A war the Israelis can all support

Patrick Cockburn explains why Shimon Peres unleashed the Grapes of Wrath campaign on Lebanon
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The Independent Online
It is Israel's most popular war since 1967. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, thousands of people signed a petition against the attack within 24 hours of it starting. This time there is very little dissent. The vast majority of Israelis believe that Operation Grapes of Wrath, now at the end of its first week, is the correct way to deal with Hizbollah, the Lebanese guerrilla movement.

The main difference between the war in 1982 and today is that the present operation is seen by Israelis as defensive. Hizbollah was firing Katyusha rockets across the border. Night after night Israeli television showed pictures of the small craters made by the rockets and Israeli families in northern Galilee living in deep shelters.

If anything the Israelis believe that Shimon Peres, the prime minister, waited too long. A few days before the bombardment of southern Lebanon started he was advised by his security men not to visit Kiryat Shmona, the town which is the favourite target of Hizbollah. By contrast, Bibi Netanyahu, the leader of the right-wing Likud party and his rival for the prime minister's office in the election on 29 May, was cheered as he walked through its streets.

It is also a war on the cheap. There has been no ground offensive by Israeli forces. Peres promised that there will be none, saying that in 1985 he was the man who got Israel out of Lebanon. This may turn out to be the weak point of the entire operation, but at the moment Israeli parents are not worried that their children are going to be sent to fight in Lebanon. There has not been a single Israeli military casualty in the last week, compared with the 650 soldiers who died in 1982-4.

Peres is also in a strong position because he is facing a general election in six weeks' time. If there was any dissent about Grapes of Wrath, it would come from the left, but this element is either contained in his governing coalition or is frightened of a Likud election victory. The Israeli left is, in any case, never very radical. One political commentator asks: "With a left like this, who needs a right?"

But after suicide bombs killed 63 people in February and March, Peres appeared to be sliding towards defeat. Even members of the Labour party who are not overjoyed by what is happening in Lebanon can see its political advantages. Likud has lost its best card, which was to attack Peres as soft on security.

There is a further connection between the bombardment of the south of Lebanon and the suicide bombing campaign. "Israelis were more profoundly shocked by the four suicide bombs than they ever were before," says one prominent peace activist. Hizbollah is a very different organisation from Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Its support is from the Lebanese Shiah community, while the Palestinian organisations that exploded the suicide bombs are Sunni Muslim. But for Israelis, they are all Islamic fundamentalists using the same lethal tactics. Attacking Lebanon helps to exorcise the hatred and fear that followed the suicide bombing attacks.

In some ways it has all been too easy. Just as in the Gulf war, there are videos of "smart" weapons demolishing targeted buildings (tagged as Hizbollah strongholds). But these clips give a false impression of the vulnerability of the guerrillas that Israel is facing in southern Lebanon. They do not depend on drill halls, arsenals or military emplacements. One reason why there was a build-up of tension in the Israeli-occupied zone over the past few months is that Hizbollah showed that it was becoming very effective. Its ambushes were sophisticated and the South Lebanon Army (SLA), the Israeli-controlled local militia, looked as if it was starting to disintegrate.

Despite the onslaught from the air, and from Israeli heavy artillery, there is no sign that Hizbollah has been hard hit. In recent days the number of Katyusha rockets being fired across the border has actually gone up. They do not do much damage and are inaccurate. Usually they dig a small pothole in the ground and break some windows. But Peres has promised to stop them and so far he has not done so. If there have only been six or seven Israeli civilian casualties in the past week, this is partly because local people are in deep shelters. They do not want to stay there.

Standing on the roof of the Israeli military headquarters at Marjayoun inside south Lebanon yesterday, Israeli military commanders were confident that by the end of the operation there would be fewer Katyushas. "They will not be in the same quantity," said Colonel Amal Assad. But this is not quite what Peres promised.

Colonel Assad also said that there had been no clashes between Hizbollah and Israeli or SLA troops for a week. This could mean that the guerrillas have been hurt by the bombardment - though this is contradicted by the fact that they continue to fire rockets. Another explanation, more ominous for Israel, is that they are waiting to counter-attack.

If they do so, this will be damaging for Peres. He needs a diplomatic solution in the next few days. He hopes this will come through the United States putting pressure on Syria, which will in turn curb Hizbollah. This is what President Hafez al-Assad of Syria did in 1993, and he may do so again. The problem is that if he does not do it, then it will be difficult for Peres to end Grapes of Wrath successfully. He will come under pressure to use ground troops. But at this point he will be doing what he said he would never do: entangle Israel in a ground war in Lebanon.

For Peres and Israel, Grapes of Wrath is more of a gamble than it looks. For the Israeli public, it is a conflict that appears justified and largely without risks. Few live anywhere near the northern border and most Israelis get their news of the damage done by the Katyusha rockets to life in northern Galilee from television and the press. Driving 400,000 people from their homes strikes Lebanese as an attempt to destroy their country - or at least to undermine their attempts to rebuild it after 15 years of war. While for Israelis, the order for people to leave their villages and towns seems like a benign effort to minimise casualties.

The danger for Israel is that the use of excessive force in Lebanon will ultimately be counter-effective. The aim may be to minimise Israeli casualties by using air power and artillery alone. But, as the US learnt in Vietnam and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, this is seldom effective. It disrupts too many lives; it creates new enemies. Israeli officers insist that they have been employing weapons with pin-point accuracy. But in the past, such claims have turned out to be exaggerated.

Peres is trying to increase the pressure on Hizbollah, the Lebanese government and Syria by insisting that Grapes of Wrath is open-ended, but if Israel is to achieve its goals in Lebanon then it needs a ceasefire and a diplomatic solution soon.