Operation Hubris in the strangest war

Israel's action in Lebanon has been a political and military disaster.
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The Independent Online
It was the strangest war. No Israeli died and only two were seriously wounded. But after 10 days Operation Grapes of Wrath has failed in its aim of stopping Hizbollah, the Lebanese guerrilla movement, firing Katyusha rockets at Israel. The campaign was also directed against Syrian control of Lebanon, but has ended up strengthening it. No military campaign in the Middle East has so wholly failed to achieve its political objectives since President Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990.

Israel was quick to see that the turning point for the operation had come on Thursday when its howitzers pulverised the UN compound, housing 700 refugees, at Qana. The death of 101 Lebanese, shown on every television screen in the US, robbed Grapes of Wrath of American support, which was always central to its success. Within hours of President Clinton calling for a ceasefire, Shimon Peres, the Israeli prime minister, reversed Israeli policy and followed suit. He said that while talks went on "we don't have to be firing".

The operation had modest beginnings. On 8 April a Lebanese boy in a village north of the Israeli occupation zone was killed by a landmine. Local residents accused Israel of planting it. Israel denied it, but Hizbollah fired rockets across the border on the grounds that his death was a breach of the 1993 understanding, brokered by the US, under which both sides pledged to avoid hitting civilian targets.

An Israeli counter-offensive had long been expected. The army wanted to hit back at Hizbollah, which has killed six of its soldiers in successful ambushes this year. Shimon Peres, the prime minister, wanted to look tough on security in the lead-up to the election in six weeks. But everybody, perhaps even Mr Peres himself, was surprised by the scale of the Israeli onslaught.

Curiously, it was not primarily directed against Hizbollah. Although Israeli television showed impressive videos, taken by attacking aircraft, of missiles and smart bombs demolishing buildings, Israeli military intelligence admitted that very few guerrillas were inside. Despite firing 3,000 shells and launching 200 air sorties a day Israel believes it has killed only 20 Hizbollah and the guerrillas say the number is even lower.

The purpose of the bombing and artillery barrage was to drive out 400,000 civilians from south Lebanon and cripple the reconstruction of Lebanon which has been going on since the civil war ended five years ago. The idea was that Rafiq Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister, seeing the destruction of his country, would rush to Damascus. Aghast at the display of Israeli military might, Syria would, in turn, decide to curb Hizbollah. The balance of power in Lebanon - a balance reached after 15 years of civil war and foreign invasion - was to be changed overnight.

The change was to take place on the cheap. No Israeli ground forces were to be deployed. Artillery and air power alone would suffice to do what the whole Israeli army had failed to accomplish during the war of 1982- 84. Mr Peres reminded everyone that it was he who had pulled the Israeli army out of Lebanon to the self- declared security zone in 1985. He would commit no ground troops, thus avoiding any long-term entanglements.

Mr Peres knew that war would be palatable to Israelis if there were no military casualties and no mass call-up of the reserves. "Peres cannot afford 20 military funerals," said a commentator in Jerusalem before the operation started. Not only were no ground troops to be committed, there were not even going to be forward artillery observers. Instead, new, highly accurate munitions and equipment for locating the enemy were to be used.

It was all going to be like the Gulf war. But the Israelis, of all people, should have known that the claims to accuracy made by allied air power in that conflict were exaggerated. When Scud missiles were falling on Israel in 1991 the US air force devoted great resources to locating the mobile Scud launchers in Iraq's western desert. In the weeks that followed, American pilots claimed to have destroyed 90 of them. A US air force survey after the war, after close examination of reconnaissance photographs, discovered that its planes had not hit a single Scud launcher.

Mr Peres, with a civilian and not a military background, may simply have been overconfident that the claims of surgical accuracy by Israeli artillery and aircraft were true. An Israeli observer said early on in the operation: "Peres has two delusions, air power and economic pressure, and neither of these will work in Lebanon."

It also appears that the army got out of control. Major General Amnon Levine, who heads the Northern Command of the Israeli army, has never had a reputation for finesse. Last year he was defending himself against an apparent admission in an unguarded interview that Israeli soldiers regularly shot wounded Hizbollah fighters. One Israeli observer said unkindly that, looking at Levine, he was reminded of a general in the 1950s of whom it was remarked that he was "so stupid that even the other generals noticed".

It may also be that the Israeli government was over-confident. Shifts in alliances in the Middle East in the past six months have all favoured Israel. The Sharm el-Sheikh conference, assembled by President Clinton last month, saw Arab leaders from Morocco to the Gulf express solidarity for the first time with Israel. President Hafez al-Assad and his distant ally Iran looked isolated. Israel has signed a far-reaching agreement on military co-operation with Turkey. Most important, Jordan was drawing ever closer to Israel and the United States, as King Hussein broke with Iraq. Washington and Tel Aviv appear to have decided that it was a good moment to teach President Assad a lesson.

In fact it is the Syrian leader who has won by saying little and doing nothing. Israel and the US have achieved none of their aims, despite Israel's unchallenged military superiority. Grapes of Wrath may take its place in text books as a warning about the consequences of failing to match political goals and military means.

"Political and strategic preparations must go hand in hand," Sir Eyre Crowe, a famed foreign office mandarin, once wrote. "Failure of such harmony must lead either to military disaster or political retreat."