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Israel's war on Lebanon via Hizbollah

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Dr Marwan Asmar

The writer is director of research and analysis at Writelabs, an Amman-based consultancy.

Israel's last war on Lebanon is changing public perception about the Zionist state that hitherto existed, as an entity living by the sword and achieving regional dominance and compliance because of its military status as a mini-superpower that dictated its will on the rest of the people's and states of the Middle East.

When it started its self-declared war on Lebanon on 12th July, Israel thought it could "teach Hizbollah a lesson it will never forgot" and do so in a very short time. Ten days latter it was ready to call it a day being stopped only by the United States which was fighting its own war on what it called global terrorism. America hoped by prolonging the war, Israel could crush Hizbollah once-and-for-all.

However, the war went on for 34 days with Israel only too glad to accept the United Nations resolution which called for ceasefire. The resolution also, was the subject of much haggling between the United States and France, and whose only continuation caused more death and destruction in Lebanon and added to the fear of Israelis who endured daily rockets on their northern towns, cities, villages and settlements.

It was clear from day one of the Israeli aerial bombardment the Jewish state wanted to flatten Hizbollah from the air causing much damaged to south Beirut, southern Lebanon and some areas of the Bekaa Valley.

But it was also clear such strategy was failing. Hizbollah maintained its fighting capability even 34 days after the war, and as recognized by international experts and Israelis themselves who thought the organization had the stamina and military fire-power with considerable stocks of armory and weapons.

The only thing Israel succeeded in was bombing Lebanese cities, its roads, bridges, petrol stations, power stations and its buildings and flat apartments many of whom were razed to the ground and many made derelict. By the first 10 days 2000 tons on Lebanon 2000 bombs were dropped on Lebanon. Another figure was given on the 17th day of the war with some saying 6,330 tons of tnt being dropped on the country.

Totally unexpected however, was the stiff resistance put up by Hizbollah, a non-state actor that found itself fighting a power that unleashed all of its military power on an adjacent sovereign state, Lebanon, and which had no part in the developing conflict and took the brunt of the devastation.

As Israel started its war, it imposed a land, air and sea blockade and this remained for the duration of the war and beyond�a incursion of international law but little was done about this as the United Nations were haggling about what to do about the stopping of the war on Lebanon.

Israel had once again reinforced the prevailing stereotype that developed in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s which saw Lebanon as its traditional backyard it could invade, butcher and terrorize at will. Lebanon was Israel's punching bag to be used and abused.

But not so this time! Very quickly, the war on Hizbollah proved no easy feat and a strategic miscalculation that lead to dire consequences. By opening a second front on Hizbollah, as Israel is already fighting the Palestinians in Gaza and some areas of the West Bank, it was committing itself to a protracted strategy it was not sure it could sustain for a long time nor win. That was the serious miscalculation of over-rating its own military capability and under-playing the military capability of its opponent. Indeed its own people shortly after the war criticized the Israeli military machine for being far too lax and confident about its winning abilities.

Up till then Israel had been used to quick fixes and short-term conflicts as in the 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1983 wars which lasted for short periods of time. The wars were sharp and shrill with Israel building a reputation for itself as a tough military machine, despite the fact that it nearly lost the 1973 war and had not been for the American military airlift it would have had a tough time in beating its opponent, Egypt, and may have lost the war all together.

And thus flexing its muscles generally became its modus operandi. Their top-notch American military weapons coupled with their own burgeoning indigenous military industry allowed Israeli military planners to stress on developing, innovating and adapting the weapons they already and had virtually assured them of a large degree of military successes. As a result they had been gearing their soldiers, planes, tanks and artillery into an offence strategy of maximum response, based on achieving objectives as quickly as possible.

This is what they had been thinking about when they decided to attack Hizbollah through a maximum bombardment strategy. For them it was one more war of "going in, fleshing out the target, and leaving." But many experts saw such a strategy of massive and violent series of attacks from the air bombing as disproportionate. The bombing was not at specified targets and objects as was claimed by Israel but more like target bombing on a mass scale of south Beirut and the rest of the areas in southern Lebanon.

