Israel and Hezbollah - The Lesson

Jerome Richard

Someone once said that it's not what you don't know, but what you think you know that is not true that hurts you.  The Israel-Hezbollah War offers examples of that, and I think the ceasefire will last long enough to see this piece published without becoming completely outdated.

Hezbollah thought that by kidnapping two Israeli soldiers (and killing eight in the process), it could win the release of three Hezbollah prisoners in Israel.  After all, it had worked before.  (The last time was January, 2004 and also involved Israeli soldiers kidnapped from Israeli territory.)  Of the three prisoners whose release was demanded by Hezbollah, the longest held is Samir Kuntar who was part of a 1979 raiding party on the Israeli town of Nahariya.  Kuntar shot and killed a man named Danny Haran, and then turned to Haran's four-year-old daughter Einat and smashed the girl's head in with his rifle butt, killing her as well, but he is a hero to Hezbollah.

It seemed to be a low-risk strategy, but it backfired when the new Israeli government decided that continuing such prisoner swaps only encouraged more kidnappings.  Coming as it did after a similar and still unresolved kidnapping in Gaza exacerbated the situation in Israeli eyes, and the Israeli military reaction in Gaza should have been a warning to Hezbollah. 

But the Israeli bombardment and military push back into Gaza was as much a reaction to the rain of Qassam rockets as it was to the kidnapping of the Israeli soldier.  Ironically, there were reports that a prisoner swap deal was in the works.  The kidnapped Israeli soldier was supposed to be freed and some time later an undetermined number of Palestinian prisoners would be released.  Thus do combatants seek to save face. 

Was the Hezbollah raid timed to support the Gaza kidnappers, as claimed, or was it designed to prevent the deal that was being worked out?  Or, did it have nothing to do with that, but rather timed, as some analysts have speculated, by Iran to divert attention during the Group of Eight ministers meeting that would have taken up the question of Iran's nuclear ambitions.

The Israeli government believed it could deal Hezbollah a devastating blow mainly by air power.  The efficacy of air power is one of those obvious truths military planners think they know for sure.  Both sides tried it in the European theater during World War II, and the U.S. relied on it in Vietnam.  It did have some success in Kosovo.  But what started out as an effort to prevent Hezbollah from taking the captured Israeli soldiers out of the country (Israel bombed the runways at Beirut International airport, but not the terminal or hangers), quickly turned into a campaign to punish Hezbollah and destroy its arsenal of rockets and rocket launchers.  In the process, what the U.S. calls collateral damage, especially to civilians, became unbearable, even taking into account Hezbollah attempts to exaggerate the number of deaths.  (At Qana, Hezbollah claimed 54 deaths; Human Rights Watch counted 28.  Bad enough.) 

It wasn't just faith in air power that disillusioned Israel.  The Iranian trained and armed Hezbollah proved a more staunch foe than Israel thought they would be.  They were also dug in so well that one observer described their defenses in south Lebanon as a veritable Maginot line.  Combined with, or because of a relatively inexperienced Israeli government, including a novice defense minister, the ground campaign when it was finally launched proved inconclusive.

Hezbollah and Israel share responsibility for civilian casualties.  Hezbollah because they hid their fighters and weapons in mosques and private homes, and Israel because they were willing to risk civilian lives to get at those fighters and weapons.  That and the destruction of much Lebanese infrastructure has led to the charge of disproportionality on Israel's part, but what would have been a proportional response? 

Initially, world opinion pretty much sided with Israel as Hezbollah's killing of Israeli soldiers and abduction of two others on what was indisputably Israeli soil was clearly illegal and provocative.  In fact, Hezbollah itself is illegal.  It was very much as if the Mafia had taken over southern Vermont and periodically launched rockets on Massachusetts towns and occasionally raided them.  But Israel pressed its propaganda advantage much too far.  It thought that by wreaking havoc on Lebanon's infrastructure it could get the Lebanese public to blame Hezbollah and finally do something about them.  Instead, it had the predictable effect of turning much of Lebanese and world opinion against Israel.  There are exceptions.  See the Maginot link above, and the talk by Brigitte Gabriel at Duke.

It was interesting that Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia all condemned Hezbollah's attack.  That took most observers by surprise because they thought all Arab countries would stick together against Israel, but it showed that while some people safely removed from harm are indifferent to the threat of a nuclear armed Iran led by a fanatic, in the Middle East Sunni Arab countries are as alarmed as Israel.

This war came just as Israel's new government was getting ready to begin withdrawing from the West Bank, something that will eventually be a necessary part of any peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.  Preventing that may also have been part of Hezbollah's, or Iran's, intention.  They and the militant Palestinian groups are holding out for Israel's destruction.  Meanwhile, rocket barrages by Hezbollah and the Gaza militants have taught Israel a lesson, and the lesson is this:  relinquishing the West Bank will put Jerusalem and Tel Aviv within rocket range.

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Harvard Square Commentary, August 28,2006