Assessing Israel-Hezbollah War
Weekly Pulse
July 21-27, 2006
Even though the Middle Eastern conflict is never off the world news, the deadlier turn it took recently had the hallmark of an all out Middle Eastern war. While the battle was confined to two combatants, Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah and the Jewish state of Israel; and two theatres, south Lebanon and northern Israel. Its other front, Hamas versus Israel, took a secondary place, but only after Israel decimated the Palestinian militia’s foreign and prime ministries.

Who to blame for triggering yet another crisis in the Middle East? Hezbollah, for killing a number of Israeli soldiers and kidnapping two of them in an ambush and its consequent firing of rockets on northern Israeli towns that killed dozens of Israeli civilians and soldiers? Or, Israel, for undertaking a disproportionate military response, which claimed hundreds of Lebanese lives, mostly civilian?

Perhaps the blame should be shared by both the conflicting parties, even though each one of them had its own political motives in raising the stakes of the conflict.

Hezbollah’s Motives

Why did Hezbollah undertake the ambush on July 12, which triggered the crisis? Two explanations could be offered. First, since Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Harairi’s murder last year, Hezbollah had lost the clout it enjoyed in Lebanese politics for years. Because it is backed by Iran and Syria, the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon under the UN Security Council Resolution 1559 was a mortal blow to its power base in a country divided along religious/sectarian lines.

Lebanon is lived by Muslim Shiite and Sunni, and Maronite Christian communities. Hezbollah is part of the Shiite community. The 1989 Taif agreement that ended the bloody civil war in Lebanon and restored a governmental structure where each of the three communities was duly represented, with a Maronite President, a Sunni Prime Minister and a Shiite Speaker.

The Parliament has 128 seats. As always, the last elections produced a hung parliament, but one in which Hezbollah only has a fractional presence including two cabinet ministers. The parliament is led by a Shiite speaker. As long as the Syrian troops were present in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s political clout remained greater than its share in the country’s demographic composition.

Since the withdrawal of Syrian troops, the anti-Syrian, nationalist segment of the Lebanese population, which consists predominantly of Sunni factions and Maronites, had been asserting its authority. In months prior to the start of Israel’s war against Hezbollah, it had become more vocal on the question of the disarmament of Hezbollah, which, it perceived, would end whatever influence Syria has had in Lebanese affairs. Like the Sunni and Maronite factions, which see a Syrian hand in the death of former Prime Minister Harairi, Israel and the United States had also called for the disarmament of Hezbollah under the same Security Council Resolution 1559 that led to the Syrian troop withdrawal.

Given this backdrop, Hezbollah was under increasing domestic and international pressure to disarm. And that may be the reason why it pre-empted the possibility of its disarmament by undertaking the said ambush, especially by kidnapping Israeli soldiers.

The second reason why Hezbollah could have chosen to raise the stakes in its conflict with Israel may have to do with its desire to broaden its mission, which had been largely fulfilled when Israel unilaterally decided to withdraw from south Lebanon in 2000, after occupying it for 18 years. Following Israel’s invasion of south Lebanon in 1982, Hezbollah’s aim was to push Israel out of the country.

When that objective was achieved six years ago, Hezbollah had to justify its existence by opening another front. So, it continued to fire rockets as Israeli positions. With the second suicide-driven Intifada in Palestine that was triggered by Hezbollah’s perceived victory over Israel in south Lebanon, and the formation of Hamas government in Palestine, Hezbollah was emboldened. With Hamas next-door in power, Hezbollah could simultaneously open another front against the Jewish entity, whose existence as a state is not acceptable to either.

However, it seems that what may have forced Hezbollah to undertake the daring ambush and kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers was the increasing legitimacy crisis it had been facing within the Lebanese political context since Harairi’s assassination. It had to raise the stakes now, as a matter of its own political survival. With an unrestrained Israeli retaliation, Hezbollah could regain some of the lost political clout in the country, as more and more Lebanese citizens could start to perceive Israel in the same fashion as Hezbollah wanted them to. This is what eventually happened. Obviously, Iran and Syria, the arch rivals of Israel in the Middle East, would most likely not wish Hezbollah to disarm. They would like the Shiite militia to continue to pose a frontline threat to the Jewish entity.

Israel’s Motives

Probably, Israel under Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was looking for an excuse to militarily engage both Hamas and Hezbollah, its two principal enemies living just across the present borders. Since former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon went into coma, and even after winning the April elections, Prime Minister Olmert had been striving hard to come out of the shadow of Sharon and become a leader of his own charisma—which, as Israeli history mostly tells us, is possible if the leadership is resolute in fighting those who challenge the existence of the Jewish state.

Besides the above, there seems to be another, perhaps more important factor: like the administration of US President George Bush, the Israeli government appeared to be pursuing a strategy of pre-emption—meaning eliminate the threat before it materialised. The Bush administration opted for the same option when it went for the regime change in Iraq in 2003.

