Hezbollah out on top

The Israeli military action in Lebanon has not shown any tactical or strategic surprises or innovations. It has been led as a classical military operation against regular armed forces, with the destruction of bridges, roads, telecommunication infrastructures, depots, and command centres. The premise is that Hezbollah is a ‘classical’, ‘normal’ enemy, that can be defeated by ‘classical’ and normal’ means: total command of the skies, massive armoured movements, saturation artillery, ground movements by well-trained infantry.

Thus, by destroying the bridges and roads, no supplies or reinforcements can be sent from central depots or barracks to the various fronts. By destroying the telecoms, no orders can be sent to the local commanders. By destroying the deep bunkers of the military HQ, and thus by killing the officers, the chain of command is decapitated. Also, by destroying Lebanon’s economic capacity (factories, agricultural produce, the  service sector) and by displacing hundreds of thousands of civilians, the State would surrender on Israel’s terms, i.e. order Lebanon to forcefully engage Hezbollah and disarm it, demilitarize the Lebanese side of the frontier, and prepare the ground for a peace agreement.

However, Hezbollah is not a classical army. It is not even organized in the usual pyramid-shaped command structure. It has no central HQ. It has no chief of staff as such. It has no permanent barracks. It has no tanks, no navy, no airforce, no self-contained logistics, no nuclear capability, no weapons of massive destruction; its few drones are unsophisticated; its communications are not entirely based on military equipment. Its intelligence does not rely on the myth of constant and omniscient electronic and aerial surveillance. Its ‘soldiers’ are neither conscripts nor full-time recruits.

As such, any ‘classical’ tactics are bound to be inadequate: large-scale tank manoeuvres, beach landings, helicopter attacks or paratroop descents would be of little tactical use. The failure of the Golani Brigade to take Bint Jbail using classical tactics is an indication of the problems encountered. It was only at the end of the first week of aerial bombing and artillery barrages that the Israelis discovered to their surprise that Hezbollah was unscathed. Its stock of ground-to-ground missiles was intact, as was the capability of the local commanders to lob them deeper and deeper into Northern Israel.

There could thus be no quick, classical ‘military’ solution, as was the case in 1982, on exactly the same terrain, against the PLO and the Syrian Army. This realization lead to tensions in the Israeli High Command, with accusations and counter accusations leading to the replacement of the General responsible for operations in Lebanon.

For the first time, the Israeli Army was confronted by a well-trained armed group, perfectly familiar with the local terrain, with a very clear ideology to which all of its members totally adhered. Its military intelligence is superior to that of most Arab armies, its theoretical and strategic thinking sophisticated. Its organization and planning is superior and not at all comparable to, say, the PLO’s, or even to Hamas’ or the Al-Aqsa Brigades’. In the field, it does not need sophisticated communications equipment (and thus is less vulnerable to electronic countermeasures).

Hezbollah has digested the experience of many wars: the Vietnamese, the South American insurrections as well as the Iran-Iraq conflicts, for example. But also the Yougoslav conflict, and the current Iraqi insurrection. It learnt from the successes and mistakes of the PLO in Lebanon, but also of the Intifadas and the on-going actions in Palestine. Its fighters have no fear of death, quite the contrary, and their commitment to defending their allotted military positions is total.

For these reasons, Israel’s military war against Hezbollah (Israel’s political war against the Shias and against the Lebanese power structure are different points all together) will certainly be bloody and difficult. Their failure to take Bint Jbail can be put forward as an example of the difficulties on the field; their reliance on massive air strikes to prepare a (failed) raid on Baalbek is also an example. Their very slow progress to occupy villages just one or two kilometers from the frontier, even after massive air strikes and artillery barrages, are other examples.

The Israeli forces seemed to be rely more on tank action against the ruins of villages flattened by air bombardement. But even this tactic took a heavy toll, as isolating all of South Lebanon from the rest of the country by an armoured thrust to the Litani River was no guarantee against future action taken in the rear.

All Hezbollah leaders, interviewed by the Lebanese and international media have given the same message: ‘we are ready and we will resist for a very long time if the Israelis think they can dislodge us quickly’. The war went on for nearly two months, to the shock of many Israeli reservists mobilized.

This, of course, is a psychological problem for the morale of the Israeli civilian population, which has massively abandoned the North of Israel for (up-to-now) safer places in Central or Southern Israel. Kiryat Shmona was evacuated; tens of other settlements in the Galilee became empty. This psychological surprise would partially explain some of the completely militarily-useless actions taken by the Israeli forces in Lebanon: the destruction of wood and paper factories, daries, wheat silos, medicine depots, buses and tractors, well-drilling equipment, residential areas, plantations, water treatment units, etc.

The destruction of fuel tanks at the electricity station at Jiyeh was completed by the targeting of its anti-pollution walls, creating the worst ecological disaster in the Eastern Mediterranean (and also militarily counterproductive for any planned amphibious landing). One can only explain these actions, and that of the Cana, Houile and Qana massacres, as a loss of nerve by the higher-echelon officers, who saw, to their horror, that their well-oiled plan wasn’t working. They believed that the only way to turn the tide to their total advantage would be to physically crush all the country and beat the population into submission: the physical razing of Haret el Hraik, the flattening of tens of villages in the South, the bombing of Chiyah, can be put forward as examples of this strategic thinking.