Such destruction negated the view of smart bombs and precision bombings that was said to characterize modern wars. This conflict was as destructive as any other, sending home the message there is no neat, specific, controlled wars. Like all wars, the last war was very destructive, destroying chunks of infrastructure and creating streams of people scurrying for their lives, killing of civilians, injuries and the displacement of people. Thousands of foreigners, either staying in Lebanon or are on holiday there were quickly evacuated by French, British, Italian and American navy ships.

They were leaving behind their compatriots, the ordinary people of Lebanon, who were making their way up from the south of the country that started soon after the bombings of such towns as Sidon, Tyre, Sour, Nabatiyah, Qana, Maraj Ayoun and Baalbek from the west. From television pictures and reporting it looked like a conflagration of bombing on a helpless country and its people.

In the first week and according to United Nations figures, up to 500,000 started fleeing their homes and moving upwards to safety, moving in stages and staying in different towns in a bid to reach the capital. The figure increased to 1 million at the end of the war most of whom came to camp in Beirut's Sanayeh park and schools and convents, at relatives or and in rented flats for those who can afford it.

The aerial bombardment strategy had not flattened Hizbollah. Ten days into the war Israeli Prime Minister came on television saying his country's airforce destroyed 50 percent of Hizbollah's capability but this was to prove a false and untrue statement and part of a public relations campaign to boost the morale of its soldiers and calm the fears of its people in the north who were being showered with Hizbollah rockets on a daily basis.

But it was also clear Israel's bombardment strategy was not working in destroying Hizbollah and that's why they embarked on a land-war strategy to try to push Hizbollah north of the Litani River around 20 kilometers from the Lebanese-Israeli border. This very soon became its new strategy, many would say a climb-down on its original objectives to free two of its soldiers kidnapped by Hizbollah and to crush the organization.

The ensuing battles were proving very tough for the Israelis, toughness that was to continue till the end of the war. Despite their weapons, tanks, armory and men, starting with few thousands and ending with more than 35,000 soldiers at the end of the war, the Israeli army was stuck in around two to three kilometers inside Lebanese territory and unable to move forward because of the stiff resistance and the fierceness of the battles taking place and concentrated in town-lets just inside the border.

The year 2006 was not 1978 when Israel first invaded Lebanon nor 1982 when its army led by Ariel Sharon established a self-declared buffer zone, occupying the south of the country for the next 18 years and only leaving after a series of bloody noses from the same Hizbollah that it was now fighting. This time there is a strong resistance, it has further built up its military capabilities in the south, is seen as a disciplined fighting force with perception, tactics, the armory and the manpower to deal inflicting blow-after-blow on the enemy.

Israeli troops were not going to rail-road in to the Litani River and beyond because of the new political, military and strategic situation that did not exist before, namely Hizbollah's political and military steadfastness and regional relations, prominently with Iran and Syria. The south was now controlled by Hizbollah with the presence in strategic areas located along the border with Israel, and in the center of the south. Its fighters new their country well and they were ready for a fight.

Even in the land-war, Israel's military downplayed its card. From they start, they were stuck in a military quagmire just few kilometers inside the Lebanese border hampered in little market and hill-top towns like Maaroon Al Raas, Bint Jbail, Itaroon, Ita Al Shaab, Kufr Kella, Sirafa, Al Nabatiya and Al Khayam. These became the resistance front-lines. It was here that Israeli soldiers and their military hardware were taken a battering with deaths and casualties mounting and Mirkeva tanks destroyed. The Israeli advance was being blocked as if Hizbollah fighters were telling them to "move at your own peril if you can."

Some of these towns were viciously and totally destroyed by Israeli warplanes and tanks when Zionist soldiers were unable to conquer them and move forward. The steadfastness in these towns was showing these were new times and new battles that came to last from four or five days till 10 and 20 days. Now, it was the Israeli bravado that was being tested and losing out.

In Maroon Al Raas, on the edge of the border, the battle for the town lasted for four days. After heavy fighting the Israelis said they took the hill town, then they lost it, then they took it again, but in the end they were seen withdrawing back to their side of the border, which they denied, euphemistically, calling the pull-back as tactical redeployment. They were regrouping evidently to fight elsewhere and try their luck elsewhere.

Unable to occupy Maroon Raas, they concentrated on Bint Jbail. After much fighting that lasted for seven tough days, the Israeli elite units gave up, withdrawing under heavy fire. By their own admission Israeli soldiers had to carry their dead and injured under heavy fire and had to use their tanks to ferry them back to helicopters to be buried and treated in Israel.

