July 17, 2006
The Shaykh, the "Other Guys", and Lebanon in the Middle
When, last Friday, I saw my fellow 'Aqoulite Tom's post on "What was Hizbollah thinking?" my immediate reaction was "Dude, what are you TALKING about???" and I was about to start writing a reply when ... well, life kinda got in the way.
So, with a little delay, my answer to Tom and take on the 2006 Summer War:
To most people in the region - on both sides of the divide - Hizbollah's (abbreviation: HA) "Operation Truthful Promise" didn't come as a surprise at all.
1. HA has a history of operations where they attempted to kidnap Israeli soldiers (& in one case a businessman) in order to exchange them for Lebanese (& Palestinians) in Israeli prisons. After the last such exchange (Jan 2004), only 4 (by some accounts 3) Lebanese remain in Israeli prisons, including Samir Qantar. (In comparison - the number of Lebanese detained by Syrian officials [Army or otherwise] is over 100. -- Source 1, Source 2)
To find out those numbers isn't particularly hard, and I personally don't understand why the IHT doesn't seem to be able to do it.
Hizbollah has long taken the "prisoner question" (which, for them, only means "Lebanese prisoners in Israel") as one of its responsibilities and the other Lebanese groups have never had a problem with that. And since Israel never responded to anything but force, HA (& everyone else) came to the conclusion that the only way to get prisoners back is through an exchange of bodies - for which first one needs said bodies.
Already earlier this year, during the big "Muhammad Cartoons" demonstrations, HA leader Hassan Nasrallah declared that "this year is the year of the liberation of the last prisoners!" That was 5 months ago.
2. In recent weeks, the inner-Lebanese talk about the necessity to transform HA from a militia/party/organization to a purely civil group had taken up force. While maybe even a majority of Lebanese think that the Sheba Farms are part of Lebanon, only a minority thinks that they're worth extensive military confrontation (or even a war) with Israel. And a majority is of the opinion that HA is using the Sheba Farms issue as an excuse in order to avoid disarming, giving control over the border to the Lebanese Army, and having to start behaving like everyone else. The question "Why exactly doesn't the Lebanese Army patrol the border with Israel?" increasingly kept coming up among politicians and the public alike.
3. On 25 June 2006, a group of Palestinian fighters attacked the Israeli army post in Kerem Shalom on the border with Gaza, which resulted - intended or not - in the capture of an Israeli soldier. While the Israeli government officially embarked upon a policy of forcing the release of their soldier through military means, quite soon it became clear that it would be willing to trade Palestinian prisoners for him. Hosni ("La vache qui rit") Mubarak of Egypt even claims that he'd already struck a deal with Khaled Mash'al in Damascus but that it was derailed by the Iranians. If Israel is willing to make a deal with Hamas - which it can crush (in a literal and figurative sense) - then, so the general wisdom, it would also be making (yet another) deal with Hizbollah.
4. Over the last year or so, Hizbollah has significantly upgraded its military capability. Not only has it received long-range rockets, but also improved its defenses and acquired highly-sophisticated tools - like the UAVs that it has successfully flown over northern Israel without the IDF having spotted them in time. (Robert Fisk's article is very good on this.)
All this seen together - HA's publicized program, inner-Lebanese pressure on HA to disarm, the situation in Palestine, HA's heightened self-esteem - made for just the right conjuncture. For HA it seemed that they were in a win-win situation: if the Israelis retaliated harshly, HA could show that its propaganda is true and that it is still needed as a military force, yet if Israel were not to respond harshly HA could claim to have now become so powerful that even the might Zionists no longer dare to mess with it.
The operation had been planned for a long time and shows the sophistication of HA's military wing and their ability to achieve the most with the little they have. For details of the operation, I suggest to read the Ha'aretz article.
