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Israel's strategic victory in Lebanon

About the author
David Ucko is programme coordinator and research fellow at the department of war studies, King's College London.

So who won the Israel-Hizbollah war of July-August 2006? In these days, faith in the utility of conventional military force is generally low - "if we learnt anything from Iraq", the argument goes, "it is that victory is about winning the peace as much as it is about winning the war". From this perspective, it seems clear that in invading Lebanon on 12 July, Israel fell victim to the strategic fallacy typical of western militaries: that a conventional military superiority can be used to defeat insurgencies.

The argument is reinforced by the fact that Hizbollah remains in place, has not been disarmed and has even gathered strength and support through the Israeli Defence Force (IDF)'s heavy-handedness. Furthermore, while Israel's recourse to war resulted in the acceleration of rocket attacks on Israeli villages, it also tarnished the country's reputation, not only in the Arab world but globally, resulting in further condemnation of its military and foreign policies. From this perspective, Israel's invasion of Lebanon was an out-and-out strategic failure.

David Ucko is programme coordinator & research fellow at the department of war studies, King's College London

Before and after

It is, however, possible to view the conflict from another perspective - one in which Israel emerges as the strategic victor, of sorts. One of the reasons the Bush administration equivocated before committing itself to a ceasefire or diplomatic solution to the crisis was its fear of a return to the pre-war status quo. A quick comparison between the situation now and that prior to the invasion reveals both how much has changed and why Israel may take at least some satisfaction over its performance in the war.

Most importantly, in southern Lebanon there is now a reinforced and growing United Nations peacekeeping presence. Currently composed of more than 5,000 troops, the UN Interim Force in Lebanon II (Unifil II) is authorised to reach a ceiling of 15,000. From the outset, and through pressure from Israel, it has included a heavy contingent of western European troops - a better safeguard, it is believed, against renewed Hizbollah attacks on Israel and a guarantee that the west keeps its eye on developments in the region.

That this force has been mustered in a matter of weeks and received the active support and participation of western European armies is in itself astounding - compare the pace of activity with action taken to halt other conflicts, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa, where various humanitarian outrages and appeals for blue helmets have often gone unanswered.

Meanwhile, the Lebanese army has also mobilised southwards to cover all "blue-line" villages where Hizbollah had previously operated freely. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, senior IDF officials are reported as expressing their satisfaction with the UN-Lebanese army initiative. It belongs to the story, of course, that Israel is seeking to tie its withdrawal from Lebanon to the formulation of rules of engagement that would allow it to engage Hizbollah, should it deem such action necessary.

The combined effect of the Unifil II and Lebanese deployments is to put the spotlight on Hizbollah. The UN and Lebanese presence in southern Lebanon is there precisely to ensure that Hizbollah does not launch any further attacks on Israel. Should Hizbollah fail to comply with this expectation, it would clearly be perceived as being at fault, and the breach of the ceasefire would in the international arena corrode any good faith it might have accrued as a side-product of IDF heavy-handedness.

This would also put the UN and Lebanese troops to test - their credibility would depend on convincing action (whether this is feasible or not) to stop such occurrences. If, on the other hand, Hizbollah succumbs (even if only for the time being) to the pressure to respect the ceasefire, this could translate into a political advantage for a currently beleaguered Ehud Olmert and for Israel more generally.

openDemocracy writers assess the Israel-Hizbollah war:

Zaid Al-Ali, "Whatever happens, Hizbollah has already won"
(10 August 2006)

Nadim Shehadi, "Riviera vs Citadel: the battle for Lebanon"
(22 August 2006)

Paul Rogers, "Lebanon: the war after the war"
(12 October 2006)

Eric Silver, "Lebanon: who won the war?"
(17 October 2006)

Image and reality

This all seems to amount to an Israeli military success: while not disarmed, Hizbollah now operates under the watchful eye of UN peacekeepers and the Lebanese army. It no doubt possesses the capabilities to renew hostilities, but at a considerable cost to its profile, particularly as such action would thwart the efforts of the national army of Lebanon.

But of course there is more to international conflict than politics: what about image? Surely the thirty-four-day war in Lebanon has damaged Israel's reputation, regionally and internationally? While this may certainly be the case, it is uncertain whether it really matters. Israel's reputation in the region was already adequately tarnished before the invasion and would arguably have remained so even in the absence of military action. Internationally, the war triggered more anti-Israeli protests in the main capitals of the western world. Yet international opinion is fickle and the outrage - whether justified or not - will no doubt blow over in a matter of months.

There is no evidence that the benefits outlined here featured in Israel's pre-invasion war planning. To make such a claim may give the Israeli leadership too much credit. Nonetheless, it is clear that, at the very least, Israel has made the most of a bad war and that, possibly, it has obtained benefits through war that would not have been possible otherwise. In that sense, Israel - not Hizbollah - stands out as the strategic victor of the Lebanese war.

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