Through media reports Israeli soldiers latter described the battles of Bint Jbail as "hell on earth" and the fact that the resistance fighters were professional and used clever tactics to fight, certainly much better than anything they have been used to with the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. But what they failed to say that there, the Palestinians are under occupation and stripped of any meaningful armory whereas in Lebanon, they are an invading force in an unchartered territory and terrain.

Ita Al Shaab, just inside the Lebanese side of the border, was another hill-top town where fighting was intense and carried on effectively till the end of the war. Ita Shaab can be seen as the place were the conflict started for it was here that the two Israeli soldiers were abducted. But like Bint Jbail, it too put up stiff resistance, and fighting continued for most of the war. Ita Al Shaab will definitely go down in the history books.

The whole of the south was up-in-arms during the war, experiencing mini-revolutions while the world watched. Marj Ayoun, Nabatiyah, Kufr Kala Al Taybeh and Jabal Al Tufah were among the many areas that were targeted but areas where resistance was tough. Although Israel played the sectarian card unwilling to touch Christian areas in a bid to divide and rule, towns like Marj Ayoun were not spared the bombings and in turn resisted.

But Israeli anger was shown time and especially when they were not able to control these places and move forward as specified in the land war strategy they put forward. And as their soldiers were forced back and withdrawal the different Lebanese town-lets were subjected to massive bombardment. Bint Jbail was bombed for two hours continuously beyond recognition, displaying the sheer callousness of the Israelis and their wanton destruction of their military machine.

Angry and disturbed with their inability to control and occupy Israeli soldiers nevertheless wanted to send a message to the people of these border towns and villages that they will not be safe if they harbored Hizbollah fighters, but most of the civilians had left by then, and the only people around were the fighters, who would leave once the fighting was over.

It was houses, buildings and amenities that were being destroyed and these were the sole property of civilians and used by ordinary people who streamed back to pick up the pieces and put their lives together once the war was over.

Estimated damage of Lebanese infrastructure was put at $2 billion and as the war ended, it became easy to see why through more television satellites which had been transmitting the war live. Despite Israel's insistence that the war was against Hizbollah, this was no limited war, it was a war for the uprooting of whole areas, with towns and cities taken apart, buildings demolished and flats, homes and houses unfit to live in, debris was everywhere.

But Israel was paying for its misdeeds as well. This time, and to the surprise of everyone, the ordinary people of Lebanon, people of the region and their governments, to the international community and Israelis themselves, the war was proving tough with well thought out strategies, tactics, and military perspectives never before thought and seen.

From day one, Hizbollah leaders said "we are ready for war", their unexpected armories in Katyasha weapons, their method of attack, their tactics and their professionalism was vouched for not only by experts, military leaders, and foreign leaders but by Israeli soldiers in the field who said that they had not expected to find such levels of professionalism.

Lebanese cities were being bombed�up to 2000 tons of bombs were dropped on them in the first week, and 3000 air raids, euphemistically called sorties, over 1500 targets including the land war. But all these hadn't prevented Hizbollah from reaching Israel.

The war had very quickly introduced new military equations and doctrines which Israel had not seen nor prepared for. The element of surprise was in the hands of the resistance.

Israeli politicians and military strategists had not believed it at first and sought to play down its intensity. What was becoming increasingly clear was Israel for the first time in its history was becoming vulnerable to missiles from the sky. This was a first time occasion sustained on a daily basis over a period of 34 days not stop.

Whereas it military doctrine and strategy in the past decades centered on "strategic depth" using the geographical areas of the West Bank, Golan Heights and even Gaza as areas for its security, Israel's war on Lebanese territory, was proving such military concept as outdated, racist because of its occupation and colonial connotations and not useful as a first line of defense.

And strategic depth is neither morally nor ethically right in this context because it continued to harp on the necessity of occupation, linkage and dependency.

Strategic depth was proving useless in this war for the whole of the Israeli north was becoming hostage to a barrage of rockets fired from different areas of the south of Lebanon. The intensity was so strong, unexpected and with a strong element of surprise that some suggested that headlines should go like this: "Israel under attack".

