Israel Must Not Repeat the Mistakes of Lebanon
The fighting in Gaza has now escalated into a full-scale ground war. For supporters of Israel, this is a good thing, despite the loss of life to Israel’s brave fighting men, as well as Arab civilians put in harm’s way by Hamas. However, this bloodletting will have been in vain, if Israel does not see things through to the end, which is to say, by militarily defeating Hamas.The question is will Israel pursue its military objectives as it did say in the 1967 or 1973 Wars, or will it succumb to self-doubt and international pressure as it did in the 2006 Lebanon War?
The 2006 Lebanon War is widely perceived internationally, certainly within the Muslim world, and even in Israel, as a victory for Hizb’allah, and an Israeli defeat. Israel did not lose the war by conventional military standards. It inflicted greater casualties on the enemy, and its forces controlled some enemy territory at war’s end, while the enemy controlled no Israeli territory. Yet such measurements don’t always tell the whole story. By such measures, Germany won World War I.
Hizb’allah began the war shooting rockets into Israel, and ended the war the same way. Israeli vows to cripple the Shi’ite movement went unfulfilled, and Hizb'allah’s hard fighting guerillas earned both Israeli and international respect for military prowess, if nothing else. On the other hand, Israel inflicted sufficient losses on Hizb’allah that it has remained relatively quiescent since, though whether this is due to Israeli deterrence, internal problems or the Iranian pressure for Hizb’allah to keep its powder dry, is open to debate. On balance, Israel’s 2006 Lebanon campaign was at best a draw and at worst a significant victory for Hizb’allah. And the fact remains, that Hizb’allah remains a serious threat to Israeli security and a strong deterrent to Israeli action against Iran.
Hamas has very much sought to emulate Hizb’allah. But in previous encounters with the Israel Defense Force (IDF) it lacked the training, munitions, and defensive infrastructure to wage a sustained campaign against the Israelis. Israel responded to Hamas provocations with very measured responses over the years, which rather than deterring the Islamist organization, only succeeded in emboldening it. Hamas, over the same period, with extensive assistance from Hizb’allah and Iran, it cured the shortcomings listed above.
Even though Hamas “rules” Gaza, it is not a government and distains the drudgery and petty details of administering the territory under its control. It prefers the idea of “resistance.” Like Hizb’allah, it is a radical and violent Islamist movement. It happily and absurdly maintains -- with the idiotic support of Western leftists -- that Gaza is still under Israeli occupation, the better to justify its aggressive military activities. Thus, it was only a matter of time before Hamas, like Hizb'allah before it, would want to take Israel on again. It’s objective is nothing other than to fight Israel hard, inflict casualties, and survive to do it again. So long as Israel allows Hamas to survive, Hamas will continue to act this way.
In 2006, facing off against Hizb’allah in similar circumstances, Israel blinked, let Hizb’allah off the hook, and allowed the Islamist organization to claim victory. The reasons Israel blinked were both military and political, and are being repeated to a large extent in Gaza right now. Focusing mostly on the military side of things, the question is, will Israel blink again, or see the campaign through?
What happened in Lebanon that led to Israel to back off? First, Israel entered that war unprepared for Hizb’allah’s sophisticated weaponry, defensive fortifications, and tenacity. For a quarter century the IDF had fought nothing but a relatively weak Palestinian Arab insurgency and had lost its edge for conventional combat, from the effective use of armor and artillery, to logistics. Secondly, it operated under a new and controversial doctrine that confused its officers, and which did (and does not) seek military victory in a traditional sense. Instead of destroying the enemy, the doctrine seeks to convince the enemy, through military action, to change its behavior. Third, the civilian government, led by the Ehud Olmert, was weak and indecisive. Fourth, Arab civilian casualties brought strong international pressure to bear. And finally the fifth and often overlooked factor is that neither the IDF nor the Israeli public could abide significant military casualties.
If we look at these considerations in Gaza today, Israel is actually in much better shape than it was in Lebanon in 2006. Israeli forces have good intelligence on Hamas’ capabilities, have trained extensively to confront them, built up significant strength before launching a ground campaign, and don’t appear to have logistics problems. While the IDF still operates under its new “messaging” doctrine, that doctrine at least no longer confuses Israeli officers, and appears to have been tweaked and moderated to give Israeli forces some more leeway in hard fighting. The Netanyahu government is stronger, more decisive and more determined than Olmert’s. International pressure, while growing, has been (by the standards that Israel has confronted in the past) moderate, with Israel actually having the tacit support of many Arab countries to decisively finish the campaign.
The real sticking point might be the fifth factor. Will the IDF and the Israeli public countenance the casualties Israeli forces are bound to suffer in order to see this campaign through? In the past few days, IDF forces have taken modest, but still painful losses, in a difficult and heavily fortified urban environment. Many soldiers regard a fortified urban area as the most difficult operational environment possible, and significant losses to an attacker are inevitable. The U.S. suffered nearly 200 fatalities in Fallujah against an enemy not as well trained, prepared, armed, or fortified as Hamas.
In Lebanon, when Israeli forces encountered tough Hizb’allah resistance and took losses, Israeli offensives ground to a halt. Evacuating casualties became overcame mission accomplishment as the principal objective. It happened at repeatedly, in battles at Maroun al-Ras, Bint Jbeil, and the Saluki Gorge. None of these objectives were secured, the IDF seems to have lost its confidence, and the political echelon caved in to international and domestic pressures.
Now in Gaza, some of the same Israeli units that took heavy casualties in some Lebanon battles (e.g., the Golani infantry brigade) have taken similar losses in Gaza. At least one source reports that these losses, rather than demoralizing Israeli troops and their leaders, have invigorated them. It appears that well organized, supplied, and independent IDF battle groups are continuing to push into Gaza, despite taking losses. And so far, Netanyahu appears to be sticking to his guns as well.
The next few days will tell whether this reporting is accurate, or whether it is just wishful thinking. Israel had a rare opportunity to crush Hizb’allah in 2006, but failed to do so. It has a similar opening now against Hamas, and the military capability to do it. The only question is does Israel have the determination and the will.