At first, Israel reacted as usual and expected - they sent a ground force into Lebanon to try to retrieve the captured soldiers and bombed the roads leading from the site of the initial operation. The HA had expected that and prepared the main road so that when the first Israeli tank rolled across the border they detonated 2-300 kg explosives and blew it to smithereens. After that initial reaction, the Israeli leadership decided to do something different and embarked on what they call "Operation Change of Direction" (first named "Just Reward"). The name indicates the alteration: Israel has decided to try to solve the "Hizbollah Problem" - and the only way they think they can do it is through military means, thus mirroring HA's (and the wider Mideast World's) perception that the only way to get anything from Israel is through military strength.
Judging from the initial reactions of Hassan Nasrallah, but also Syria and Iran, it seems that while the tactic of capturing Israeli soldiers at the border was part of the overall strategy, and agreed upon, the timing of the operation wasn't and may very well have been in the hands of the HA military wing or even the relevant operational group. The fewer people know - the fewer can spill anything.
Also interesting are the subsequent actions by both Israel and Syria/Iran.
Israel has proceeded on a strategy of step-by-step attacking targets in Lebanon - first roads/bridges near the initial attack site as well as HA positions on the border, then infrastructure further away (but throughout the South), then declared a sea & air blockade (undermined through dropping a few bombs on the runways on Lebanon's 3 airports - Beirut Int'l, Rayaq airforce base, Qolailat in the north - which did not do any significant damage but showed that the "Izzies" mean it), then bombed the Beirut-Damascus highway at some high-profile points, then fired a few shells on the harbors in Beirut & Tripoli to emphasize the sea blockade, took out the radar posts on the coast (which is where harbors like Jounieh & Amchit got hit) ... and, of course, all the while hitting at anything that the planers in the IDF HQs think is only remotely connected to HA. (That's where the joke originates that the reason the Beirut lighthouse got hit was 'cause in Arabic, the word for "lighthouse" is "al-manarah" - (almost) the same as the HA TV station Al-Manar [which is why the station has the name - "a beacon in the darkness"] and the "Izzies" confused the two.)
Of course, while the IDF operates under general rules of combat and officially tries to only hit military targets and avoid civilian casualties, the way it goes about doing it is somewhat unappreciated (How would YOU feel if it rained "You better leave your neighborhood 'cause we're gonna bomb it in a few hours" fliers on you?) and a general attitude of "it's their own damn fault if they're in a war zone - why didn't they leave?" hasn't done much to endear the IDF to its Arab neighbors. Also, as shown through the official Israeli investigation into the Qana Massacre and subsequent interviews with the IDF artillery gunners, like in any other war, the demonization of the enemy and the dehumanization of the soldier ensures that those much-taunted Rules of War are not being adhered to and that, if "shit happens", cover-ups are the norm. And that goes for all sides. (A good account of the Qana Massacre and the interviews can be found in Robert Fisk's "The Great War for Civilisation".)
As for Syria and Iran, before the background of Arab/Islamic solidarity it IS quite interesting to see that after a news flash about an Israeli air attack on a military post on the Syrian side of the Lebanese-Syrian border the Syrians beat the Israelis to a fast and unambiguous denial of the report. That's not exactly what you'd expect from Syria if you'd watched your regular news program, is it? Nor are Israel's repeated assertions that "no, for the umpteenth time, we're NOT planning to attack Syria." And Iran has more often declared that "any attack on Syria would result in our military support for our ally and Israel shouldn't even DREAM of hitting us either" than that its support of Nasrallah & the HA's valiant resistance fighters. As a matter of fact, the Iranian Foreign Minister has already declared that a ceasefire-cum-prisoner-exchange would be a great idea.
The Saudis were one of the first Arab countries to comment on the situation - and they called HA "adventurist". That's not a compliment. Needless to say, the Jordanians and Egyptians used the chance to beat the current "Shi'ite crescent from Iran via Iraq & Syria all the way to Hizbollah" drum.
