A phoenix from Lebanon’s ruins

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
16 August 2006

In the first four days after the ceasefire in Lebanon on 14 August 2006, all the major players and their supporters sought to portray the outcome as a victory. Ehud Olmert's view was that the Israeli campaign had much diminished Hizbollah's capability; the group was no longer "a state within a state", and diplomatic moves combined with the insertion of a multinational force in southern Lebanon would ensure its further weakening. George W Bush concurred, but extended the perspective to identify a weakening of Syrian and Iranian influence since a key proxy in the United States's war on terror had been defeated.

The mood among Israelis was more variable, with many expressing pessimism over the war's outcome; the declarations of victory by Hizbollah, and even more by political leaders in Syria and Iran, added to the anguished perception of a war that had not gone to plan. Instead of a three-week campaign to destroy Hizbollah, the guerrilla force had survived. A striking aspect of the Israeli reaction was that the Olmert administration put aside the country's traditionally deep suspicion of the United Nations by embracing the notion of a UN intervention force. The contempt with which Israel has treated Unifil in the past thirty years makes this switch of attitude little short of astonishing.

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 strategic impasses"
(1 August 2006)

"Lebanon: war takes root" (3 August 2006)

"The US and Israel: a marriage under pressure"
(7 August 2006)

"Why Israel is losing"
(9 August 2006)

"The Lebanon war's pivotal moment"
(11 August 2006)

"An unfinished war"
(14 August 2006)

The landscape of victory

What was scarcely mentioned by the politicians were the "ordinary" losers. In Lebanon there were 1,100 people killed, more than 3,600 wounded and 750,000 displaced. In Israel, 157 were killed, 1,500 wounded and 300,000 displaced. Israel's economy was damaged as economic activity across much of the north ceased, but Lebanon's infrastructure was far more badly affected; there, 15,000 homes were destroyed, and there was huge damage to bridges, roads, power plants, communications, shops and factories, creating a repair bill of around $7 billion.

The coverage of the war across the middle east was more intense than any other story of the period, even Iraq. The twenty-four-hour reporting by numerous regional news channels emphasised the civilian losses in Lebanon. The media coverage in Britain and across much of Europe increasingly highlighted the damage in Lebanon, especially in Beirut and Tyre. By contrast, American TV reporting focused more on Israeli perspectives and experiences.

The ceasefire remains very fragile and there are many within Israel who insist that there must be further military action if Hizbollah is to be fully disarmed. With each day that passes, though, this becomes less likely, though it is possible that unexpected events could still lead to sudden instability and renewed violence.

Hizbollah's standing across the middle east, and its own power base in Lebanon is such that it is under very little pressure to disarm. In the midst of the deployment of the Lebanese army in the south, the most that is likely to happen is that Hizbollah will keep weapons out of sight while storing much of its arsenal in secret locations south of the Litani river and close to the Israeli border. This pattern would be very similar to the movement's behaviour for the past six years at least.

Even if the Hizbollah leadership agreed to a limited disarmament in selected areas, this might include only some symbolic action near the border for political purposes. At the same time, the movement would maintain the great majority of its arsenal, especially in the Beka'a valley. Furthermore, with the ending of Israeli air raids, it is now a straightforward process to bring in replacement missiles and other supplies from Syria, even if done in a thoroughly non-ostentatious manner. It is, presumably, already underway.

Perhaps the most indicative development of the past four days has been the immediate and very substantial flow of refugees back to the ruined towns and villages in southern Lebanon and the appearance of bulldozers, excavators and large numbers of young men involved in repair and rehabilitation work. The signs are that Hizbollah will channel in very substantial financial resources very quickly indeed. Its emphasis is likely to be placed on repairing the less severely damaged houses, bringing in tents and even prefabricated buildings as temporary replacements for destroyed houses and then providing economic support for the people returning.

The whole emphasis will be on repopulating the area as quickly as possible – a development of profound political significance across the region in light of Arabs' awareness of the long-lasting nature of the exile of Palestinians. A marked contrast between what Hizbollah is proving able to do and what Arab governments have so persistently failed to do will be noted by millions.

The very speed at which the refugees started to return, within hours of the start of the ceasefire, is itself important. It is highly unlikely that this was a spontaneous development and much more likely that, at least informally, the Hizbollah leadership encouraged it. From the Hizbollah perspective, this had a dual benefit: it was a palpable demonstration of its own perceived victory, and it conveyed a message of confidence that it considered the region safe for people to return.

It is also clear that Israel was caught unawares by the speed of the refugees' return – a process that both prompted the Israeli Defence Forces [IDF] to warn civilians about the dangers, and made it much more difficult for the IDF to contemplate further military action. The symbolism should not be underestimated. If southern Lebanon had remained a largely depopulated region, there would have been an impression of continued conflict. If people return and start the process of rebuilding, it reinforces the impression of a Hizbollah victory. Hizbollah itself is helped greatly here by the availability of very large amounts of financial aid, primarily from Iran, and the Tehran government too gains substantial political benefit from its subventions.

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 fragile stability

The resources available from Iran and elsewhere could see southern Lebanon becoming an absolute hive of reconstruction activity before the onset of winter. Little of this is likely to be covered in the western media, but it will be very different across the middle east. In Israel this will add to the consternation, unease and controversy about the conduct of the war. Across the wider region it will further enhance Hizbollah's status while undermining that of the elite power-centres in countries such as Jordan and Egypt. In more general terms it will be at least as symbolic as the early return of the refugees witnessed this week.

Hizbollah is clearly seeking "a return to normality" that is as rapid as possible, and the group recognises the immense political symbolism of such a process if it can succeed. There are numerous ways in which it can go wrong, not least through Israel attempting targeted assassinations against the leadership, or air strikes along the Lebanon/Syria border against presumed arms shipments. The IDF may even regard it as essential to do so, in order to encourage a wider Hizbollah military response that would in turn delay this (for Israel) dangerous return to normality.

Such a trend has its own dangers, though, and meanwhile the reconstruction starts. Because of the pace of change, every day that passes makes a return to war less likely. The accumulative result is that the status of key Arab leaderships as well as of Israel's own deterrent power is being slowly but surely degraded.

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