no small matter, after all, that on August 5 Peretz had, despite Olmert’s concerns, ordered a ground incursion as far as the Litani. (Peretz probably took some advice in his strategic decision-making from Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, a fellow member of the Labor Party and a career military man who had commanded the northern front during Israel’s first invasion of south Lebanon in 1978.) There were serious divisions among the top brass in the military, too. On August 8 Halutz appointed his deputy, Major General Moshe Kaplinsky, to take command of the northern sector over the head of the sector’s existing commander, Udi Adam.
In New York, diplomats at the United Nations worked hard to find language for a ceasefire resolution that would meet at least some of Siniora’s objections. The Lebanese government had three main negotiating cards: under the principles of sovereignty, its approval would be crucial to the success of any UN peacekeeping force; the Lebanese people were winning global sympathy for their battering by Israel; and Siniora’s government was dominated by representatives of the pro-democracy “March 14” movement that had surged into power just 15 months before. On August 11 at 8 p.m., the Security Council finally, and unanimously, adopted a ceasefire resolution, number 1701.
Resolution 1701 met Siniora’s demands in key respects. It embodied a speedy, single-step approach to the deployment of additional peacekeepers, expanding the existing UN force in Lebanon, UNIFIL, rather than recommending the creation of a whole new force. It specified the Lebanese government’s retention of key powers, including control over entry points into the country. And it called on Israel to “withdraw all of its forces from southern Lebanon in parallel” with the deployment of the Lebanese armed forces and the expanded UNIFIL force. Resolution 1701 still included the language Siniora had objected to earlier, that the “full cessation of hostilities” would be based on “the immediate cessation by Hizbollah of all attacks and the immediate cessation by Israel of all offensive military operations.” It also still called for the disarmament of “all armed groups” in Lebanon. Hizbullah, of course, had already agreed to something close to this when it agreed to point four of Siniora’s seven-point plan.
Although the Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1701 that Friday evening, hostilities still continued. On Saturday, Nasrallah and the Lebanese government separately announced their acceptance of the ceasefire, though Nasrallah said, “When the Israeli aggression stops, then the reaction by the resistance will stop.” Shortly afterward Kofi Annan announced that he had received the agreement of both Lebanon and Israel that the ceasefire would go into effect at 8 a.m. local time on Monday. In Israel Olmert said he “welcomed” the resolution, but added that Israel would not halt its fire until the Israeli government had met to endorse the resolution; and since it was Shabbat, that would not happen for another day. But already, much earlier on that Saturday morning, Israel’s national command authorities had finally launched the big ground incursion they had been threatening for weeks. This offensive tripled the number of IDF ground troops inside Lebanon to 30,000. Deploying both by ground and in large convoys of helicopters, they tried to reach the Litani River at a number of points. The air force provided close air support; but it also hit targets deeper in the Lebanese interior, including power plants in Tyre and Sidon, a highway and several other targets in the far north of the country, and an apartment building in Baalbek in the northern Bekaa Valley.
The last-minute ground incursion soon proved to be a fiasco. Nineteen ground-force soldiers and five members of a helicopter crew perished on the first day, and dozens of soldiers were wounded. (Among those killed was the 20-year-old son of the writer David Grossman, who two days earlier had finally come out publicly for ending the war.)
On Sunday morning, the Israeli cabinet did, as expected, formally accept Resolution 1701. But for the whole of that day, Israel’s air force, navy, and artillery continued to pound Lebanon, including Beirut’s eastern suburbs. Ehud Barak told CNN, “It’s time to do all we can to destroy as much as we can of the infrastructure in the next 12 or 13 hours, and then we’ll see what is next.” Within those last 72 hours of the war, the Israelis also poured some 1.1 million cluster bomblets into south Lebanon. Large numbers remained peppered throughout the country, killing Lebanese children, farmers, and shepherds even after the ceasefire took hold. Hizbullah, meanwhile, was undertaking a smaller-scale grand finale of its own: that Sunday it fired its largest barrage of rockets, more than 250, into northern Israel, reminding Israelis that the government had failed in its goal of destroying Hizbullah’s rocketing capability.
