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Changing the Rules in the Lebanese Arena

The current situation in Lebanon isn’t the result of Israeli actions. Israel was dragged into taking military action in the wake of a Hizbullah attack and the kidnapping of its soldiers last week; every military strategist, and even every neophyte commentator, has known for years that Israel has been ignoring the growing threat on its northern border, like a bear that has decided to hibernate for the winter on top of a barrel of explosives. Things that have been said in the past need to be repeated now: by unilaterally withdrawing from Lebanon in 2000, Israel traded the tactical threat to IDF soldiers for a strategic threat that developed over the years and today endangers almost the entire Israeli home front.

For the past six years, the advocates of the withdrawal have been praising the fact that, with the exception of a few encounters with Hizbullah, the border has been quiet. They interpret this as proof of the withdrawal’s effectiveness and justness, even if it was executed hastily and without an agreement that is binding upon the Lebanese and/or Syrian government. From the sidelines of the disengagement, they taunted those who cautioned them from the gates, saying they had mistaken the shadow of a mountain for a mountain. These advocates were not prepared to recognize the fact that this was simply the silence before the storm and a temporary situation that would deteriorate in the future. Indeed, they resemble the person who committed suicide by jumping off a skyscraper. As he fell past one of the building’s many windows, someone called out, “How are you?” and he replied, “Fine … for now.”

However, that was not Israel’s only problem in dealing with the Hizbullah. Over the years (and even before the withdrawal from Lebanon), the Hizbullah has succeeded in creating a situation in which it deters Israel more than Israel deters it. It is unprecedented for a terrorist organization to deter a state and not vice versa. This phenomenon was expressed on two levels simultaneously. First, Hizbullah used terror attacks to make it clear to Israel that any effective offensive move against it (for example, the 1992 assassination of the organization’s former leader, Abbas Moussawi or the 1993 Israeli Air Force (IAF) attack on the organization’s training camp in the Bekaa Valley, in which dozens of Hizbullah activists were killed) would be followed by an severe response from the organization against Israeli or Jewish targets abroad (such as the terror attacks in Buenos Aires in those same years). Israel learned the lesson quickly and has refrained over the years from taking actions that claimed more than a certain number of casualties and refried from killing the heads of the organization in order to prevent the Hizbullah from responding abroad. But that wasn’t enough. The Hizbullah also succeeded in deterring Israel from carrying out routine operations against it by creating a dangerous and unjust equivalency in which any Israeli action that harmed Lebanese civilians, even if it was by chance or to a minor extent, would be followed by a rain of Katyusha rockets on Israeli civilian sites. The result was that Israeli responses to Hizbullah attacks in many cases were no more than words and posing. They were actions that were aimed more at satisfying Israeli domestic demands than to cause real damage to the Hizbullah’s operational ability, such as IAF attacks on abandoned Hizbullah bases. These were part of the military rules of the game and it was clear to every pupil that Israel would demand, sooner or later, that they be changed. However, since the withdrawal from Lebanon, Hizbullah has forced Israel to become accustomed to a number of other dangerous rules: Despite the declarations of the state’s leadership – the architects of the withdrawal from Lebanon and their heirs – that aggressive actions against Israel that originated from Lebanese territory would be responded to gravely, Israel repeatedly chose to ignore the Hizbullah’s attacks on military and even on civilian targets and to be satisfied with only token responses. While Israel was bound by its statements, the Hizbullah was very active; it brought about new escalations in the Palestinian arena by initiating terror attacks, inciting the public, recruiting and training activists, providing Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other Palestinian organizations with weapons and funding, and, above all, training Palestinian terrorists by sharing Hizbullah’s operational theory and the experience it had accumulated in its attacks on Israel. At the same time, the Hizbullah armed itself to the teeth with dangerous, sophisticated new military equipment; Israel has long been aware of the existence of some of this equipment, while other equipment is being discovered only now, such as the Iranian coast-to-sea missile that hit the Israeli missile ship. Israel protested to everyone possible, threatened and warned, but refrained from taking operative steps to halt the growing threat. Israel chose to ignore the fact that these sophisticated, long-range weapons were not in the hands of actors that are reasonable states with an obligation to defend their citizens and interests and an awareness that they have something to lose by using such weapons.

