In wartime, it has happened in Israel’s history that senior officers have not functioned at full capacity. Rabin was famously hit by a severe case of anxiety in the ’67 war and had to take a couple of days off during the war. These days the current Israeli Chief of Staff, Halutz, is also experiencing stomach pains that have had him hospitalized briefly twice during the first 19 days of this war against Hizbullah.
Can you blame him? He carries the weight of an unbroken string of Israeli victories in wars on his shoulders, not to mention the survival of the first Jewish state in 2000 years in the Land of Israel. Failure is not an option.
Yet, Hizbullah is a wily foe. Well armed with many modern tools of warfare; over 12,000 rockets in their possession and aimed solely at Israel; well entrenched with a smart, bomb-proof and dangerous tunnel system; experienced in combat with the IDF ; confident from what they perceive as a victory in 2000 when Ehud Barak unilaterally pulled the IDF out of Lebanon to make negotiating with Arafat a more focused issue for Israel; and, with backers that include the well-experienced and technologically sophisticated Iranian army as well as the less sophisticated Syria that happens to be next door to Lebanon. For six years now Nasrallah has been waiting and preparing Hizbullah for the next time the Israelis would challenge South Lebanon. While perhaps Israel wasn’t sure that they’d go in, Nasrallah was. Not only did he continually launch attacks against military and occasionally civilian targets, but he also taunted, threatened, cajoled and managed to bring in reserves and re-inforcements into Lebanon before the initial attack that resulted in the kidnapping of two soldiers.
The Hizbullah strategy includes using the terrain to their advantage. To them, the terrain means both the physical, human and psychological aspects of the landscape that Israel and Lebanon share. On the physical front, they are extremely familiar with the area and have tamed it to suit their purposes of withstanding IDF attacks. They also know the Israeli side of the border through years of successful intelligence work – at least three spies have been captured and indicted by Israel on charges of spying for Hizbullah. On the human side, they shamelessly use civilians as cover, dressing like them and placing their weapons among them. There are reports of Hizbullah preventing civilians from leaving villages where the IDF had sent warning leaflets asking residents to leave. The deaths of civilians are considered to be victories over Israel because of the morality of the IDF which is diminished in the eyes of others, the international press coverage which ultimately emerges as negative and the diplomatic pressure that is brought to bear. The psychological front is a simple one: every rocket that falls on Israel is a reminder of the IDF’s failure to protect its citizens; every dead Israeli soldier cuts through the Israelis’ hearts and is considered a profound loss and sacrifice; every village that requires more than a day of fighting to overcome becomes a symbol of victory of the smaller terror militia over the IDF.
The IDF has played into Nasrallah/Hizbullah/Iran’s hands in two key ways.
The air bombardment may have achieved certain goals, but it certainly hasn’t defeated Hizbullah or come close to it. On the other hand, the negative press that has resulted from the inevitable civilian deaths and injuries, not to mention the ongoing images of destroyed buildings, have hurt Israel in a war that was initially perceived by the international community as just and fair. In the worst developments, Israel has found itself on the defensive diplomatically. Qatar managed to receive 10 votes on the UN Security Council for a resolution that included language like Palestinian Territories when referring to east Jerusalem (hint: there never was a state called Palestine and east Jerusalem was never under Palestinian control, ever). The leaders of Western countries, save for the US, Canada, Australia and to a lesser degree England, have attacked Israel over its actions and have proposed settlements that would include giving Hizbullah a victory even over closed UN matters like the issue of Shaba Farms which were determined to be Syrian territory under Israeli occupation and never a part of Lebanon.
In the worst event yet in this war, a building which apparently was bombed by Israel collapsed, killing
57 28 (new Red Cross numbers) Lebanese, more than half of them children. The Internet is buzzing with talk of war crimes, hideous IDF tactics, Israelis targeting civilians, the IDF overplaying its hand, etc. On the other hand, the IDF has not stepped back, claiming it bombed the building 8 hours before its collapse and showing videos of rocket launching vehicles shooting their weapons and returning to hide inside dwellings in the village where this attack took place, Qana. A Lebanese website claims the building was set up for destruction by Hizbullah itself, in order to deflect a developing cease fire between Lebanon and Israel that would have weakened the organization (hat tip: Ynet). The coincidence that such a deadly event would occur in Qana of all places, where Israel had a similar mishap in 1996 is simply too overwhelming to accept. Nonetheless, no final word has come out yet and in the meantime, in the eyes of most of the world, this was a heinous Israeli crime.
There have been some victories for the IDF. I have been trying but unable to find a great photo by Rina Castelnuovo published in the NY Times the other day where Israeli soldiers were returning from battle, a stretcher with an injured soldier on their shoulders, singing and laughing in a moment where morale was clearly high. Presumably the battle had gone well. Battles have mostly gone well once the first rusty days were out of the way. Israel had to fight hard and was initially surprised by the planning and resistance of Hizbullah, but they won those battles and despite losses, Hizbullah lost far more of theirs despite having advantage of location and planning. As the fighting on the ground has proceeded, the rising confidence of the Israeli troops is palpable.
But despite a day of some respite as a result of the Qana bombing and Hizbullah’s apparent need to re-group or otherwise patient waiting for the next battle, we are now entering a new stage of the war. Israel is preparing a much wider ground offensive which will launch imminently. Olmert has told the Israeli public to expect some hard days ahead that will be filled with sadness and blood. He expects more missiles to be launched at Israel, and nobody believes the Israelis can go into Southern Lebanon without incurring losses among the soldiers. Hizbullah is tough and prepared and Nasrallah was waiting for this day. In fact, many suspect that Israel may be entering a trap by sending in large ground forces.
It’s fair to say that everybody has butterflies right now, from Halutz and Olmert to the greenest combat soldiers in the IDF who will be in the front lines. I’m sure the Hizbullah folks feel them too, even if they perceive death as martyrdom. There is much riding on these upcoming battles: lives and limbs of soldiers and civilians; the future of this war; the future of Lebanon; the future of Israel; the future of the conflict with Iran and Syria; the future of the conflict between the West and Iran’s Shi’ism; the future of the conflict with the West with radical Islam in general, whether Sunni or Shi’ite. Everybody knows that Israel only has a limited window before the US and the international community force it to stop fighting, which means that if Hizbullah can avoid being tackled and harmed severely, they will end up surviving with strength and, in essence, victorious.
I want to wish a safe and successful battle to Israel’s forces. Let us hope they come home safe and enjoy a crushing victory over these Hizbullah savages who care so little about human life and who fight without the honor of soldiers, hiding behind unarmed UN observers and their own unarmed brothers and sisters who are civilians. They represent the worst of their society and deserve to lose this war bitterly.