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Israel’s strategic impasse

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Paul Rogers
31 July 2006

The forty-eight-hour pause in Israeli air raids over Lebanon announced in the aftermath of the Qana massacre on 30 July 2006 has been far from complete, but there was still some hope that it might lead on to a more general ceasefire. This was extinguished by Ehud Olmert in a robust speech in Tel Aviv on 31 July, which confirmed that Israel would intensify military operations until the threat from Hizbollah had been eliminated.

The speech was followed by Israeli cabinet decisions indicating that this would involve military action across much of Lebanon, including a substantial ground offensive in the south, possibly leading to the introduction of a robust international force that would effectively be acting on Israel's behalf.

Whether such an outcome is even remotely possible, given the intense opposition to Israeli actions in the region, it remains the case that Israel sees Hizbollah's missile capability as entirely unacceptable. Furthermore, it believes that it has more than enough support from Washington to continue with the war even in the face of international reaction to the Qana attack. The impact of the missiles on the Israeli public mood is considerable, and has resulted in a marked increase in the feeling of vulnerability, notwithstanding Israel's evidently overwhelming military power.

This aspect of Israel's extraordinarily strong military action is becoming more clearly recognised outside Israel, as is the understanding that the Bush administration sees the Lebanon war as integral to its wider global war on terror. A speech from George W Bush to the United States integrated coast-guard command in Miami on 31 July underlines this view: "The current crisis is part of a larger struggle between the forces of freedom and the forces of terror in the middle east".

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

Paul Rogers tracks the July 2006 war in a series of daily columns:

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

"War defeats diplomacy" (18 July 2006)

"A proxy war"
(19 July 2006)

"Israel: losing control" (20 July 2006)

"Hit Beirut, target Tehran" (21 July 2006)

"Lebanon in the wider war" (25 July 2006)

"Lebanon: no quick fix" (26 July 2006)

"A triple front: Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon"
(27 July 2006)

"Lebanon: the world’s choice" (28 July 2006)

"After Qana: a false dawn?" (31 July 2006)

Israel's military shift

At the same time, a full understanding of Israel's approach also requires recognition of another aspect of the current conflict that is much less obvious but almost as important. It relates to a major change in Israel's security posture that followed the final withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000, one that is building up to a major crisis for the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF).

This posture is based on the establishment of secure borders for the state of Israel. It has five components.

First, long-term peace deals with Jordan and Egypt; these ensure that the borders with those countries are matters of little concern.

Second, the ceasefire line on the Golan Heights; here, Israeli military capabilities are considered more than adequate to avoid another conflict with Syria.

Third, Israel undertakes a limited withdrawal from the West Bank, but leaves major Jewish settlements untouched and controls access for Palestinians by means of the massive wall currently being constructed. The part of the West Bank that is allowed to be under Palestinian administration will still be subject to Israeli control and will certainly not be able to develop into an economically viable state.

Fourth, the unilateral approach to the West Bank is paralleled by a withdrawal from Gaza which also maintains that territory as little short of an open prison, with Israel maintaining near-total control of the economy. The Israel-Gaza border is being controlled by a number of high-tech features that are still under construction and may even involve underground barriers to prevent tunnelling, an added necessity as the kidnapping on 25 June of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit (which helped precipitate the present phase of crisis) showed.

Fifth, the barrier idea has been taken to its extreme at the Israel-Lebanon border itself. In recent years a complex system of movement sensors, CCTV monitors, physical barriers and patrol routes has been established, enabling the entire border to be monitored on a continual and detailed basis, so much so that any action, no matter how small, can be checked and countered.

The establishment of these frontier defences has been at the core of a reorientation of the IDF described in 2006 by the chief-of-staff, General Dan Halutz. According to Defense News, Halutz "cited Israel's sensor-fused network along the northern border as an example of how the nation is achieving 'full situational awareness through intelligence superiority'. Halutz said Israel's operational concept of 'knowing first, understanding first, deciding first and acting first' allows Israel to choose the time, place and conditions when it will act'" (see Barbara Opall-Rome, "Raid Reveals Hole in Israeli Net", Defense News, 17 July 2006 [subscription only]).

Such an approach is accompanied by an extensive reconnaissance capability designed to provide near-total information superiority and a stand-off capacity to respond to perceived threats with air strikes, naval bombardment and, in some circumstances, the use of special forces. The entire approach is seen to be supremely high-tech, very modern and able to ensure Israel's security without having to maintain expensive ground forces of a size and at a level of training that was necessary in the past.

Almost everything about this approach has been found wanting by the events of 25 June onwards. Hamas's capture of Gilad Shalit was bad enough, but Hizbollah's incursion near Za'arit on the Lebanese border on 12 July was far worse. As Defense News puts it: "Evading dozens of eyes trained on computer screens in the base's combat information center, the operatives disabled at least one camera, penetrated a so-called dead zone of the border fence, and ambushed reservists despatched to investigate alarms."

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)

A number of senior retired Israeli military officers are now deeply critical of the IDF's embrace of technocentric warfare, and profess the belief that this has been achieved at the expense of what is often termed "basic soldiering". There is also recognition that the Hizbollah militia have become far more competent in their understanding of the Israeli moves towards high-tech warfare and have recognised some of the weak points in the entire system.

This, moreover, is in addition to Hizbollah's other intelligence surprises of the past three weeks, including the attack on the missile corvette (see "Israel, Lebanon, and beyond: the danger of escalation", 17 July 2006) and the ability of Hizbollah to maintain its missile attacks in the face of repeated Israeli air strikes.

For the moment, concerns within the Israeli military establishment express themselves in a firm belief that Israel must remember the "old ways" of doing things, and when necessary launch major ground-force attacks on the model of the six-day war of 1967 (even though the IDF failures in Lebanon in the early 1980s offer caution to this view).

Whatever happens in the coming weeks, the doubts over and criticisms about Israel's military course will be a core part of a developing controversy, as Israel traps itself in a protracted and dangerous conflict that is hugely costly to communities across Lebanon, and ultimately even to Israel itself.

The stage where Israel begins to recognise that it cannot maintain security through military power and has to achieve negotiated settlements if it is to live in peace has not yet been reached (see "Israel: losing control", 20 July 2006). But it will eventually come, and it is just possible that the current arguments over Israel's evolving military posture are an early signal of a new way of thinking.

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