Alongside such military rules, which synergistically led to the growth of a severe strategic threat to Israel’s peace and security, the state’s leadership found itself paying a heavy price to the Hizbullah in the diplomatic arena. As artists of psychological warfare and fashioners of public opinion locally and internationally, the Hizbullah leadership chose to grab the stick at both ends. They declared that they wouldn’t abandon terror activities (or, to use their words, “armed opposition”), but also developed an extensive diplomatic arm based on their broad popular support – many Hizbullah representatives were even elected to the Lebanese parliament. Hizbullah’s efforts to establish a political arm misled a large part of the Western world, first and foremost, the European states which chose to emphasize Hizbullah’s political, welfare and religious activities instead of the fact that it is a terrorist organization. Israel’s efforts to remove the mask from Hizbullah and reveal it for what it was were fruitless. Thus, even the changes in the rules in the political arena after the withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 were detrimental to Israel. While Israel was pressured to come to terms with the growing threat on its northern border, the Lebanese government washed its hands of it and didn’t even begin trying to impose its authority over southern Lebanon and the territory in the Bekaa Valley that was under the Hizbullah’s control. The Lebanese completely ignored the 1559 Security Council resolution that called for disarming the militias in southern Lebanon.

The Lebanese government wasn’t the only one that closed its eyes to the Hizbullah’s activities and military preparations. Syria also chose to maintain and even to increase the Hizbullah’s power in Lebanon and thus keep the embers of the conflict with Israel burning and maintain its hold on Lebanon through its marionette – the Hizbullah.

Another political ploy that Hizbullah has used to harm Israel has been the claim that Israel is still holding Lebanese territory (the Sheba Farm). Even though this claim has been completely discredited and the international community has recognized the fact that Israel has withdrawn to the international border, Hizbullah has managed to make it part of the political debate in the international arena.

For Israel, it is these problematic rules that set the scene for the recent crisis and the deterioration of the situation following the attack last week on an IDF patrol along the northern border and the kidnapping of two of the soldiers in the patrol. This situation forces Israel to change the rules of the military and political game so that they are not biased against her. It has been asked whether the decision to act immediately after the attack on the IDF soldiers was correct. Was this the most effective path for Israel to follow in dealing with the Hizbullah?

As far as the timing of the Israeli action, it is important to differentiate between two types of military action that were taken after the attack on the IDF patrol. The first was the immediate military response that was aimed to limit the perpetrators’ mobility and ability to move the kidnapped soldiers even further away from Israel and into Lebanon or another state. This action included firing upon transportation routes and infrastructure, including bridges, major intersections, etc. The situation demanded that this action be taken as quickly as possible in order to increase the odds of finding and perhaps rescuing the kidnapping victims.

In addition to this military action, Israel also launched a reprisal attack immediately after the attack in order to make it clear to the Hizbullah that Israel did not intend to accept such actions as routine and that the Hizbullah would be forced to pay a high price for its actions, in the hope that this would deter both the Hizbullah and other organizations from taking similar steps in the future.

While the first action had to be taken as soon as possible after the attack, it is not at all clear if the second, the reprisal attack, also needed to be taken so soon after the attack and if the most justified targets selected for that attack.

It is clear that Israel needed to carry out an attack that was as wide ranging as possible in order to change the rules of the flawed game being played with the Hizbullah. The targets attacked were: Hizbullah offices, bases and facilities, Lebanese infrastructure (such as airports, seaports and bridges), and Hizbullah Katyusha launchers and weapons storerooms. The efficacy of Israel’s almost reflexive move after the attack is questionable. It is reasonable to assume that the Hizbullah, as other Palestinian organizations have done in Lebanon in the past, immediately forbade its activists and certainly its senior activists, to remain at their bases and offices and most likely their homes as well. In that case, bombing those sites is not only an inefficient step, but it also reveals important intelligence information and makes it impossible to target those sites in the future when the organization’s activists actually are on site.

