There have been so many wars in the Middle East that no-one is quite sure what to call them anymore. Israel's blood-soaked northern border with Lebanon alone has seen so many conflicts that to dub the events of July and August 2006 the "Second Lebanon War" seems deficient, but this is the official name that was arrived upon in Israel to describe the conflict. This was the second conflagration with Lebanon that Israel has classed as a "war", but the name chosen for the operation shows continuity with earlier, smaller-scale violence-as-usual. In 1993, we had Operation Accountability; in 1996, Operation Grapes of Wrath; and in 2006, Operation Just Reward. The names have a clear implication: Hezbollah and their allies were reaping what they had sown.
When the war burst onto news screens in 2006, it seemed inexplicable. As usual, Israel's enemies bled the Jewish state drop by drop, below the news radar, until it responded with what seemed to be a massively disproportionate levelling of much of Lebanon's infrastructure which screamed out of every media outlet until a ceasefire was brokered by the United Nations. After the war, the soul-searching in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv was unprecedented; the war was soon being described as "lost" by senior officers, and it seemed that Israel had killed innocents and caused unknown damage to little strategic effect. The prestige of the Israeli military took a massive blow which, as I write, it is currently attempting to revenge with unprecedented savagery on Hamas.
Israel's first defeat in war had a deep and enduring impact on the country's psyche, the results of which are beginning to be demonstrated now. Even those who are sensitive to the legitimate security concerns of Israel could see that the war had done little to advance them, and at great cost. There were many lessons to be learned for the future, but in this war's origins there is also much of use to be learned about the past. The first section of this write-up addresses the background to Israel's conflict with Lebanon, the second examines the Second Lebanon War in detail, and the third addresses the ramifications of the war for the region's future.
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Lebanon is a multi-confessional state in which power is shared in a delicate balance between Sunni Muslims, Shi'a Muslims and Christians. The country is governed by the National Pact, an agreement brokered in 1943 to share power between the sects; the Christians agreed to stop seeking French intervention to advance their interests, the Muslims agreed to give up their longstanding ambition to be united with Syria, and governmental power was apportioned among the sects according to their relative sizes in a census taken in 1932. As the demographics of the country shifted and hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees arrived after being expelled from Israel and Jordan, the country plummetted into a brutal civil war which allowed Palestinian militants, backed by an occupying Syrian army, to perpetrate violence against Israel from the south of the country.
About 100,000 Palestinians fled to Lebanon after the creation of the state of Israel and the ensuing war, and then yet more came after the events that are known to Arabs as "Black September". In September 1970, King Hussein of Jordan found himself in a deadly showdown with the Palestinian militant groups which had set up a state-within-a-state in his country. First they tried to kill the king, then hijacked multiple aircraft and increased the already-high number of violent provocations they were carrying out against Jordanian soldiers and officials; King Hussein declared martial law and eventually managed to eject the Palestinian Liberation Organization and other groups from the country. They fled to Lebanon, where they soon began to have the profound destabilizing effect that the king had feared would be visited on his own country.
The emergence of Lebanon as a serious security problem for Israel dates from this time. With the PLO now based in the south of the country, cross-border attacks by Palestinian terrorists increased dramatically, and so did Israeli retaliation. The Lebanese government had agreed to allow Palestinian militants to operate out of the south of country against Israel, so long as the operations were co-ordinated with the Lebanese military; this latter clause was rarely observed, and the PLO soon effectively ruled the south of Lebanon. From there they and the Abu Nidal Organization planned hundreds of terrorist attacks and cross-border raids and shellings into Israel. In June 1982, after Palestinian terrorists shot Israel's ambassador to the United Kingdom in the head on the streets of London, the Israeli Defence Forces invaded Lebanon.
During this war, Israel ejected the PLO from the south of Lebanon and then occupied a thin strip above the border themselves. This security zone was supposed to prevent militants from shooting mortars into Israel or infiltrating the north, but the Israeli military presence provoked fierce resistance in Lebanon. In response to the initial Israeli incursion, Iran and Syria funded and trained a militant Shi'a group to fight back. This group became Hezbollah (this literally means "the party of Allah"), and it was built on the example of the recently-completed Iranian Revolution. It combined social programmes for Lebanon's poor Shi'a with military resistance to Israel's presence in the country. And, by carrying out this resistance with spectacular terrorist attacks, it quickly gained a privileged position in Lebanese society.