At the designated hour that Monday morning, the battlefields suddenly fell quiet. A few small clashes continued in the south between Hizbullah units and IDF troops. But immediately, throughout the country, hundreds of thousands of villagers displaced from the south started returning in convoys with the encouragement and support of Hizbullah’s efficient social-affairs apparatus. The journeys were complicated by the IDF’s destruction of bridges and other choke points along vital routes, and they were undertaken in clear defiance of an IDF broadcast that villagers should, for the present, stay away from the south. The return was reminiscent of Israel’s withdrawal from the border strip six years earlier. As before, Hizbullah was ready not only with victory banners and songs, but with food, water, and other supplies. Hizbullah also presumably took this opportunity to send new supplies and reinforcements to their fighters, who had evidently remained in the southern region all along. That part of the return operation, however, remained largely invisible. In keeping with Hizbullah’s agreement with the Lebanese government, none of its fighters or supporters traveling south carried weapons openly; and though many southern men wore pieces of military clothing, no full military uniforms were seen.
On August 17, in keeping with Resolution 1701, the Lebanese army sent its first detachments to the south. The IDF’s ground troops had started withdrawing from some of their most exposed positions inside Lebanon as early as the morning of August 15. By August 17, the army claimed it had withdrawn from 50 percent of the areas it had occupied. As it withdrew, it handed those areas over to the overburdened UNIFIL troops.
Resolution 1701 envisioned increasing UNIFIL from 2,000 to 15,000 troops, but it soon became evident that would be a problem. France, which had previously indicated that it would provide the bulk of the force, backed down after expressing concerns about the rules of command and engagement being worked out in New York. Meanwhile, the civilian residents of the south continued to return and rebuild with a very thin cover of protection from the Lebanese army and the UNIFIL. The Lebanese army did not constitute a serious fighting force. It had taken numerous hits from the IDF during the war but never joined the combat on either side. It has never been particularly competent; and ever since early 1984, when it split fatally along sectarian lines, it has remained a politically fragile and operationally stunted formation whose main function has been symbolic.
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If the war was the result of miscalculation on both sides, the costs—as always in war—were higher for the attacker than for the well-prepared defender. If Hizbullah was surprised by the scope and ferocity of the offensive Israel unleashed, it was still able to fall back on excellent contingency plans. Timur Goksel, who worked with UNIFIL for 24 years, including a long stint as its political adviser, has said that Hizbullah had “done incredible staff work, learning the lessons of guerrilla warfare down the ages and carrying out a very deep and accurate analysis of the Israeli army . . . The number one element is that Hizbullah is not afraid of the Israelis. . . . After 18 years fighting Israeli troops, they see them as vulnerable human beings who make mistakes and are afraid like anyone else.”
Hizbullah’s frontline units in Lebanon had mined most of the obvious routes Israel might have hoped to use for a major ground incursion, forcing the IDF’s often top-heavy armor to traverse precarious hillsides. The Hizbullah units were small, agile, knew the topography well, and had studied the IDF’s weapons systems and operating procedures meticulously. Mahnaimi wrote, “Hezbollah appears to have divided a three mile-wide strip along the Israeli-Lebanese border into numerous ‘killing boxes.’ Each box was protected in classic guerrilla fashion with booby-traps, land mines, and even CCTV cameras to watch every step of the advancing Israeli army.” Hizbullah was even able to crack the codes and follow the fast-changing frequencies of Israeli radio communications, using the intelligence thus gained to adapt their operations and establish the credibility of their public media by often allowing them to scoop the IDF’s spokesmen in announcing Israeli casualties. (Hizbullah’s Al-Manar TV station never went off the air, despite the IDF’s best efforts to bomb it.)
Hizbullah’s fighters generally kept their distance from civilians, reducing the chances that their positions would be found out by the IDF. And they placed Katyusha platforms on retractable hydraulic launch pads in orchards so that after firing they could be lowered and once again hidden in the vegetation. Ze’ev Schiff has written, “The farmers received instructions by cell phone regarding the number of rockets to launch and in what direction and range. They were often provided with thermal blankets to cover the position in order to keep [Israeli air force] aircraft from detecting the post-shooting heat signature.”
Many of the IDF infantry and tank units that participated in the chaotic deployment of ground troops into Lebanon on August 12—the day after the ceasefire was agreed to—resented it. Because of the setbacks on the battlefield, many of these units were brought back into Israel and demobilized within days after the ceasefire took hold; and almost immediately they and their families became a focus of strident opposition to Olmert and Peretz. One group of 160 infantry reservists reportedly decided even before they were demobilized that they wanted to join an August 17 demonstration, but their officers delayed their demobilization by a day to prevent them from doing so. One week later, the parents of at least three of the soldiers killed in Lebanon joined the Friday protest.
