Two major events dominated discussion of Israel’s ongoing campaign against Hizbullah last week. (1) the death of eight Golani brigade soldiers in a Hizbullah ambush last Wednesday at Bint Jbail; and (2) the killing of dozens of Lebanese civilians, including many children, in the collapse on Sunday morning of a building in Kfar Qana hit the previous night by an IAF missile. The two events were not unrelated.
The loss of the eight Golani soldiers cast a deep pall over the Israeli public, particularly since the IDF had announced the day before that it had secured Bint Jbail, the "terrorist capital of the South." Their deaths brought back memories of the 13 reservists killed in a booby-trapped house in Jenin in 2002. In both cases, Jewish soldiers died because of the IDF’s insistence on keeping civilian casualties to a minimum, and its refusal to destroy homes in which it knew terrorists were hiding.
The following night’s news carried heartrending portraits of each of those buried that day and interviews with bereaved family members. Some were too much to bear. Major Roi Klein, the father of two, threw himself on a live grenade while reciting "Shema Yisroel," in order to save troops under his command from sure death. When his long-time chavrusah and next door neighbor came to comfort his wife, she told him, "I want my children to grow up just like Roi, but now who will show them the way?" An officer killed in fighting elsewhere had been expelled by the IDF for his opposition to last summer’s Gaza withdrawal and begged to be reinstated for the current fighting.
The motivation of IDF troops did not appear to have been affected by what they witnessed at Bint Jbail. In interviews from Rambam Hospital in Haifa, the less seriously wounded spoke of their eagerness to rejoin their comrades. And they uniformly expressed their confidence in the IDF’s ability to defeat Hizbullah, and noted that far more Hizbullah members were killed in the intense firefight in Bint Jbail than Israeli soldiers.
Israel’s home front continued to show similar determination. Yedioth Ahronoth’s weekend poll found that 96% of the Jewish population supports continuation of the battle against Hizbullah in Lebanon. Orna Shimoni, one of the original Four Mothers, who helped spur Israel’s 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon, spoke for many when she told Ha’aretz’s Avi Shavit how she views the current fighting:
"This is an existential war. A war over our actual lives. . . . [If we don’t fight], I know what will happen: there will be a slaughter here. . . . Not one person from the nation of Israel will remain. . . . And I think that even if we remove hundreds of thousands of people from their homes in Lebanon, that is not only right, it is also moral. Because I do not want them to be killed in our shelling. But we have to shell. And we have to fight. Because this time, it’s not over the security zone [in southern Lebanon], this time it’s over our lives."
ONLY THE SECURITY CABINET GOT COLD FEET after last Wednesday’s clashes in Bint Jbail. It turned down the IDF’s request to expand the ground operation in southern Lebanon, in order to secure far more tangible results than the IDF has managed to thus far. The IDF General Staff is acutely aware of the mounting international pressure for a ceasefire, even though the army is far from achieving its minimal goal of pushing Hizbullah out of southern Lebanon.
Even the United States shows signs of increasing discomfort with its role protecting Israel from European demands that it wrap up operations quickly. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice told Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in weekend meetings that the United States would introduce some kind of Security Council Resolution calling for a ceasefire by the end of the week.
With the clock ticking, and unwilling to repeat the losses from Bint Jbail in house-to-house fighting in dozens of villages that serve as Hizbullah strongholds, the IDF had no choice but to hit Hizbullah launching sites from the air, even though most of Hizbullah’s katyushas and rocket launchers are located in private homes.
What happened in Kfar Qana on Sunday, then, was no accident. The IAF had clear aerial reconnaissance of multiple katyushas being launched from the area. (Over 150 katyshas have been fired from Kfar Qana all together.) And those operating the launchers were seen ducking back into the building struck by an IAF missile.
Why the building, which the IDF claims was hit at 12:30 a.m., did not collapse for another seven hours still remains to be seen? If the building was so badly damaged by the Israeli missile, why did the occupants not leave in the interim? The possibility remains that katyushas stored in the building exploded, and caused the collapse.
It hardly matters. It was enough that more than thirty children (still unconfirmed) were killed for the world to condemn Israel and provide Hizbullah with the public relations victory it so badly needed. (In that victory, Hizbullah was aided and abetted by Israel, which took almost a full news cycle to get out aerial photographs of katyushas being fired from next to the hit building.)
Israel can cry until it is blue in the face that the Fourth Geneva Convention places the onus for civilian deaths on those who locate military targets among a civilian population. And it can point to the warnings issued to all residents of Kfar Qana to vacate their homes. Those warnings were either ignored or Hizbullah refused to allow villagers to flee.
Spokesmen for Israel can further note the absurdity of accusing Israel of having responded with disproportionate force to Hizbullah’s attacks on the basis of body counts. No country, in a war against an aggressor, limits itself to inflicting no more damage than that inflicted by the original act of aggression. Witness the million German and Japanese civilians killed by Allied bombings en route to securing the unconditional surrender of those countries.
The difference between the number of Lebanese casualties and the number of Israeli casualties has nothing to do with Hizbullah’s greater humanity. Every one of the 2,000 katyushas fired by Hizbullah has been launched with the intent of claiming the maximum number of Israeli lives. Only the fact that Israeli civilians have either fled the North or remained largely confined to bomb shelters for the past three weeks – at a cost of billions of dollars to the economy – has kept the number of civilian casualties down.