Israel basically decided to act at the most convenient time for the Hizbullah – at a time when its activists and facilities were in the highest state of alert. Israel could have decided to execute a limited military operation immediately after the attack to make it difficult to transport the kidnapped soldiers elsewhere and declare that the attack was an act of war against Israel by Lebanon and the Hizbullah and that Israel would respond to it at the appropriate time. Had Israel waited a few days, until the Hizbullah had returned to its routine, the attacks on those targets would have been much more effective.

Alternatively, Israel could have focused on bombing infrastructure and Katyusha launchers in the first stage and refrained from carrying out an aerial attack on the offices and homes of Hizbullah activists, waiting instead until they returned to them. There is at least one qualitative disadvantage of delaying an attack for Israel – such an action definitely would have received much less international understanding than a military action that was taken immediately after the attack, while the difficult images of the attack were still fresh in the collective consciousness of the international community. The answer to the question of when is the appropriate time for an Israeli aerial attack is the result of a costs-and-benefits analysis that was not necessarily conducted fully before the aerial attack was implemented.

From the beginning, Israel correctly declared that Lebanon and its government were responsible for the deterioration in the situation, while the Lebanese government tried to wash its hands of responsibility with the claim that it hadn’t been aware of the Hizbullah’s plans and therefore wasn’t responsible for the attack. The government of Beirut cannot be allowed to enjoy two worlds at once. It cannot be accepted by the international community as a legitimate, sovereign government that is acting to advance its economic, diplomatic and political interests, if at the same time it is permitted to shrug off responsibility for quasi-military actions and terror attacks launched from its territory against Israel. This is especially true since it has not made even the smallest effort to assert its sovereignty in southern Lebanon.

Israel’s critics in the international arena should imagine if a military attack were launched from French territory against a German military patrol and all of the soldiers in the patrol were killed, except for two who were kidnapped and taken into French territory. Imagine if Germany blamed France for this and France rejected the blame by claiming that the attack had been carried out by a local militia and it had not been aware of the militia’s intention to carry out an attack. Furthermore, that same militia actually has an active role in the political system of France and even has a number of representatives in the French parliament. A situation that the Europeans would not deem acceptable in their own backyard is deemed completely accepted in the Middle East. Israel has the moral right to act to defend itself against the Hizbullah and against the sovereign government of Lebanon which is fully responsible for what happens in, and originates from, its territory.

As to the question of whether Israel’s actions were just or wise, as far as justice is concerned, the answer is that it was quite just. Israel, which withdrew to the international border and received full approval from the U.N. for doing so, has not only the right but also the obligation to defend its citizens and to take all actions, both as a response or a deterrent, to do so.

Another moral argument being made against Israel is that its actions are completely out of proportion to the damage it suffered. However, as a state fighting a terrorist organization which has chosen to hide among a civilian population and use civilians as a living shield, Israel has demonstrated, both in the past and the present, great fastidiousness in its military operations. Civilians that are injured in Lebanon are victims of the Hizbullah policy of not differentiating itself from the civilian population. In contrast, the injury to Israeli citizens by Hizbullah missiles is the result of a terrorist policy that aims to harm civilians. Hizbullah leader Nasrallah’s claims that the Hizbullah aims its missiles at military sites are hard to believe considering the fact that hundreds of missiles hit civilian homes that are nowhere near military sites.

Israel is justified in it current struggle, but is it acting wisely? It appears that Israel was dragged into a situation that the Hizbullah initiated. Even if the Hizbullah was surprised by the extent of the Israeli response and the steadfastness of the Israeli public in the face of a week of exchanges of fire and repeated attacks on the home front, the Hizbullah walked into this situation more prepared than Israel. Its activists are embedded in the civilian population, its arms are hidden underground, and the firing capability of its missiles is extremely high. Previous experiences have shown that it is unlikely that Israel will be able to completely halt the firing of missiles into its territory by relying solely on aerial bombing. In this battle, it appears that the Hizbullah has more space to maneuver than Israel does, based upon the real damage inflicted upon the Hizbullah thus far.