All this indicated a season of increasingly dire political challenges for Olmert. On August 25, Yedioth Ahronoth published the results of a poll that revealed that “63 percent of Israelis feel that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert failed in managing the war in Lebanon and should resign.” In Lebanon, meanwhile, pollsters reported on August 23 that 72 percent of Lebanese—including clear majorities within all the country’s major sectarian groups—judged that Hizbullah had won the recent war.
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The 33-day war had significant regional and global repercussions that have continued to reverberate in the weeks since August 14. Israel lost its bid to win power over the government of Lebanon. Hizbullah’s political stock rose across the whole Muslim Middle East as well as in Lebanon, where its new political strength has allowed it to begin to subvert the spirit if not the letter of point four of the seven-point plan.
The Bush administration had let down Siniora, and the pro-Western bloc he represented, very badly indeed. Siniora had risen to the premiership atop the wave of anti-Syrian, pro-Western sentiment that fueled Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution in the spring of 2005. But just 15 months later, Washington was working hard to block a ceasefire and—beyond that—rushing emergency shipments of advanced munitions to Israel while the IDF was eviscerating Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure and killing its citizens, including large numbers of those who had supported the Cedar Revolution. Washington’s standing in the Arab world fell even lower than it had been.
There were other repercussions too. Seymour Hersh has written that the Bush administration “was closely involved” in the planning of the IDF’s campaign in Lebanon. He wrote that (unnamed) current and former U.S. officials told him that President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney “were convinced that a successful Israeli Air Force bombing campaign against Hezbollah’s heavily fortified underground . . . complexes in Lebanon could ease Israel’s security concerns and also serve as a prelude to a potential American preëmptive attack to destroy Iran’s nuclear installations, some of which are also buried deep underground.” The Israeli action against Lebanon was seen as an opportunity to field-test the same kind of weapons and tactics that the United States might later use against Iran. Also, if Israel could preemptively destroy Hizbullah’s military capability, then Washington could attack Iran without being deterred by the risk that Iran’s allies in Hizbullah might launch a counterattack against Israel.
If the war was indeed such a field test, the results have likely left the mullahs in Tehran sleeping much more easily. Iranian and Syrian planners were given a good opportunity to study the strengths and weaknesses of U.S.-Israeli tactics and weapons systems. And the prospect of a Hizbullah retaliation against northern Israel remains a significant deterrent for a U.S. attack against Iran.
After August 14, the Lebanese swept swiftly into action to rebuild the infrastructure pulverized by the war. Hizbullah’s decision to organize the large-scale return of the displaced communities to their homes in the south, starting that very morning, proved to be a master stroke, since it flooded the whole of the former combat zone with a population that strongly supported it. (The American strategic analyst Pat Lang noted of this mobilization, “A proof of winning on the battlefield has always been possession of that battlefield when the shooting stops.”) As the displaced people returned, Hizbullah’s experienced and respected construction organization went into action cataloguing people’s losses, organizing engineers and builders to do the clean-up and rebuilding, and handing out stipends to those who had lost property. The Lebanese government ran along behind, trying to compete, but it had low credibility as an effective provider of services, and the Western governments that had promised aid have taken a long time to deliver.
A number of basic strategic and political issues remain to be worked out. As of October 5, Israel had withdrawn its troops from all the recently occupied terrain except an area around the village of Ghajar. On September 22, Nasrallah—who had prudently stayed hidden from Israel’s assassination squads since July 12—made a landmark appearance at a massive rally in south Beirut. The hour-long, widely broadcast speech he gave captivated Arabic-speaking audiences throughout the region. In it, he tied the question of Hizbullah laying down its weapons to the organization’s longstanding demands for political reform in Lebanon: “When we build a strong, capable, and just state that protects Lebanon and the Lebanese, it will be easy to find an honorable solution to the question of the resistance and its weapons. . . . It is not logical for these weapons to remain forever.” He spelled out a reform platform based on the formation of a national unity government (with, presumably, a much stronger presence of Hizbullah and its allies) and the drafting of a fairer, more representative election law. He vowed that the two IDF captives would only be released as part of the long-demanded exchange of prisoners. He told commanders of the newly strengthened UNIFIL that Hizbullah welcomed their presence so long as they kept to the agreed mission of supporting the Lebanese army; but he warned them not to spy on Hizbullah or to try to disarm it, or to try to interfere in Lebanon’s internal affairs at all.