What's also interesting are the numbers of people who showed up to "solidarity demonstrations" in the Arab world and even Iran, i.e. almost nobody.
In the end, since I'm not in PoliSci ... I don't have to give predictions of what'll happen next. Obviously, Israel will try to get as close to its ideal goal (return of the two soldiers alive, permanent disarmament and destruction of HA as a fighting force, guarantee that no more rockets or shells come aflyin' across the border) as possible. Similarly, HA would like to turn this situation into a boost of its inner-Lebanese support, prove to the World just how brutal Israel is, and hopefully inflict so much pain onto its enemy and its civilian population that there will be domestic Israeli pressure to never again attack Lebanon.
In a few weeks we'll see how close each is gonna come.
Raf*'s sources to stay up-to-date:
(PS: As this article is written for 'Aqoul, I have tried to be as dispassionate as possible. Since Beirut is home to me, and since I have friends, colleagues, and acquaintances among all groups and on all sides of this conflict, it affects me more than, say, East Timor. For the sake of professionalism I'll be pouring out my anger & frustration on my blog and not here. I would like to ask the readers to do so as well.)
Posted by raf* at July 17, 2006 08:36 PM
Filed Under: Levant
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Raf - thanks. One note on #2 - while there had been talk and talk and talk and more talk about HB's weapons, there had really been no sign of any kind of actual political movement (on that or pretty much any other significant issue), especially since Aoun & Nasrallah had their little tete-a-tete.
Posted by: Tom Scudder at July 18, 2006 02:56 AM
Great summary of events. Although I disagree with a few points, I am blown away by your very fair and objective approach. Kudos.
Posted by: Jordan at July 18, 2006 04:12 AM
you're right - there had been no "actual political movement". but the serious discussion about HAs disarmament among the zu'amaa' (the "bosses") AND within the wider lebanese public was something that had never happened before & one could see HA getting defensive.
right now, it could go either way - HA regaining full popular support against which no politician can move (like it used to be), or its allies (syria/iran) bending to int'l pressure and allowing the establishment of a u.n.-brokered scenario where HA retreats from the border and the lebanese army moves in.
still too soon to call, though.
Posted by: raf* at July 18, 2006 06:13 AM
so why aren't the Arabs demonstrating? Is it:
a) state oppression
b) conflict fatigue
c) basic indifference
answers on a postcard.
Posted by: Klaus at July 18, 2006 06:26 AM
Good stuff Raf. I am not sure this is going to be the knockdown drag out people think it is. I will wait and see if the Hizb'Allah cells world wide go into action. If they do, then we know this is the "real deal" so to speak.
Israel cannot destroy Hizb'Allah in such a manner. They couldnt do it with ground troops and 20 years, they are not going to do it with planes and helicopters.
As to why the Lebanese army cannot patrol the border, I think we have seen that the last few days. They cannot, and in many cases, do not want to resist the Israelis in the first place.
Lets remember it was the earlier Israeli intervention in Lebanon that gave birth to Hizb'Allah. Even if they could destroy the group something more radical would replace it.
Posted by: Abu Sinan at July 18, 2006 07:11 AM
Abu Sinan -
Unfortunately, I suspect the Israelis believe the same thing. Unless Olmert is persuaded to back down (very possible - the world doesn't seem to have much patience for this war), I would expect an actual ground invasion sometime soon. In fact, you could read all this degradation of infrastructure (military euphemism for blasting everything in sight) as a preparation to make hizballah less mobile for when the ground attack starts. Not a happy thought.
Posted by: homais at July 18, 2006 11:43 AM
Thank you for this. Gives me much to think about.
Posted by: homais at July 18, 2006 11:47 AM
away from Analyzing.. this is a battle to proove that Arabs became so weak.. HB and palestinian resistance has been trying to tell this Arabic world for tens of years that israel is not as powerful as it looks. why this weakness .. why this negativity? if a small group can do all this to Israel, what would happen if the arabic regimes stopped protecting Israeli borders?