Hezbollah lays claim to be the first group in the Middle East to pioneer the use of suicide bombing, and it deployed this tactic against the Israeli military and their Lebanese allies. Hezbollah reached a tacit agreement with every other faction in the Lebanese Civil War that it would not intervene in the internal struggle so long as it were left to fight the Israeli occupation of the security zone. This aloofness from Lebanon's internal strife and the fact Hezbollah was credited with driving Israel back to the security zone and then eventually forcing them to leave the country entirely in 2000 meant that the group came to have an almost mythical reputation throughout Lebanon and the Arab world. This also went for its leader after 1992, Hassan Nasrallah. As one scholar of the movement writes: "In a country where sons of political elites are sent to prestigious Western universities and groomed for lives of luxury, Nasrallah's 18-year-old son died fighting Israelis in southern Lebanon."
This reputation meant that in 1990, when the Lebanese Civil War ended with the Taif Agreement, which called for the disarmament of all militias, Hezbollah was allowed to keep its weapons so that it could carry on the battle to remove Israeli forces from Lebanese territory. In return, Hezbollah was supposed to continue to keep its nose out of Lebanese politics, a commitment that it has not always honoured. For the following decade, it continued the struggle against the Israelis, until finally the Jewish state withdrew in 2000.
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When the Israelis withdrew from the south of Lebanon, tired of sustaining casualties in an occupation that brought few benefits while angering so many, there was a brief pause during which it seemed Hezbollah's war might be over. But when the Second Intifada began in 2000, Hezbollah resumed hostilities. It resurrected a dubious territorial claim to the Shebaa Farms, eight square miles of unpopulated hills which Israel continued to occupy and Lebanon claimed as its own, although the preponderance of evidence is that the land is in fact Syrian. The Syrians themselves say that sovereignty can be decided after the Israelis have withdrawn, but were keen to allow Hezbollah to use the land as a pretext to continue fighting Israel to prevent Hezbollah from pursuing political ambitions in Lebanon which might eventually prove incompatible with the Syrian occupation of the country.
And so Hezbollah fought on, moving into the areas that Israel had abandoned and building heavily-fortified defences. They imported vast quantities of heavy weaponry and distributed Iranian money to bolster their support. Their estimated strength was around 1,000 men, with perhaps 6,000 more in reserve, and this small force continued to strike at Israel despite the country's vast military might. Like Hamas today, their popularity and continued relevance in the Arab world depended on inflicting pain on Israel, a goal they pursued with relish while paying lip service to the Shebaa farms and the release of Lebanese prisoners held in Israel.
Violence between Hezbollah and Israel hence continued and threatened to destabilize Lebanon, while providing a minor irritant for Israel. Then in 2004 and '05, events began to change rapidly. In 2004, the United Nations Security Council passed resolution 1559, calling for Syria to end its occupation of Lebanon and for Hezbollah to be disarmed; Syria responded in 2005 by assassinating the most pro-Western, anti-Syrian political figure in the country, Rafik Hariri; and this act so enraged the Lebanese public that they launched the Cedar Revolution and ejected Syria from the country. Hezbollah's position in the country became potentially more precarious with the departure of its Syrian patron. Then, in 2006, it saw the opportunity to enhance its reputation of untouchability in hope of bolstering this position.
In June 2006, Israel launched a punishing bombardment of the Gaza Strip after Palestinian militants kidnapped Corporal Gilad Shalit; he remains in Hamas captivity and as a major issue in Israeli politics to this day. To express practical solidarity with Hamas, in July Hezbollah launched a barrage of missiles into northern Israel and attacked an Israeli military patrol on Israeli territory, killing and injuring several soldiers and kidnapping two more. Hezbollah wanted to exchange the two captured soldiers for four Lebanese they say were imprisoned in Israel. Two of the men whose release they demanded were not even held in Israel.
The most notorious man they wanted released, who did at least exist, was Samir Kuntar, a Lebanese terrorist who slipped ashore into an Israeli city in 1979 and murdered several Israelis during an abduction attempt; he was also convicted of indirectly causing the death of a girl who was accidently suffocated by her mother as they tried to hide. Within Israel, Kuntar is considered one of the most depraved individuals the country has ever faced, but in Lebanon and Syria he is seen as a hero. When the prisoner exchange finally took place two years after the war - the Israeli prisoners were dead by this time, if they did not die during the abduction - Kuntar received Syria's highest civilian medal.
Israel said that the abduction was an act of war, and because Hezbollah had not been disarmed in accordance with the Security Council resolution and because Hezbollah had seats in the Lebanese cabinet, it was taken to be an act of war by the sovereign state of Lebanon. Israel quickly showed that it would know no distinction between Lebanon and Hezbollah, a stance which it was hoped would result in Hezbollah losing its halo as an organization that had brought only good to Lebanon while never harming her. In effect, Israel wanted to punish the Lebanese in the hope they would turn against Hezbollah; ironically, the war ultimately only weakened the Lebanese state and enhanced the reputation of Hezbollah, which at the time of my writing is more intertwined than ever in the governance of the country.
