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A proxy war

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The war in Lebanon is only a week old, but it is already obvious that these are just the early stages. It is probably true that Israel has been given a free hand by the United States to continue operations for at least a week, but there is virtually no chance of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) being able to defeat Hizbollah in that time frame. In a real sense, Hizbollah cannot be defeated by military methods short of a reoccupation of southern Lebanon. Even that would eventually result in a persistent guerrilla war whose outcome would be another defeat for the IDF along the lines of its bitter experience in 1983-5.

Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since October 2001

Among Paul Rogers's columns on Hizbollah, Iran and Israel:

"Hizbollah's warning flight" (5 May 2005)

"Iran in Israel's firing-range"
(8 December 2005)

"Iran: war by October?" (20 April 2006)

Israel, Lebanon, and beyond: the danger of escalation"
(17 July 2006)

"War defeats diplomacy" (18 July 2006)

It would not be accurate to describe the current war as coming out of nowhere. Of the many tensions and incidents since the Israeli transition from internal to external control of Gaza in August 2005, one of the most significant was the Israeli bombardment of the Lebanese border areas, the Beqaa valley and targets near Beirut at the end of May 2006; this, the most intensive Israeli military action in five years, was a reaction to rocket attacks from Hizbollah and, quite possibly, the PFLP-GC Palestinian militia (see Marina da Silva "Lebanon: the Other Palestinians", Le Monde diplomatique, July 2006).

Israel's adoption of external control of Gaza is one reason why the attack on 25 June on a border post, killing two soldiers and kidnapping a third, had such a deep psychological effect. Hamas's near-routine firing of crude home-made rockets was one thing, but the sheer audacity of the tunnelling and subsequent assault was something else. The domestic political pressures within Israel helped to create a massive over-reaction that involved the destruction of key aspects of Gaza's economic infrastructure and the deaths of many civilians, with shelling and bombing by strike aircraft and helicopter gunships persisting for days.

Two weeks later, on 12 July, Hizbollah's own border incursion into Israel was accompanied by rocket attacks on the border town of Shlomi that wounded several Israelis. The operation was, at least in part, designed as an act of solidarity with the Palestinians in Gaza, whose predicament has been reported in huge detail in the regional media. The border raid included the seizure of two Israeli soldiers; the initial IDF counter-attack resulted in a further Hizbollah coup, the wholly unexpected destruction of an Israeli tank.

The reaction from Israel was immediate, and reminiscent of the pummelling of Gaza: a series of wide-ranging attacks across Lebanon, many of them focused on Hizbollah itself but also targeting the Lebanese infrastructure. Around sixty bombing raids per day over the past week have killed as many as 300 Lebanese civilians.

In turn, Hizbollah has demonstrated its previously suspected ability to fire missiles deep into northern Israel, and this has greatly exacerbated the mood of vulnerability across the country as a whole. This will ensure that the process of targeting Lebanon in the coming days continues – with the clear approval of Washington and, extraordinarily, London.

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

A collection of Paul Rogers's Oxford Research Group briefings, Iraq and the War on Terror: Twelve Months of Insurgency, 2004-05 is published by IB Tauris
(October 2005)

Whatever the full motivations of Hamas, and whether Syria and Iran are indirectly involved, the reality is that what is happening in Lebanon is beginning to evolve into a proxy war between the United States and Iran. That, at least, is how it is seen from Washington, whose explicit message is that Iran is the real problem, and that it is appropriate for Israel to cripple or even destroy its surrogate, Hizbollah, across the border in Lebanon.

The IDF now claims to have demolished up to half of Hizbollah's paramilitary capabilities (which include a stockpile of perhaps 12,000 rockets). That is largely propaganda for domestic consumption and hardly meshes with Hizbollah's continuing ability to launch numerous missiles each day, amounting to nearly a thousand in the past week alone. Moreover, the group is proving itself capable of doing this in an operational environment where the Israelis have total air control, can use satellite and drone reconnaissance to observe southern Lebanon in detail, and can send in squads of special forces on lightning raids when required.

At a time like this, reports of the daily casualties, refugee flows and evacuations dominating the western news media tend to convey an underlying assumption that this is a dangerous crisis that will die down within a week or two. The very intensity of coverage implies that the dust will settle and things will return to a kind of normality. This is nonsense. What is happening is the escalation of a conflict that adds a further major war zone to Iraq and Afghanistan, with regional if not global consequences that will be felt for years to come.


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