It took Israel’s military thinkers about two weeks to declare the systematic destruction of Lebanon’s infrastructure – along with Hizbullah’s launching of hundreds of rockets into Israel – a war. The nearly one million Lebanese civilians fleeing the South and Beirut’s southern suburbs, turned into refugees in their own country, could have told them as much on day one.
So, too, could the casualties of that war: at time of writing, some 950 killed and about 3,225 wounded.
For the first time since Israel withdrew from south Lebanon six years ago following its 18-year occupation, the Jewish state is getting involved once again in Lebanon. And once again, it finds itself caught in the Lebanese quagmire with its plans for a quick campaign going askew.
Indeed, it may well be a war as the Israeli military has declared, but it is a very lopsided conflict, with Israel inflicting collective punishment on the entire Lebanese population for the actions of Hizbullah, a party over which the Lebanese government has absolutely no control.
Initially, Israel believed it could limit its involvement on the Lebanese front to an air campaign, while using heavy artillery on its side of the border to pound Hizbullah positions. Israel also thought it would be a quick offensive, and that the Party of God would capitulate within days. But as an Israeli general later admitted, “Not all wars are won in six days.”
The question the Israeli high command must be asking itself now, almost a month into the war, is whether it can be won at all?
Seeking to limit its military casualties, Israel believed it could conduct its campaign mostly from the air. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert wanted to avoid committing boots on the ground, aware of the political and military consequences of being drawn inside Lebanon anew.
Israel is not about to forget the protracted and costly war in Lebanon that grew out of it’s invasion in 1982. In fact, today’s war is partially a continuation of a conflict that started more than two decades ago. It was that very invasion 24 years ago, dubbed Operation Peace for Galilee, that gave birth to Hizbullah. The Shia organization came to fill the void left by the precipitated departure of the PLO from the South and the Lebanese government’s failure to reclaim the region.
The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 also divided Israeli public opinion as rarely before, tearing at the very fabric of Israeli society. Many questioned the wisdom of the operation, and even within the military establishment there were diverging opinions.
Nonetheless, if the 1982 invasion of Lebanon gave birth to Hizbullah, that same war also produced the Peace Now movement in Israel, adding to the division of opinion.
However, this new war is very different. For the moment, it still has the backing of the majority of Israelis. Prime Minister Olmert has enjoyed their largely unwavering support on his decision to take military action in Lebanon following the kidnapping of two soldiers by Hizbullah . But as casualties begin to mount, that is likely to change.
Olmert knows only too well the history of the last war in Lebanon, a war that nearly ended the illustrious – albeit tumultuous– career of his former boss, Ariel Sharon. At the time serving as defense minister, Sharon found himself accused of dragging Israel into a costly war when he took the fight all the way to Beirut. The prolonged siege of the Lebanese capital and the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps only exacerbated negative domestic and international public opinion.
Indeed, Israel knows the risks of getting dragged into Lebanon. While this may still change, for the moment, the chances of another full-fledged invasion seem unlikely, despite Israel’s shattered hope of a quick victory over Hizbullah. With civilian casualties mounting every day, so too is pressure from the international community for the war to stop.
Israel maintains it wants the Lebanese government to assume control of its destiny, and for the national army to take hold of the Hizbullah-dominated South. However, Israel’s relentless bombing of Lebanon’s infrastructure will only weaken the Lebanese state.
So where is the logic behind the brutal bombardment of Beirut, its suburbs and other cities, ports, airports, roads, bridges, and so forth?
Israel’s plan, it would seem, was to pound Hizbullah into submission – or nearly enough. The intense bombing campaign was meant to weaken it to the point where it would be incapable of resisting the implementation of UN Resolution 1559, which calls for the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon, and allow itself to be disarmed by the Lebanese Army – the only boots that should be on the ground in Lebanon in the first place.
While the continued pounding of Hizbullah positions must have taken its toll on the group, the effect Israel hoped to achieve has largely failed. Unable to achieve the desired effect through its air campaign, Israel found it had to commit infantry troops and armor to the battle. The resistance put up by Hizbullah in fierce fighting in the South – and the casualties it inflicted on the Israeli army – has strengthened the movement, rather than weakening it. Instead, the continued destruction of Lebanon’s infrastructure is weakening the government.
The South has plagued Israel for several decades, as its control passed from the PLO to Hizbullah. Two invasions by Israel – the first in 1978, that brought about the deployment of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, and the second in 1982 – failed to pacify Israel’s northern frontier.
Just as Israel set about to distance the PLO from its northern border in 1982, it is now seeking to do the same with the Lebanese Hizbullah, which has replaced the PLO in southern Lebanon.
In destroying Hizbullah, Israel sought to reverse the group’s victory in May 2000 that forced Israel out of southern Lebanon. That triumph paid much dividend to Hizbullah, both in Lebanon and in the rest of the Arab world where Hizbullah’s fighters were hailed as heroes. Hamas in particular hoped to emulate Hizbullah through it.
Israel’s new war on Hizbullah was undoubtedly partially intended as payback for the 2000 defeat and to discourage hopes within Hamas that they could gain same stature as Hizbullah – something for which the Palestinians in Gaza received a brief apercu following the capture of Corporal Gilad Shalit when Israeli troops re-entered the territory.
The war in southern Lebanon did not turn out as expected for Israel. Resistance put up by Hizbullah appears to have caught the Israelis by surprise. As a result, Israel intensified its bombardment and lowered the bar on its expectations. An initial demand that Hizbullah be completely destroyed is now changed to a request that Hizbullah keep its weapons out of the south. Although Israel originally rejected the deployment of international peacekeepers along the border, it has now made its withdrawal contingent on the presence of such a force.
Meanwhile, various parties are trying to patch together this multinational deterrence force — to facilitate and support a Lebanese army deployment in the South – in a way that satisfies the demands of all parties. However, there is widespread disagreement over its nature and composition. Lebanon will accept a 2,000-strong international peacekeeping force led by UNIFIL; the Israelis, on the other hand, deem the inclusion of “incompetent” UNIFIL as unacceptable, demanding a force of combat units rather than inspectors.
In addition to any international peacekeepers, it appears that the Lebanese army will also be deployed to the South once Israel withdraws. The government has announced plans to send 15,000 troops to the southern border, and has asked its reservists to report for duty by mid-August.
In the aftermath of the hell currently raining down on South Lebanon, the people of the South would certainly welcome the national army. But as in all troop deployment, the honeymoon period between the newly-arrived military in a region and the local inhabitants may be short-lived.
When the Lebanese Army deploys to the South, it had better come prepared to replace Hizbullah in all capacities : that includes setting up free clinics, schools and social centers. Of course, the Lebanese armed forces are not geared to the administration of school and medical dispensaries. This will require the immediate and close cooperation of the Lebanese government to ensure that competent ministries, along with NGOs, pick up the slack where Hizbullah left off. They will only have one chance at getting it done right, because honeymoon periods often expire rather quickly, and people in need tend to have very short memories. A few mistakes by the Lebanese military or government, and the villagers may be clamoring for Hizbullah’s return.