How Israel has lost way in its war on Hizbollah

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The Independent Online

What is Israel trying to do in Lebanon?

The massive aerial bombardment and blockade of Lebanon began in response to a cross-border raid in which two Israeli soldiers were abducted by Hizbollah 17 days ago. But its goal is now to minimise the threat to Israel's northern border posed by Hizbollah.

Although much of the early political rhetoric raised expectations that Hizbollah could be destroyed, there is talk now of "crippling" the group ­ not least by limiting its capacity to fire rockets ­ and of a buffer zone in the border area. Dan Halutz, the Israel Defence Forces chief of staff, said Israel's objectives cannot be achieved by military means alone.

Israeli officials suggest the weakening of Hizbollah ­ including cutting off its supply of weapons ­ is a necessary precondition of striking a ceasefire agreement that will make the commitment to disarming it ­ enshrined in UN resolution 1559 ­ work effectively.

So how will Israel react to the Bush-Blair idea of a multinational force announced last night?

Positively ­ in principle. Israel originally said it wanted the Lebanese army to patrol the border zone and complete the task of disarming Hizbollah; now its preference is for a large ­ perhaps 20,000-strong ­ Western-led multinational force in the south. Big questions, however, remain after the Washington summit over the timing, scale and composition of such a force ­ and whether the US plans to delay a ceasefire to allow Israel to try to secure a tangible military success against Hizbollah.

How ready was Israel for the resistance Hizbollah has shown?

Mr Olmert said last Wednesday, when nine soldiers died in the battle for the southern Lebanese town of Bint Jbeil, that Israel had not been surprised.

But all the testimonies from soldiers suggest they were struck by how much better trained Hizbollah forces had been than before the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. Moreover the casualties were inflicted less than 24 hours after Brigadier General Shuki Sachar, deputy head of the northern command, told reporters that the Israel Defence Forces had accomplished "almost all of its missions" in the area of Bint Jbeil. Troops were ambushed in the town and met with fierce resistance. All this came after the IDF changed the "balance of forces" to bring in ground troops after a massive air and artillery campaign which, while inflicting what senior officers called "some very good blows" against Hizbollah, also inflicted hundreds of civilian casualties, while failing to make much of an impact on some of Hizbollah's best-hidden bunkers and weapons caches.

So did the army call up three divisions of reservists on Thursday because it is contemplating a full-scale invasion?

Asked about this yesterday, Dan Halutz said: "One of the things we don't want is to rush ourselves into a larger ground operation. But if there is no way to avoid it, we are prepared for that." The Israeli leadership is well aware of the dangers of anything which invokes memories of the 1982 war. Equally ­ despite seeing Damascus and Tehran as paymasters of Hizbollah ­ it doesn't want direct confrontation with Syria. The cabinet made clear that such an invasion would require a fresh meeting to approve it. And the new divisions probably need a week to train and deploy.

On the other hand, the mere presence of such a force could create its own dynamic, particularly if the diplomatic process, or the apparent attempt to create a bridgehead around Bint Jbeil, fails. Mr Olmert could face pressure to react with massive force if, for example, Hizbollah launched a major rocket attack on Tel Aviv or if there were unacceptably large numbers of military casualties.

Wouldn't that all make the public wary of an invasion?

That's not the way it looks. More than 80 per cent support military action to "cripple" Hizbollah before any ceasefire negotiations, and a poll, taken after the reverse at Bint Jbeil, showed 50 per cent want more military action, not less. The political danger for Mr Olmert is that if public expectations of a military victory are too high, he will disappoint an electorate whose trust he still needs, or he will become embroiled in a war which becomes as unpopular as Israel's last one in Lebanon. A ceasefire agreement to remove Hizbollah from the border may be the minimum he needs to avoid either fate.