Posted by: Ayman at July 18, 2006 12:58 PM
Great essay, raf.
However, and although there's quite enough armchair wanking on the web as it is, I must say that two things don't compute. First, in the obvious interpretation, Israeli strategy just seems too dumb. Olmert and Peretz may be rookies, but the military establishment has had ample chance to learn what they can and cannot do against Hizbullah. Various things may need to be said for internal political reasons, but I'm skeptical of analyses that have them cheerfully shooting themselves in the foot. Second, would not a reasonable tactic for a military solution involve maximizing the chances of carrying it through? That's not what I'm seeing. Too much mayhem. Too damn many innocent people dead. Not enough PR. The only way I can make some sense out of this campaign is as pressure on everyone to create an effective barrier between Hizbullah and the border.
Posted by: Michael at July 18, 2006 01:21 PM
to answer your question, i would like to refer you to ilan pappe's essay "what does israel want?"
while i understand your concerns/questions, you do misunderestimate (if dubya can say it, then so can i) the narrowness of military tunnel vision.
i do think that's at play here.
Posted by: raf* at July 18, 2006 01:46 PM
I've also read that Israel intends to create a 1km "free fire" zone along the border. The idea, I gather, will be to destroy anything that moves in that zone. This won't stop rocket attacks but it will make physical incursions extremely difficult. This is the same underlying idea as the wall Israel is builing in the West Bank.
Posted by: Anonymous at July 18, 2006 02:17 PM
I would agree with Raf Bey. Given some of the "security" (read ex-Mil) talking heads I have seen, esp. on US TV (which seems to have adopted the Israeli government line on all things re this crisis), it does strike me that tactical thinking tunnel vision types have the bit in the teeth.
Look at the US military tunnel vision in Iraq. Only now are they realising the tactical focus on killing insurgents may have negative cost-benefit result relative to wider goals. I note also that early on, US military seemed much betaken (from what I saw directly and not stupid rumour mongering) Israeli models of dealing with ralcatricant populations.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at July 18, 2006 02:36 PM
Thanks for the pointer, Raf. I'm not sure how much credence to give to the article. The author is clearly an outsider to the military establishment, both in practice and in spirit. There's a common tendency to translate ideological disagreements into unflattering pragmatic analyses on a rather semi-subliminal level. I would be more convinced if this opinion came from a professional, and there's no reason to suppose that it wouldn't have. It's the basic efficiency of the establishment that's at stake.
For the tunnel vision of the US military in Iraq, I agree. But there's a notable difference. The US military came into Iraq thoroughly unprepared for guerilla warfare, while the IDF has been at it for almost as long as it existed. There's only so much that can be improvised on the spot without institutional foundations having been laid over a period of time, especially if one gets sqweamish about burning down villages and demolishing city quarters.
I don't know much about military matters, and especially in Israeli context, not being able to read Hebrew. IDF does give an impression of a reasonably well put together organization, however. Just as Hizbullah gives an impression of an effective guerilla force. In fact, both seem to stand out rather favorably in the region, amidst sclerotic armies and delusional psychopaths. I would be their biggest fan if they could only take their fine assymetrical warfare to some desert island in the Pacific.
Posted by: Michael at July 18, 2006 05:20 PM
Nice analysis, one of the best I've seen anywhere so far, raf*.
Posted by: matthew hogan at July 18, 2006 05:32 PM
I second that.. Great and informative post.. Hang in there..
Posted by: Chris Wage at July 20, 2006 12:22 AM
thanks for the article, and prayers to you. stay safe.
