Hizbollah’s last stand?

Zaid Al-Ali
31 July 2006

The latest war between Israel and Lebanon is far from over, and will probably last longer than the parties themselves and most observers originally assumed. Both the Israelis and Hizbollah have entrenched themselves in positions from which they cannot easily back down, and the third parties that have been trying to broker an end to the fighting are yet to propose anything that is even close to being acceptable.

In addition, both parties are heavily armed and capable of continuing the battle for some time yet, and have as always adopted irreconcilable positions and strategies. All the elements exist for a prolonged war in which much blood will continue to be shed.

It is now public knowledge that Israel has been preparing the current war with Lebanon and Hizbollah for more than one year. This is not the first time that Israel has launched a preplanned attack on Lebanon on the basis of a pretext. In 1982, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) invaded and occupied half of Lebanon's territory, including Beirut, officially in reaction to an alleged assassination attempt of its ambassador to London, but in reality in order to eliminate Yassir Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which was then operating in Beirut. 30,000 Lebanese civilians were eventually killed in that operation.

The background of and preparation for the current war date from May 2000, when Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon after suffering a series of military reversals. From that time onwards, Hizbollah has been increasing its military capacity and Israel has been waiting for the proper opportunity to finish off its enemy. The IDF knows full well, however, that Hizbollah cannot be defeated through traditional military means. Hizbollah is an armed movement, a political party, a social network, a virtual state within a state that is truly representative of the people that it claims to represent. To defeat Hizbollah militarily would entail eliminating all of its constituents, which the IDF realises is not possible.

Zaid Al-Ali is an attorney at the New York Bar and specialises in international commercial arbitration. He has graduated from King's College London, the Sorbonne University in Paris and Harvard Law School. He is also the editor of www.iraqieconomy.org

Among Zaid Al-Ali's articles on openDemocracy:

"Iraq: the lost generation"
(7 November 2004)

"Iraq's dangerous elections"
(23 December 2004)

"The end of secularism in Iraq" (18 May 2005)

"Lebanon's pre-election hangover"
(27 May 2005)

"Iraq: a constitution or an epitaph?"
(16 August 2005)

"Iraq: a constitution to nowhere"
(14 October 2005)

Israel: a two-pronged strategy

The Israelis have therefore developed an alternative plan. Israel hopes that, through a combined strategy that involves two things – inflicting collective punishment on the Lebanese people as a whole, and humiliating Hizbollah on the ground – Hizbollah will have no choice but to disarm its weapons in the face of a furious Lebanese populace.

In relation to the first part of this strategy, Israel has a certain amount of experience with collective punishment in Lebanon. During the Lebanese civil war of 1975-90, when the PLO would launch rocket attacks against northern Israel from Lebanese territory, the IDF consistently responded with attacks on other constituencies, including Shi'a interests. The result at the time was a string of battles between Palestinian and Lebanese militias, which eventually led to an end to Palestinian activity in Lebanon.

The IDF is pursuing a similar strategy this time, and it is being helped by the context in which its operation is being carried out. Lebanon has been living through a wave of anti-Syrian feeling since the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005, for which many blamed Damascus. The Israelis hope that after the smoke clears, and after the onslaught on Lebanon is over, the Lebanese will blame Hizbollah and its Syrian patrons for the damage and therefore force Hizbollah to give up its weapons once and for all.

This first aspect of Israel's strategy was initially very successful. The Lebanese, heavily indebted after a mismanaged post-war reconstruction of their country, were looking forward to record number of tourists visiting their country this summer. They were therefore by and large furious with Hizbollah for having initiated hstilities with Israel for no apparent reason and with no regard to their economic interests. However, the longer this war goes on, and as the number of atrocities committed by the Israelis (such as the horrible massacre of dozens of children in the village of Qana on 30 July) continues to rise, hatred of Israel will increase and more and more people will rally to Hizbollah.

The second aspect of Israel's strategy is more problematic. Total victory over Hizbollah is impossible for the reasons set out above. However, what Israel is intending is to inflict a partial and humiliating defeat on Hizbollah that will – from Lebanon's point of view – put into question the entire reason for the movement's existence. Israel's stated objective is to occupy a four-kilometre-wide strip of Lebanese territory that will supposedly allow for the establishment of a "security buffer-zone".

It is clearly nonsensical to assume that Israel will be any safer if this objective is achieved, as Hizbollah's arsenal includes rockets with a range of more than forty kilometres, and any Israeli troops stationed in such an area will be extremely vulnerable. In fact, Israel's purpose in creating the security buffer is to send a message to the Lebanese people, which is in line with its two-pronged strategy: not only have Hizbollah's actions caused the destruction of your country, they have actually brought about the re-occupation of Lebanese land. What, in Lebanese eyes, can justify the continued existence of such a group?

Hizbollah: a matter of survival

Hizbollah is perfectly aware of the difficult situation that it is in. It carried out a relatively limited military operation on 12 July, and was expecting Israel to react in the same way that it had in the past, which is to say through limited bombing operations and eventually a prisoner exchange. After the Israeli operation got into full swing, Hizbollah realised the full significance of what was happening and appreciated that the final outcome of this war could ultimately be involuntary disarmament under unfavorable conditions. This is an outcome that Hizbollah is not prepared to accept, as it would mean the end of the movement, and a return to the time of old, when the Shi'a of Lebanon were reduced to the status of second-class citizens.

The current war is therefore a matter of survival for Hizbollah. Israel is already occupying Maroun al-Ras, a village just north of the border, and is working with a view to taking Bint Jbeil, a town of 30,000 inhabitants. It would be utterly humiliating from Hizbollah's point of view if Israel managed to consolidate its position and reoccupy a part of Lebanon.

This explains why Hizbollah has gone against its own military dogma. The strategy of a guerrilla resistance force is to wait for the enemy to settle in a given location, identify its weakness and then hit and run. However, because of the circumstances it was faced with, Hizbollah chose to confront the Israelis face to face in Bint Jbeil, and although it managed to expel them outright, in the long run this is not a sustainable modus operandi for Hizbollah.

This sequence of events and calculations explains why all the efforts and propositions that have been made by the third parties to the conflict are so unlikely to succeed. What has thus far been proposed is that Hizbollah disarm, that Lebanon should be forced to host an international military intervention force, and that countries other than Israel pay for the reconstruction of Lebanon. Such proposals would be tantamount to Hizbollah accepting defeat, and there is today no incentive for the group to bow down in that manner. It still considers that it has the means to repel the Israeli invaders and it has proven in the past that it has the will to fight to the last man in order to meet that objective.

This point also highlights the inherent contradiction in Israel's desire to create a buffer-zone. Occupying Lebanese land will create an incentive for Hizbollah to continue its operations, and may even reinvigorate the group even further. The group cannot, for its own sake, permit a long-term Israeli occupation. The implication is that a series of further violent confrontations can be expected to take place in the coming days.

There is therefore little hope that the current war will end soon, as both parties are determined to see it through, and as all the peace plans that have been put forward thus far fall short of being acceptable. Caught in the middle, as is always the case in the Arab region, are the thousands of innocents, who have been forced from their towns and villages, killed in their homes, crushed under the weight of debris, and terrorised by the sound of planes flying overhead. Lebanon, despite all its promise, remains unable to escape from the middle-eastern nightmare.

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