For the first time Israeli cities towns, villages and settlements became under attacks from the air and the daily barrage of rockets was between 80, 100, 150, 160, 180, 220 and even 300.

By the 12th day into the war Israel's Defence Minister Amir Paretz reported that 2200 rockets landed on Israel's north including Nahariya, Natanya, Haifa, Tiberias, Nazareth, Safad, Aflouh, Bissan and Maarj Ibn Amer (both considered to be in the strategic depth of the 1948 Arab areas of Israel).

By the end of 34 days, around 4000 rockets had landed on Israel, a first time record, in the 57-year Arab-Israeli conflict. Many Israeli settlements were hit for the first time including Kufr Youfal, Maeim Barouch, Al Muglah, Carmiel and Kirayat Shamona. Up to 1000 rockets landed on this settlement which lead to many of the settlers streaming out of their houses which in the end was abandoned by virtually everyone, a first time development in Israel's history.

The war was costing Israel $200 million daily, but its leaders, or those that are in the White House were determined it should go on. And unfettered by the cost which is no doubt to be siphoned off from American tax payers money, the war battered the Israeli economy for a whole month as 2 million people were told to stay indoors.

Experts said that up to half a million Israelis where in the direct range of incoming missiles. However the most important commercial center to be hit on a daily basis was Haifa, Israel's second largest city after Tel Aviv. With a population of 270,000, the city is home to Israel's petro-chemical industry with a major oil refinery there.

The city went into a virtual standstill as its population kept going in and out of bunkers as sirens went off through out the days in the city with people having very little appetite for work. One Israeli, Moshe, was reported by a BBC website to have gone in and out of his bunker 17 times in one day because of sirens. Because of this reports that many of the factories in Haifa ceased to function was widely believed simply because there was no available manpower as it was suggested more than 8000 Israelis left their homes and moved further down south.

Israel and Israelis would best remember this war for its psychology which started from day 2 when Hizbollah rockets had maimed the military boat that missiled the Hizbollah headquarters in the southern district of Beirut. That boat was seen by satellite pictures as quietly being toed to Israel.

The fact that no more was said about it, the incident that sparked off the 1 month war suggests that Israeli planners were still fathoming what had happened. But this was only the beginning of the psychological shocks for the second was the Israeli strikes on Israel's strategic depth.

While Haifa was always the common denominator to be reached, Hizbollah hit the town of Afoulah, 10 kilometers south of Haifa through its Khibar 1 rocket which had a 100 kilograms of tnt warhead which suggested more devastation on Israelis who had always thought they are tucked away from troubles in the Middle East.

Indeed Hizbollah's Secretary General Sheikh Hassan NasserAllah said we are now at a point of striking beyond Haifa, and everyone was waiting for missile strikes on Tel Aviv and stayed watching the television sets.

This did not happen, but Hizbollah was trying to create the impression that they will, and they are on the verge of doing so. They were trying to create parallelism, and a strategic equality with Israel, conveying the message "if you continue to hit our cities, towns and villages we will hit yours."

But it was a controlled parallelism confined to the almost exclusive use of katyusha rockets rather than other Hizbollah long-term missiles which experts argued they possessed and were willing to use. There was an element of calculation in how much would be used and which targets would be picked.
And there was a lot of psychology in Hizbollah actions. The barrage of rockets made sure of that. The furthest the rockets reached were near Bissan and Marj Bin Aamer, near Jenin in the north of the West Bank and those settlements in the Jordan Valley showing that it was now incoming rockets that were reaching Israeli depth and that Israel is no longer capable of protecting itself.

The last war has in advertently established new parameters. While Israel may still be the strong man in the region, the issue is now for how long? Israel's military showmanship has been badly dented by a non-state actor like Hizbollah, and if this is presently the case, many are arguing that imagine what the scenario would like like if a fully-fledged state in the region armed to its teeth decide take on Israel, after all, this is what happened previously in 1967 and more importantly in 1973.

It is this that should now occupy the mind of Israeli politicians and military strategists. They started a war of their own choosing, but such a conflict opened up a can of worms for them, issues related to state power, militarization and distinct brands of nationalisms which some regional states may well consider of ways of contemplating.

And Israelis are already angry with the outcome of the war, calling it a major unnecessary failure, but Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert struck back telling the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee how could this be considered a failure be if half of Lebanon is destroyed?


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