Posted by: lisa at July 20, 2006 02:58 PM
أتمني ان نتبنى جميعا كمدونين كلمه واحده بتاريخ واحد نحدد فيه رأينا للعالم اجمع
اتمني ان ندون مدونه واحد بتاريخ 27/07/2006
كلنا كمدونين نكرر عباره واحده
كلنا مع لبنان وفلسطين ضد اسرائيل والمحتلين
ولننشر كلماتنا القليله في جميع المنتديات والمواقع ليكون هذا اليوم يوم احتجاج
بالعربي بالانجليزي المهم نسمع صوتنا للعالم
وان لم نستطيع حمل السلاح فالنحمل الكلمه
وبأي لغة نستطيع نشرها
We are with Lebanon and Palestine against Israel and occupiers
Nous sommes avec tous le Liban et la Palestine contre l’Israel et les occupants
Wir sind zusammen mit dem Libanon und Palästina gegen Israel und Besatzer
Somos todos con Líbano y Palestina contra Israel e inquilinos
Posted by: layal at July 21, 2006 06:32 AM
thanks for the nice words. i would like to ask you for one favor: please go visit www.saveleb.org and help. any donation will help. you can even chose according to denomination, yay! (it wouldn't be lebanon if you couldn't ...)
thank you very much.
thank you for your support. HOWEVER, i would like to inform you that i will not be part of any campaign that targets one kind of bad deed by committing another.
i am NOT "against israel".
i am FOR lebanon, palestine, israel, syria, and every other people on this planet.
i am AGAINST any kind of occupation - the israeli occupation in gaza/westbank/east jerusalem & the golan, the syrian occupation of lebanon (until the lebanese people kicked them out last summer), the ba'th occupation of syria, the hizbollah occupation of southern lebanon & lebanese politics ... the chinese occupation of tibet, etc.pp.
unless you understand that it's not about one group of PEOPLE against another but ALL PEOPLE against ALL oppressors/occupiers ... well, until then you're just another fanatic.
have a nice day,
Posted by: raf* at July 21, 2006 08:23 AM
Interviewer: Did you inform them that you were about to abduct Israeli soldiers?
Hassan Nasrallah: I told them that we must resolve the issue of the prisoners, and that the only way to resolve it is by abducting Israeli soldiers.
Interviewer: Did you say this clearly?
Hassan Nasrallah: Yes, and nobody said to me: “No, you are not allowed to abduct Israeli soldiers.” Even if they had told me not to… I’m not defending myself here. I said that we would abduct Israeli soldiers in meetings with some of the main political leaders in the country. I don’t want to mention names now, but when the time comes to settle accounts, I will. They asked: “If this happens, will the issue of the prisoners be over and done with?” I said that it was logical that it would. And I’m telling you, our estimation was not mistaken. I’m not exaggerating.
Posted by: shanfara at July 24, 2006 01:40 PM
Tsk tsk, shanfara (jinniliyyah). Posting under a different name does not make you a different person.
However, I'm on vacation and in a good mood. Post as yourself (but do stay on topic).
Posted by: eerie at July 25, 2006 12:13 AM
err...shanfara was supposed to have name recognition, being as how you are just another campfire i haunt, unbidden and unwelcome. ca va. ;)
and...that was on topic. nasr'ullah was speaking of the leb gov't in that quote. i'm sick of all the pundits bloviating about iranian and syrian conspiricies.
this war is just a prisoner swap gone bad. hizb' thought israel would swap, because they had before. israel thought they would be reined in, because that had happened before. they both seem a little surprised.
like oryx sez, the prisoner swap involving the leb gov't would allow both sides to climb down and save face.
and people would stop dying.
and i absolutely fail to see the significance of Sameer Kuntar to either side. why should the israelis not trade him? why does hizb' insist on it? he is an obscene monster not worth a single civilian life on either side.
feel free to ban me eerie.
djinn rules. ;)
Posted by: jinnilyyah at July 25, 2006 01:19 AM
I don't know what shanfara signifies, only that it's one of your 8 billion aliases. Since you are known by a particular nickname around here, stick with it.
And yes, you are currently on topic. Merely a warning because I don't like banning.
Posted by: eerie at July 25, 2006 11:28 AM