After the disaster came a revamped, harder-fisted approach to fighting.
Those words describe what happened at the start of this week, when a Hezbollah missile fell among army reservists at Kibbutz Kfar Giladi near Israel’s northern tip, killing 12 men. But the same words could equally describe the way the war began almost four weeks earlier, when Hezbollah gunmen succeeded in crossing into Israel and kidnapping two soldiers.
The original abduction sparked the Israeli government’s decision to launch a wide air campaign in Lebanon. By this week, the fact that Israel had originally constrained itself to an air offensive was distant history. Following the August 6 deaths of the 12 reservists and three civilians , the army reportedly said it would widen its bombing targets in Lebanon to include that country’s “strategic infrastructure” — deliberately striking at the Lebanese government and not just Hezbollah. Military sources also spoke of another major expansion of the ground invasion.
In fact, the Second Lebanon War has been a series of such shifts and metamorphoses, difficult to track among the welter of headlines. Repeatedly, Israel has made major adjustments in tactics, adopting measures that were ruled out just days before. What isn’t clear — and won’t be, most observers agree, until the shooting stops and the inquiries begin — is whether the tactics have been poorly matched to the goals, or whether perhaps the goals themselves have been unclear.
On the morning of July 12, when Hezbollah attacked an army patrol, abducted two soldiers, killed eight and fired a barrage of Katyusha rockets at nearby Israeli communities as cover, the government decided within hours on an operation that went far beyond its limited responses to earlier flare-ups on the northern border. Government sources said at the time that the bombing campaign was aimed at forcing Lebanon to implement Security Council Resolution 1559, a 2004 mandate that ordered the disarming of Hezbollah and the seizing of control over southern Lebanon away from the Shi’ite militia by the Lebanese army.
Beyond those specific political goals, the government sources stressed “changing the rules of deterrence” as a war aim. As Defense Minister Amir Peretz put it, “The goal is that… Hezbollah will be so stricken that there won’t be anyone there who isn’t sorry they started this.” Deterrence is a psychological goal: It means that the enemy is too scared to tangle with you. It is both essential and hard to quantify. Israel’s concern with deterrence reflected immediate circumstances: Just two weeks earlier, Palestinian militants had kidnapped an Israeli soldier near Gaza. At the same time, the concern reflected a longer-running Israeli debate. Hawkish critics of defense policy view the decision to take Israeli troops out of southern Lebanon in May 2000, as well as the later responses to border incidents, as a mistake that showed weakness and encouraged attacks.
Dovish critics counter that the military itself has been chafing since 2000, claiming that its deterrent image has suffered, and has been seeking to meet crises with maximum force, viewing political solutions as a further sign of weakness. It was for that reason, Ben-Gurion University political sociologist Lev Grinberg said, that the army responded massively to Palestinian demonstrations at the start of the second intifada in the fall of 2000, arguably escalating that conflict.
There’s another crucial twist: Within Lebanese politics, Hezbollah “presented itself as a deterrent force to Israel,” said Hilal Khashan, Lebanese political science professor at the American University of Beirut, interviewed by telephone from his home. The militia, he said, rejected demands that it disarm, claiming that it was protecting Lebanon — “that its rockets are a strategic deterrent to Israel, because they can reach major targets.” In the past, he added, “talking to my students, they truly believed that Hezbollah was a strategic balance to Israel.”
Of course, when Hezbollah unleashed that arsenal, the effect was the opposite of deterring Israel. Instead, the rain of rockets on northern Israel and the rising civilian casualties have consolidated Israeli public opinion in favor of a war effort that has continued to expand as the rockets keep falling.
At the outset, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said there would be “no ground operation at this stage,” and a top officer explained that Israel sought to avoid a new entanglement in Lebanon. Nor were reserves called up. But elite ground units were soon conducting raids across the border, and by the war’s second week, thousands of Israeli soldiers had entered Lebanon, attacking villages known as Hezbollah strongholds. At the end of July, three divisions of reservists were called up “for training.”
By August 2, with the number of troops inside Lebanon continuing to rise, the aim was to retake the security zone that Israel had held before 2000, extending between 6 and 8 kilometers north from the border. Peretz favored pushing farther, all the way to the Litani River, taking the whole area from which short-range rockets could be fired at Israel. Olmert was reportedly opposed. But after the deaths of the reservists at Kfar Giladi, the army’s general staff was pushing for the wider plan.
In the meantime, despite Israel’s declared goal of cutting off Hezbollah rocket fire, the militia actually has increased the pace of fire. On Sunday, for instance, some 170 missiles were shot at Israel. The organization undoubtedly has suffered heavy losses in men and in equipment, as Israeli spokesmen note. One sign of that, Khashan said, is that Hezbollah communiqués transparently underreport the group’s own casualties. But because the militia is decentralized, and weapons are scattered around Lebanon, it has been able to keep up the barrage. Still hoping to force Israel to cease fighting, it in fact achieves the opposite.
Ironically, it’s possible that Israel already had achieved its psychological goal in Lebanon even before this week’s escalation. While “there is no lack of a grudge against Israel” for recent events, Khashan said, most Lebanese regard Hezbollah as accountable for the war. “In the name of national unity, no one is saying anything publicly. But privately, yes. Many Lebanese view them as a proxy for Iran — among Lebanese Christians and Sunni Muslims, certainly,” Khashan said. Postwar, he expects Hezbollah to lose political support even among Shi’ites.
That leaves the more concrete Israeli goals: disarming the Shi’ite militia and giving the Lebanese government the ability to enforce calm. For some Israeli hawks, that will happen only by bringing force, or the threat of it, to stop the flow of arms from Syria to Hezbollah. Instead of bombing arms shipments only once they have entered Lebanon, Israel must threaten to hit them within Syria, as well, argues Ely Karmon, a senior researcher at Herzliya’s Institute for Counter-Terrorism. So far, at least, the government has explicitly avoided that path — deterred, arguably, by the danger of a wider war.
Ephraim Lavie, an ex-colonel in military intelligence and a fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center, urges the opposite approach. Lavie argues that the United States should re-engage diplomatically with Damascus, offering to take Syria off the list of terror-supporting countries if it blocks further arms supplies to Hezbollah. An additional payoff would be breaking the alliance between Syria and Iran. In Lebanon, Lavie said, it’s critical not just to defeat Hezbollah militarily but also to reach an agreement with the Lebanese government, “allowing it to prove to the Lebanese people that it’s the only sovereign force that can defend Lebanese territory, reach a prisoner exchange and get [the disputed] Shebaa Farms area.” But Lavie warns against an extended Israeli presence in southern Lebanon. That, he said, could “allow [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah to blur his defeat” through continued attacks on Israeli forces.
Khashan warns of another danger for Israel if its military stays in southern Lebanon. Before 2000, he says, Hezbollah enforced a monopoly on resistance to Israel, keeping other groups out of the south. Now, weakened, Hezbollah will be unable to do so. “Sunni jihadists have already entered the south,” he said. And they have links with Al Qaeda. Certainly, that metamorphosis in the war is one that Israel will want to avoid.