The Israelis launched a massive air campaign against Lebanon, hitting the country's major airport, its bridges and roads and power stations. They poured munitions on southern Lebanon, hitting villages and cars thought to contain members of Hezbollah. Over 1,000 Lebanese civilians are said to have died during the conflict, whereas the toll exacted from Hezbollah itself was only half this number. With the air strikes proving ineffective, Israeli troops eventually crossed the border to engage Hezbollah in fighting on the ground. 119 of them died in the attempt, which was widely seen as poorly planned. Stories of soldiers running out of supplies abounded. Meanwhile, at the strategic level, the Israeli cabinet had not even decided on the precise goals it was seeking through all this bloodshed.
International condemnation of the Israeli action was strong, especially regarding the damage inflicted on Lebanese infrastructure. By the time Israeli forces withdrew, they had not managed to stem Hezbollah rocket fire into northern Israel - indeed, the pace of it picked up in the final week of the war. This allowed Hezbollah to emerge, if not wholly victorious - after all, many of them were dead - at least able to show significant successes. Israel had failed to dismantle the group, had suffered significant losses fighting it, and had little to show; Hezbollah could recruit new members to replace those who were dead and Iran would always give it more equipment. Politically, the situation in the south of Lebanon had not been resolved, and the Lebanese state was no closer to disarming Hezbollah.
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Even more alarmingly for Israel, its aura of military infallibility had been punctured. Israel never felt a sense of military defeat so acutely as it did in late 2006, and never before had it squandered so much - so many young lives, so much international goodwill - for so little. Protests mounted in the country, spearheaded by the families of the dead, until they eventually managed to get the government to acknowledge that the conflict had been a "war", and that those who died in it deserved the honour of this recognition. Then a series of inquiries were launched, culminating in the Winograd Commission, which had all sorts of unflattering things to say about the state of military readiness and the unclear goals that the political leadership had provided the military with.
Beyond the incompetence of the government, the war said something about Israeli grand strategy. However distasteful its critics find it, Israel does not live in a neighbourhood in which it has the luxury of foregoing the use of force; for so long as terrorist and militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah exist, so will the need for Israeli force to be exercised. Yet the war against Hezbollah demonstrated the danger of seeing the military as the sole solution to the problem, as if a paroxysm of violence were as useful as it may be cathartic. Violence cannot build, it can only destroy, and what Israel desperately needs to do is find a way to encourage the emergence of political structures among its enemies that will remove the need for perennial bloodletting. This means promoting the "forces of moderation" which we constantly hear and constantly hope lie submerged somewhere beneath the fanatics.
For all the complexities of the politics of Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, this is ultimately what the problem of Israeli security comes down to. The population of Lebanon appeared chastened by the Israeli offensive and their patience with Hezbollah - especially among groups other than the Shi'a - is not unlimited. The destruction of Israel, Hezbollah's most cherished goal, is not identical with the national interest of Lebanon. The country's people will not necessarily forgive the group if they provoke another such decimation of their country, especially over trivial matters - what, ultimately, did Lebanon gain from the war? Nothing but the status of a martyr among nations, a dubious honour it already held after decades of civil war and foreign intervention.
But death begets death as anger begets anger, and there will always be more people willing to carry on the violent struggle on both sides, inspired by the martyrs of yesterday. Hezbollah's provocation and the destruction that was visited on Lebanon as a result appears pointless until we realize it is part of a life and death struggle that defies rationality and which whispers to us beneath every call for a temporary ceasefire in the battle between Israel and its fanatical enemies: there can be no ceasefire now unless there is to be a ceasefire for ever. Everything else is just a pause to regroup, an ebb in the tide, a meaningless step. There is no use when facing those who have forgotten how to cease firing. But the most urgent task awaiting Israel is not crushing its enemies in battle - this is the first goal, but should not be the difficult part. The second and more difficult goal is doing so without swelling the ranks of these enemies yet more through visiting inhumanity on innocents.
In the Second Lebanon War, Israel decidedly failed to achieve either of these goals. And that is the most damning indictment of all.
An excellent article on Hezbollah which I quote above is Gary C. Gambill, 'Hezbollah and the Political Ecology of Postwar Lebanon', Mideast Monitor 1, no. 3 which has the added virtue of being accessible online at http://www.mideastmonitor.org/issues/0609/0609_1.htm . Apart from that, you can watch events unfold, as I have done in the past and then recalled here, in the pages of Lebanon's Daily Star (http://www.dailystar.com.lb/) and Israel's Jerusalem Post (http://www.jpost.com/) and Haaretz (http://www.haaretz.com/).