The once burning issue of whether and how Hizbullah’s militia might be dismantled has been shelved for now. The governments contributing troops to the expanded UNIFIL requested and received assurances from the UN that their troops would not be required to disarm Hizbullah by force; and the Lebanese army is certainly not about to do it. There have been some signs of a quiet power struggle within some of Lebanon’s security-related posts. It is likely that the pro-Western figures in these posts, cultivated by the United States and France for the past two years, will be quietly shunted aside.
Inside Israel, the humiliating results of Olmert’s war have almost paralyzed the political system. One of the first political casualties of the war was the “convergence” plan, under which Israel would undertake a limited but unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank. That plan had formed the central plank of Olmert’s election campaign and subsequent government; indeed, it was the very raison d’être of the recently formed Kadima party. But when the Israeli public saw that no wall or fence was high enough to keep out rockets launched by still-angry neighbors, Olmert unceremoniously shelved the convergence plan. Leaders of the pro-settler movement rejoiced. But Israel as a whole was left rudderless, with no plan at all for dealing with the Palestinian issue.
At a broader level, Israel now finds itself at a strategic crossroads. Since the August ceasefire, Israeli strategic analysts have been trying to address the weaknesses in their forces revealed by the Lebanon campaign. Many of them have concluded that Halutz’s decision to rely almost wholly on air power was deeply flawed. Reuven Pedatzur wrote, “The ground forces must be reorganized with an emphasis on increasing their size, quality and special operations units . . . It may be time to consider creating a Special Operations Forces Command or corps. And it is time to return to a training plan that would keep the reservists at full operational capability.” Padetzur made the interesting and plausible claim that the force reconfiguration need not be any more expensive for Israel. But when he referred to “a training plan that would keep the reservists at full operational capability,” he identified a more serious constraint on the force configuration that he recommended, since Israelis may now be less willing than in the past to donate considerable portions of their lives to military service. Some Israeli analysts long ago suggested turning the IDF into a smaller, well-paid, all-volunteer force, just like the U.S. military. That idea became quite popular in a society whose standard of living exceeds that of some Western European nations and where much of the population no longer holds the communalist ideals of early Zionism. Even the former tradition of requiring a month’s reserve service from men between their three years of full-time conscription and their mid-50s had been largely abandoned—until suddenly, this summer, when large numbers of ground-force reserves were called up, and they and their officers suddenly discovered how rusty the IDF’s infantry skills had grown.
The Israelis therefore face a broad choice: will they be content to transform their society back into a kind of Sparta in which the youth-conscription and reserve-service obligations grow, in the service of a seemingly unending war with neighbors to the north and south, and in the heart of the West Bank? Or are they prepared to negotiate with the Palestinians, the Syrians, and the Lebanese the kind of momentous peace agreement that, though it would involve total or near-total withdrawals from Golan and the West Bank, would at least leave the evacuated lands in the hands of a robust nation-state interlocutor who could (as Jordan and Egypt already are) be held accountable for any further cross-border infractions?
It would be great to imagine that wise leadership from the United States or elsewhere in the international community might guide Israelis as they make this serious, identity-defining choice. But I’m not holding my breath for that. Nor, for the moment, does it seem that visionary antiwar Israelis like Uri Avnery, Yossi Beilin, and Naomi Chazan are about to grab the imaginations of their compatriots. (Chazan has noted sadly that “this war has split the peace ranks even more than the second intifada.”)
But the postwar period is a time of great political turmoil, and not only in Israel. Hizbullah’s performance in the war showed all the peoples of the Muslim Middle East that the model of acquiescing with and accommodating Israeli power that their governments and many of their elites had followed for so long is no longer the only way, and perhaps not the best way, to achieve their core interests. The credibility of the United States as a neutral arbiter or even as a sincerely pro-democracy force in the region has suffered because of the decisions the Bush administration made, with considerable support from both parties in Congress, during the war in Lebanon. All this while the erosion of U.S. power continues on a daily basis in Iraq. And the strategic position of Iran—in Iraq and in the Gulf, as well as in Lebanon—has been steadily improving.
Some in the antiwar movement have been warning that the Bush administration is preparing a large, pre-election military strike against Iran. For various reasons—but mainly because I don’t believe that even President Bush and his advisers could be quite that reckless—I do not wholly share this anxiety. But it is clear that the United States and Iran are entering a massive struggle for power in the Middle East. The results of the war in Lebanon will certainly affect that broader struggle ahead.
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November 02, 2006
35 Min read time