Israel could end this chapter of exchanging fire by reaching a ceasefire agreement with the Hizbullah. There are many parties who would be happy to help mediate such an agreement. However, it would be a strategic mistake for Israel to agree to a ceasefire before it achieves its main goals:

1. Destroying the Hezbollah’s missile system or significantly reducing their capability to fire missiles.

2. Creating credible arrangements that will guarantee that the Hizbullah will not be able to rehabilitate its military infrastructure and perhaps even be disarmed by the Lebanese government.

3. Preventing or at least minimizing Iranian involvement in and Syrian support for Hizbullah.

4. Creating broad international consensus for labeling Hizbullah as a terrorist organization that is not legitimate and that targets Israeli civilians.

If Israel does not achieve the majority of these goals before signing a ceasefire agreement, then the agreement will be considered a failure that will only increase the Hizbullah’s popularity in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East.

The other option for halting the firing of missiles into Israel is launching a ground operation in Lebanon so extensive that Israel conquers almost all of southern Lebanon again. An operation this extensive is almost impossible since, in addition to the high price Israel would have to pay to conquer southern Lebanon, the range of the Hizbullah’s missiles means that the IDF would need to control a strip of land extending more than 100 kilometers north of the border. Israel’s experience following the Lebanon war will definitely lead the nation’s decision-makers to avoid the possibility of sinking once again into the quagmire of Lebanon. In addition, in light of Israel’s hasty withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, when it abandoned its Christian partners and left them exposed to the retribution of the Hizbullah, Israel cannot expect any Lebanese party to be prepared to cooperate with it if it decides to conquer Lebanon again. It currently seems highly unlikely that the option of conquering southern Lebanon will be selected; if it is selected, it will be as the option of last resort.

The one positive aspect of the current exchange of fire between Israel and the Hizbullah is that damaging the organization’s infrastructure will make it easier for Israel to cope in the future with the repercussions of a possible attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. As mentioned above, Israel traded a tactical threat in Lebanon from a strategic threat, but in recent months a new threat to Israel has developed, a threat more severe than any of its predecessors, a threat to the state’s existence: the nuclearization of Iran. An Iran with nuclear weapons will endanger the existence of the state of Israel, as well as the stability of the Middle East and the Gulf and world peace. Since it is not reasonable to assume that Iran will abandon its nuclear plans on its own, and since international sanctions have proven ineffective in the past, it is reasonable to assume that there will be an international need to use military means to force Iran to give up its plan to acquire nuclear weapons. When and if military action is taken against Iran by any party, it is likely that Iran’s first step will be to order the Hizbullah to shoot its entire arsenal of missiles at targets deep inside Israel. This arsenal grows smaller each day that Israel now spends fighting in Lebanon.

Israel is caught in a dilemma – it cannot swallow or vomit out the Hizbullah. In such a situation, it must focus on military operations against Hizbullah’s missile launchers and missile and weapons storehouses, with the aim of harming the organization’s activists with aerial, sea, artillery and ground operations. At the same time, Israel must halt the Hizbullah’s ability to recover both by taking military action and by putting diplomatic pressure on Lebanon, Syria and Iran. However, above all, Israel must strive to reach a ceasefire agreement from a position of strength that will enable it to achieve the goals listed above and, first and foremost, change the rules of the game between Israel and the Hizbullah and disarm the Hizbullah. The address to turn to reach such a ceasefire agreement is not in the Hizbullah or Iran, but in Syria and Lebanon. Therefore, Israel must effectively pressure Syria by wisely using all of the means at its disposal – sticks and carrots – in the military, political, economic and diplomatic arenas.