By contrast, not a single Israeli missile or artillery shell deliberately targeted Lebanese civilians. Had killing Lebanese civilians been Israel’s goal – rather than its greatest nightmare – it could have leveled Beirut and the rest of the country in one or two days.
But all of this is irrelevant as far as the world is concerned. Realizing that, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared a two-day cessation of IAF bombing and a 24-hour period for civilians to leave their villages in southern Lebanon, after a Sunday evening meeting with Secretary of State Rice. The move caught the IDF by surprise, and senior commanders complained about the prime minister’s decision, which they said would cost the IDF vital momentum in the ongoing campaign against Hizbullah strongholds.
IN RETURN FOR THE ISRAELI CONCESSION, the United States blocked a Security Council condemnation of Israel. After long debate, the Security Council contented itself with a statement expressing "extreme shock and distress" over the civilian deaths in Kfar Qana. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan did not obtain the demand for an immediate ceasefire he had requested. And the final statement included American-drafted language noting that any cease-fire must be "lasting, permanent, and sustainable."
An immediate cease-fire would have perfectly served Hizbullah’s interests. Already last week, the organization’s Iranian and Syrian patrons called for such a ceasefire. And there is good reason to believe that Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah has been praying for a large number of Lebanese civilian casualties, like those incurred at Kfar Qana, as a means of forcing a ceasefire on Israel.
From Nasrallah’s point of view, any end to the current fighting that leaves him still breathing is a triumph. And he is currently doing a lot better than that. After nearly three weeks of fighting, he was still able to launch 144 missiles at Israel on Sunday. And last Friday, his forces fired a much larger, longer-range Iranian missile, at Afula. That missile could have easily hit Israel from beyond the Litani River, the border of the Israeli security zone in southern Lebanon until 2000.
In addition, Nasrallah’s stock has soared in the Arab street. The Sunni states that originally condemned Hizbullah’s adventurism – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan -- are no longer doing so, out of fear of antagonizing their own populations.
NO MAJOR FIGURE IN ISRAEL HAS YET CALLED FOR A CONCLUSION TO THE FIGHTING or negotiations. For good reason. As Jerusalem Post editor David Horowitz points out, the decision to respond forcefully to Hizbullah’s kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers was predicated on the assumption that the IDF would prevail; "the alternative was simply inconceivable."
Three weeks later, the IDF has still not mounted a major ground offensive, most of the fighting has been concentrated in the immediate vicinity of Israel’s northern border, and the IDF has not come close to its original goal of pushing Hizbullah out of southern Lebanon. If hostilities were to end today, Hizbullah would still be in a position to regroup, and likely obtain from Iran new weapons of even more devastating capabilities than it has employed to date.
Hizbullah knew that Israel would never attack Lebanon. The 14,000 missiles it aimed at Israel had only one purpose: the annihilation of Israel They are tools of Iran, whose president has never hesitated to express his desire to wipe Israel off the map. That is why Hizbullah cannot be left with its missiles intact or in a position to rebuild.
AS SHE LEFT ISRAEL ON MONDAY MORNING, Secretary of State Rice outlined her vision of how the current crisis must be resolved. She called for the government of Lebanon to assert its authority over all of its territory in conformity with U.N. Resolution 1559. In order to achieve that goal, she described an international Stabilization Force to be deployed in the area over which the Lebanese Army would extend its control. No armed group would be permitted in that area, Rice said. She also described the Stabilization Force as policing the border with Syria, presumably to prevent Hizbullah from being rearmed via Syria.
It remains to be seen, however, whether this scenario comports with reality. How likely is Hizbullah to agree to give up its dominion over southern Lebanon, where it has long enjoyed the status of a state within a state? If, as appears likely, Hizbullah does not agree, then the U.N. force would have to be prepared to do battle with Hizbullah.
No international peacekeeping force within memory would have been capable of that. After witnessing the capabilities of Hizbullah fighters, and the advanced weaponry at its disposal in its confrontation with the vaunted IDF, it is hard to imagine too many nations who would be prepared to contribute troops to an international force designed to confront Hizbullah. Even the United States, already overextended in Iraq, is unlikely to join such a force. Memories of the 241 U.S. Marines killed when a Hizbullah truck bomber blew up their barracks in 1983 are still fresh.
Beyond questions about the possibility of assembling an international stabilization force, and its capabilities if it is assembled, there are a number of other problems with Rice’s plan. First, as Lebanese Druse leader Wali Jumblatt points out, Hizbullah can simply acquire longer-range missiles from Iran that can hit Israel from beyond the area in which the international force is deployed. Secondly, an international force might only serve to impede Israel’s freedom to respond to Hizbullah efforts to recreate its network of reinforced bunkers and storage areas in the South, and increase the likelihood of friction between Israel and nations it has no wish to alienate.
At the end of the day, it appears that Israel has no alternative to destroying much of Hizbullah’s capabilities itself, and no more propitious time than the present. We can only pray that New Republic’s Yossi Klein Halevi is correct when he writes:
"This is not a repetition of the first Lebanon war, but a return to our consensus wars of survival – not a Vietnam moment but a World War II moment. That is why Israel fights, and why it will win."