As a shaky cease-fire goes into effect in Lebanon, Israel’s generals and politicians are furiously blaming one another for what many Israelis are calling a major political and military defeat.
After 31 days of fighting, Israel has nothing to show but world-wide condemnation (the US excepted), scores of dead soldiers and civilians, burned forests, displaced civilians and the expenditure of billions of dollars.
A decade ago, Israelis used to speak of their “Lebanese curse.” They were referring to their disastrous interventions there that brought them nothing but heavy casualties, billions in wasted dollars, ruined political and military careers and the historic shame of the massacres at Shatilla and Sabra, and the destruction of Beirut.
The old curse struck again. The fierce resistance of some 3,000 Hezbullah fighters to the world’s fourth most powerful military machine electrified the Muslim world, and horrified Israelis, who had foolishly dismissed Hezbullah as “a bunch of terrorists.”
According to Israeli media, Israel had apparently been planning the Lebanon invasion for the past three years and conducted a mock invasion of Lebanon only a month ago. President George Bush had strongly urged Israel’s PM Ehud Olmert to attack Hezbullah as the first stage in a US-British-Israeli campaign against Syria and Iran.
The new invasion of southern Lebanon was expected to be swift and painless. A week’s bombing would erase Hezbullah, promised Israel’s chief of staff, Dan Halutz, a sort of Israeli version of “bomb’em back to the Stone Age” Gen. Curtis LeMay. Instead, Hezbullah fought Israel’s armored juggernaut to a standstill. Israel’s huge bombing campaign killed over 1,000 civilians but very few Hezbullah fighters.
Why have Hezbullah’s mujahidin proven such fierce and skilled fighters? Many are well-educated university graduates, often around 30—40 years old. They are dedicated to driving Israeli troops from Lebanon and aiding the Palestinian cause.
Hezbullah’s Shia traditions of self-sacrifice, fearlessness, and heroism in battle play a key role. So, too, the concept of noble martyrdom in righteous battle.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has suffered grave casualties in southern Lebanon, notably near the strategic hilltop town of Marjayoun. Hezbullah claims to have knocked out nearly 20 of Israel’s superbly armored Merkava tanks. Nearby Bint Jebil, which changed hands numerous times, is being hailed as “Hezbullagrad,” after the legendary World War II battle at Stalingrad.
Many Hezbullah officers are highly skilled veterans of the 80’s war. By contrast, IDF ground forces seems to have forgotten almost all the bitter lessons previously learned in Lebanon. The 1980’s occupation cost Israel nearly 800 soldiers and billions of dollars.
Hezbullah fighters stand out among Arab military forces for proficiency in small unit combat tactics. Their squads are experts in moving and firing, setting up interlocking fields of fire, laying ambushes and anti-tank mines, and pre-registered mortar fire plans.
Hezbullah’s men wear modern body armor and helmets. They have supplies of munitions cached all over the area, and networks of bunkers, caves and trenches that partially neutralize Israel’s command of the air. Subjected to intensive, round-the-clock bombing by Israel’s Air Force and shelling by heavy 155mm guns and rockets, Hezbullah’s fighters have never wavered or retreated, and continued to resist with ferocity. No professional western troops could do better.
One of Hezbullah’s few advantages is intimate knowledge of southern Lebanon’s fractured terrain of steep hills, dry stream beds, twisting roads, and deep ravines. Israel’s vast number of tanks and armored vehicles cannot be employed to full force in such terrain as it was in the deserts of Sinai and barren Golan Heights.
Equally important, Hezbullah’s infantry has acquired sizeable amounts of anti-tank systems. These include the venerable but still destructive US TOW sourced from refurbished Iranian stocks, the Soviet Sagger, and the modern European Milan and some Russian systems, likely obtained on the arms market or from Syria. These weapons have caused the largest number of Israeli casualties and armor losses and are a fearsome threat for IDF infantry packed into vulnerable armored personnel carriers.
Had Hezbullah any effective shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons, such as the US Stinger that neutralized Soviet aviation in Afghanistan, Israel’s enormous advantage from devastating close air support would be partially neutralized.
Far from being what Israel and the US call a “terrorist group,” Hezbullah is an integrated political, social, cultural and military movement that represents the Lebanon’s Shia, who make up 40% of that nation’s people. Recent polls show 87% of Lebanese now support Hezbullah.
Even al-Qaida, which used to brand Shias traitors to the Arab cause, now hails Hezbullah as a vanguard of Arab liberation.
In spite of the cease-fire, which has already been twice violated, 40,000 Israeli troops remain poised to enter Lebanon, most of whose population has been driven out by Israeli bombing and shelling and their villages razed by Israeli bulldozers. The fate of the nearly one million refugees created by Israel’s indiscriminate bombing campaign remains unresolved. Much of Lebanon lies in ruins.
The Bush Administration’s encouragement of Israel’s foolish invasion and laying waste of Lebanon marks its third military disaster after Afghanistan and Iraq. This from the man who styles himself “the war president.”
Hezbullah has emerged from the Lebanon War as the new champion of the Muslim World. Its fighters held out longer against Israel’s might than did the Arab armies in the 1956, 1967 and 1973 wars, and emerged undefeated. Israel’s carefully cultivated myth of military invincibility was shattered by Hezbullah. As a result, Israel will now redouble its attempts to assassinate its leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah.
The repulse of Israeli forces by a few thousand Hezbullah fighters ought to give pause for thought to the Pentagon and bloodthirsty neocons who have been clamoring for war with Iran. Hezbullah was trained and armed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. American forces might face the same tough fighting in any invasion of Iran that Israel just met in Lebanon.
As this column predicted when the fighting in Lebanon began, after all the barrages of self-righteous propaganda, massive bombing and heaps of dead civilians, in the end the two sides would negotiate through third parties — which they could have easily done after the minor border skirmish that triggered this totally unnecessary war. But PM Olmert, enraged by Nasrallah’s taunting that he was “small” compared to Ariel Sharon, went to war, egged on by George Bush, who rushed Israel fuel and munitions.
The cease-fire and impending dispatch of Lebanese and UN forces to southern Lebanon will hopefully end this stupid, pointless war and afford Israel a face-saving way of withdrawing its head from a hornet’s nest. However, the war could easily re-ignite and Israel could end up bogged down in guerilla war in southern Lebanon, as it previously was for 18 years.
Israel’s politicians will now face the wrath of voters who are rightly outraged over the fiasco in Lebanon and Hezbullah’s crowing victory. Heads will surely roll.
Americans, by contrast, will not draw the same conclusions about their inept political leadership that better-informed Israelis certainly will. George Bush, the war’s leading flag-waver, has received no rebuke from the US media or voters for his latest military debacle. Nor will he from the clapping seals in Congress and the Senate.
Lebanese and Israelis are paying the heavy price for Mr. Bush’s “reborn Middle East.”