It failed. Seen from Beirut, the Israeli plan to ‘finish’ Hezbollah in 10 days still brings amused smiles to many observers one month after the start of the war. The Israeli claims that the stockpile of missiles has been reduced to critical levels seems contradicted by even heavier and deeper daily volleys into Northern and Central Israel (Afula, Beisan). 

Claims of extensive deaths in Hezbollah’s ranks are either unverified by neutral observers  or by the foreign press, or turn out to be civilians killed in their houses or shelters, as confirmed by Red Cross reports. While, undoubtedly, some Hezbollah fighters have been killed or wounded (probably on the same ratio as the Israeli military casualties) their numbers are still largely intact, especially where ground combat has been sporadic (between Bint Jbail and the Litani, the coastal plan to the South of Saida, Southern, Central and Northern Bekaa, the suburbs of Beirut).

Hezbollah has also come out on top of the psychological war in Lebanon itself. The blanket sending of SMS propaganda messages and telephone calls to the Lebanese, or the hacking of al-Manar television for a few minutes, has not changed the Lebanese’s largely positive attitude towards Hezbollah’s military actions (even though there have been criticisms of the underlying political strategy of this party).

This, of course, brings us to the point of the missiles sent into Israel. If the Israeli Army can advance further than the few kilometers around Taibe, Houle, Maroun al-Ras, Marouahine, etc. it still has to confront forces deployed further back, either South of the Litani (the general area around Tibnine, the coastal plain, Tyre or the Marjayoun-Ain Ebel-Khiam triangle) or North (Nabatiye, the hills blocking the access to the Bekaa). These are the main advance routes used ever since Pharaonic times, so there can be no strategic surprises; these are also the exact same routes used by the Israelis since 1978. But the problem of the missiles will not be solved by occupying these areas.

The option of pushing up to Rayak, Baalbek or Hermel (ie occupying all of the Bekaa, and thus half of Lebanon as has been proposed in the press and on blogs by “experts”) seems improbable. Advancing up the Bekaa (in pure ‘classical’ military style, as was the case in 1918, 1943, 1978,1982 etc.) implies a ‘classical’ war between armies, which is not the case today. It also brings strategic centres such as Damascus  and Homs (Syria’s petrochemical and industrial centre) unacceptably close to Israel’s army with the risk of an all-out regional conflict.

While the Hezbollah missiles might then be out of range of Israel, the Israeli Army would be in very close range of Syria’s own missiles, whose deployment there are not contravened by the 1974 disengagement agreements over the Joulan/Golan. Israel itself and the Israeli forces in Lebanon would also be in close range of the Syrian SCUDS. But of course, one could also suggest that the Israelis should lunge even deeper into Syria (Hama, Aleppo, Soueida) to get rid of the Syrian missile threat but that would put these forces into an even closer position vis a vis the Iranian missiles. Et caettera ad infinitum.

Whatever the case, Israel would still have to control the territory it managed to occupy. While its troops battle against small, but determined positions in house to house and hand to hand combat, their positions would suffer by roadside attacks, snipers, and possibly even suicide operations, all reminiscences of the previous Israeli occupation of Lebanon. This occupation would however have the advantage of not being hindered by the presence of the local population, as it has, on the whole, moved to Central Lebanon.

Several questions emerge. The excuse of the two soldiers abducted on the frontier (the official Israeli excuse for the war) is of course secondary, and only used for internal propaganda. The real reason for the destruction of Lebanon must be sought elsewhere, with C. Rice and G.W. Bush giving tell-tale hints about a ‘˜New Middle East’ being prepared in Washington with Israel used as the local military vector. However, ‘crushing Hezbollah’s military capacity’ would take months, with no real long-term solution in sight, creating a real internal political, psychological, ideological and economic problems in both Israel and Lebanon.

Lebanon’s infrastructure and production are largely destroyed, its delicate political balance dangerously shaken, and a major humanitarian and ecological disaster clearly visible. It is improbable that the country will achieve any degree of normality in the near future; the solution of a civil war, with possible partitioning of the country  is evoked by the population. In Israel, the  balance-sheet of the last 50 years reads like a list of missed opportunities, lack of political vision, provoked crises and violence. The existential question is finally being posed inside Israel itself: What is the future of this State? Is Zionism and continual military mobilization a real long-term solution?

One then of course can ask whether this war was really worth it: surely the points of contention between Israel and the Hezbollah (or between Lebanon and Israel) could have been settled by negociation. It’s all about Lebanese prisoners still in Israel in spite of decisions by the Israeli High Court to free them; of continual and daily overflights of Lebanon by reconnaissance aircraft or of intrusions in its territorial waters; of killing of Lebanese and Palestinian activists or civilians in Lebanon; of the question of the Chebaa farms; of details along the Blue Line.

The fact that this solution was not chosen by the Israeli power structure (who rejected even the notion of a cease-fire even after international condemnation for the Cana massacre) points to a lack of understanding that the type of war has changed. It is not a classical war (as was the case in 1967 and 1973), nor an insurrection (the Intifadas), nor a guerrilla war of liberation (the PLO in Jordan or Lebanon before 1982). It also points to a lack of understanding that the population of the Arab world has a very different world-view than its leaders, and the Israeli system (as well as that of the “New Middle East”) is not a model that raises any enthusiasm.

In this context, the military option and brute force will bring no solution, only continual long-term violence. The game must thus be played through diplomacy, freely-consented reciprocal negotiations and discussion of all points, without any vetoes, threats, forced decisions or taboos. The alternative is too dangerous to contemplate.

11 August 2006. Michael Davie is a historical geographer currently in Beirut.

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