The underlying principle of pre-emption is that if a global or regional power (read US and Israel, respectively, in this case) perceives a threat to its vital national security, it can invade any country and violate its national sovereignty in disregard of the UN Charter. Thus, ridding Iraq of WMD and disarming Hezbollah could be legitimate ends from American and Israeli perspectives to intervene militarily in a country or bomb its territory. In the Lebanese case, however, the situation was different because a faction of the Lebanese population—namely, Hezbollah—was engaged in a face-to-face battle with Israel without the consent of the entire Lebanese population.

So, one of Israel’s principal motive, rather expectation, was that the anti-Syrian Sunni and Maronite sections of the Lebanese government and population would turn against Hezbollah if Israel continued to hit targets in south Lebanon. Israeli warplanes had been throwing leaflets over Beirut for the same reason, urging Lebanese to turn against Hezbollah since it had taken the entire nation hostage by arming itself and fighting an Iran-Syrian proxy war against Israel from Lebanese soil. However, as the outcome of the conflict proved, this Israeli strategy essentially backfired. Instead of turning the Lebanese people against Hezbollah, the killing of civilians, including non-Hezbollah, actually pushed the rest of the Lebanese population further closer to Hezbollah’s position.

History Repeats Itself?

At least two war episodes in post 1967 history of the Middle Eastern conflict strongly resemble what is happening now between Hezbollah militants in south Lebanon firing mostly unguided rockets at Haifa and other Israeli positions in northern Israel, and Israeli forces firing back with guided munitions at south Lebanon and civil-military targets south of Beirut.

In 1968, after the Arab defeat in the 1967 war, King Hussain of Jordan had invited the Palestinian militias to Jordan to re-arm and when the time comes, liberate occupied Palestine from Israel. The same way as Hezbollah is now firing rockets against Israeli positions across the southern frontiers of Lebanon, the Palestinian militia started firing across the Jordanian borders with Israel in what became known as the battle of Al-Karama.

While the Palestinians could not withstand the Israeli might, they became a threat for the Jordanian state itself. Consequently, what happened on the Black September of 1970, when thousands of Palestinians were massacred, is well known. This analogy would have become interesting, had Sunni states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, who may not wish Syria and Iran to gain any regional clout, could have continued to blame Hezbollah for prematurely triggering the conflict, as they initially did, or if Hezbollah could have disarmed under domestic or international pressure.

Another parallel comes from Lebanon itself. The reason why Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 was not because Hezbollah alone was a threat to Israel, even though the suicide bombing that killed over 300 US Marines in Beirut in 1983 was conducted by Hezbollah. At that time, it were the Palestinians who used to pound Israeli positions from across the south Lebanese borders. After Israel invaded, the Palestinians were not just disarmed by the Lebanese militias, but also Palestinian refugees at the camps of Sabra and Shatila were massacred, an act for which Ariel Sharon, who was then Israel’s defense minister, is held responsible.

International Response

The international community responded to the Hezbollah-Israel war quite slowly. It took the UN Security Council over five weeks to pass the Ceasefire Resolution. One reason for that was that the United States had given a go-ahead to Israel to decimate Hezbollah through the full use of its military might. The visit of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Israel and Lebanon did not make much of a difference, as Israel continued its massive bombing campaign and Hezbollah also did not put an end to its rocket attacks.

Throughout the conflict, the US policy remained to use the opportunity to disarm Hezbollah and get rid of one of the main overt militant factions threatening the security of its chief Middle Eastern ally, Israel. Besides Hezbollah, Hamas is the second such organisation actually running a government in Palestine. Syria and Iran are two regimes, perhaps the only ones remaining now, who are anti-American and anti-Israel. In Afghanistan and Iraq, the international or coalition forces and authorities are tacking the resistance or insurgent elements, whatever one may call them.

During much of the conflict, in the US media, the main driving force behind the Bush administration’s war on terrorism, the talk of attacking Iran and Syria has gained momentum. On its own, the United States did not want Israel to expand the battlefront beyond Lebanon. For the US was already bogged down in Iraq, where the Shiite insurgency could have gained momentum if Hezbollah losses in Lebanon had increased so much that Syria and Iran started to feel that they might be next targets. In particular, Iran had in recent past played an important role in inciting Shiite militancy in Iraq and its links with Hezbollah are very obvious. In fact, it was argued that Hezbollah’s ambush of July 12 might have been directed by Tehran, with the precise objective of diverting international attention from its nuclear weapons programme.

The UN special mission also visited Beirut, but only with a statement afterwards that it would report the matter to the Security Council. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan eventually heeded a proposal of the British Prime Minister Tony Blair to deploy international troops in south Lebanon to create a buffer zone between Hezbollah and Israeli forces. The UN Security Council Resolution 1701 eventually did end the conflict, even though its ambiguous wording did complicate the deployment of international peacekeepers and delay Israel troop withdraw in south Lebanon.

Settling Palestinian Issue

However, despite the end of the military confrontation between Hezbollah and Israel with the help of international diplomacy, the fundamental problem in the Middle East remained as alive as ever: the non-settlement of the Palestinian question. As many commentators, including from Israel, argued in their post-conflict analyses, a lasting peace in the Middle East could only be possible after a fair and just settlement of Palestine—which lives as a state side by side with Israel in safety and security—is reached.