Lebanon: who won the war?

Eric Silver
16 October 2006

Two months after the ceasefire on 14 August 2006 that brought an end to the devastating Lebanon war, Israelis are still scourging themselves for failing to achieve what they thought they were fighting for: the disarming of Hizbollah and the release of the two soldiers whose abduction on 12 July provoked them into battle.

The Lebanese, by contrast, are increasingly blaming the Shi'a militants for the death and destruction they brought on their country. An unusually apologetic Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah's secretary-general, admitted in an interview with the Lebanese NTV on 27 August that he would not have ordered the cross-border operation if he had known the scale of Israel's response.

Fouad Siniora, Lebanon's Sunni prime minister, is cautiously beginning to assert his authority. Samir Geagea, a Christian warlord turned political leader, told a Beirut rally on 24 September: "The majority of the Lebanese people don't feel victory. The majority of the Lebanese people feel that a major catastrophe has befallen them, throwing their present and future up in the air."

Eric Silver is a journalist who has covered Israel for three decades.

Also by Eric Silver in openDemocracy:

"Israel's political map is redrawn"
(25 November 2005)

"A united, worried Israel" (21 July 2006)

"Israel's bleak post-mortem"
(18 August 2006)

But with tales of incompetence by military commanders and political leaders proliferating daily, Israelis are not convinced by Ehud Olmert's insistence that Israel made significant strategic and political gains. Confidence in the prime minister's centrist Kadima party is collapsing. An opinion poll published in the mass-circulation daily paper Yediot Aharonot on 12 October found that it would win only fifteen parliamentary seats if elections were held now, barely half the twenty-nine it captured at the first time of asking in the March 2006 general election. Kadima would come third behind the rightwing opposition Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home). Olmert is desperately seeking to expand his coalition to survive the winter, despite a thriving economy and a shekel that is at its highest against the dollar for more than five years.

Yet even the sceptical Israeli media are starting to acknowledge that things are changing across their northern border. The Lebanese army has deployed in the south for the first time in three decades. 12,000 government troops were in place by early October. They were backed by 5,500 soldiers from a beefed-up United Nations peace force, with international naval units patrolling the Mediterranean coast to enforce a UN embargo on the resupply of Hizbollah arms. Other troops were patrolling the eastern border to stop arms smuggling from Syria.

Miri Eisin, Olmert's spokeswoman, told foreign correspondents in Jerusalem on 4 October that no longer-range missiles, the kind that could hit Tel Aviv, had reached Hizbollah since the 14 August ceasefire to replace the arsenal destroyed by the Israeli air force.

Elias Murr, the Lebanese defence minister, claimed to reporters in Beirut on 10 October that the army had confiscated weapons from Hizbollah fighters. He declined to say how many. It seems, however, that his men are not actively searching for Hizbollah arms caches still hidden in Shi'a villages. The government is not disarming Hizbollah. It is content that the movement is complying with an agreement not to display its weapons in public.

Israel estimates that Hizbollah lost 650 combatants in the thirty-four-day war, about 10% of its regular force. Nasrallah's commanders are concentrating on the slow business of rebuilding. For now at least, southern Lebanon is no longer "Hizbollahstan." Armed men are not harassing Israeli border posts. Lebanese and UN troops are even limiting the number of civilian demonstrators allowed to approach the fence.

All too human

Nasrallah still boasts of a "divine victory" over the Zionist enemy, but Hizbollah has lost much of its swagger. It has ceased to dominate Lebanon's fragmented political map. A poll published in the Beirut French-language daily L'Orient-Le Jour on 28 August, two weeks after the ceasefire, found only 33.3% of Lebanese convinced that the war had strengthened Hizbollah. 51% favoured disarming it. Support for disarmament was particularly strong among Hizbollah's perennial foes, the Druze (79%) and Christians (77%), but less so among Sunni Muslims (54%).

An overwhelming majority of Shi'a (84%) wanted Hizbollah to keep its arms, but the disenchantment has set in there too. Sheikh Ali al-Amin, the respected Shi'a mufti of the southern port city of Tyre, scathingly dismissed Nasrallah's victory talk. In two interviews with the Lebanese LBC television station on 26 August and 5 September, the cleric said: "We suffered more than our enemy. The destruction caused to us was greater than that caused to our enemy. We lost more lives than the enemy ... I don't understand how anyone can claim that one side was defeated, without losing lives or suffering destruction, while the other side won, with all this destruction and loss of lives."

The mufti scorned the rebuilding grants Hizbollah promised thousands of Shi'a families whose homes were demolished by Israeli air strikes and army sappers. "People are not so simple and naïve", he argued, "that money will make them forget their wounds, their tragedies, and the loved ones they have lost. Life must go on, but how can anyone forget such pains and all the suffering of becoming displaced?"

The Beirut press - Arabic, French and English - provides a willing platform for Hizbollah's critics. Mona Fayyad, a professor at the Lebanese University, wrote one of the most searing denunciations on 8 August while the war was still raging. Under the heading "To be a Shi'ite Now..." she wrote in the liberal daily an-Nahar:

"To be a Shi'ite is to accept that your country be destroyed in front of your eyes - with no surprise - and that it comes tumbling down on your head and that your family be displaced and dispersed and becomes a refugee at the four corners of the nation and the world, and that you accept standing up to the enemy with no complaints as long as there is a fighter out there with a rocket that he can launch at northern Israel without asking about the why, or about the timing, or about the usefulness of the end result."

Nabih Berri, leader of the more secular Shi'a Amal party and speaker of the Lebanese parliament, is - despite the rhetoric on display at the Inter-Parliamentary Union in Geneva on 15 October - distancing himself from Hizbollah. He gave up acting as a proxy for his militant rival in negotiations for a prisoner exchange. Berri went to Saudi Arabia in early October to solicit political and financial assistance for his country. Israeli analysts hope this will help strengthen democratic, anti-Syrian voices among the Shi'a, Lebanon's largest community. Berri is urging Hizbollah to concentrate on charity and welfare. Israelis, who learned a few lessons of their own this summer, are not banking on it.

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