What were the origins of the so-called Second Lebanon War, how was it waged and fought, what lessons were drawn from it, and who won it? Looking back on these questions from the perspective of early 2011, it seems sufficient time has passed in order to answer at least some of these questions.
To understand the origins of the war, it is necessary to go back all the way to 1968. Until that time the Israeli Lebanese armistice, which had been established twenty years earlier, was so effective that Israel’s border with Lebanon was almost absolutely quiet.
This situation changed when elements of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) started establishing themselves in Lebanon following the Arab defeat and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967. The PLO’s presence was reinforced after 1970, the year in which King Hussein of Jordan crushed the organization in his own country. As many as 5,000 Palestinians were killed. Many others fled and some of them established themselves in Lebanon’s refugee camps. From then on, cross-border terrorism, in the form of raids, the planting of mines, and the launching of Katyusha rockets into northern Israel, became the order of the day.
Throughout the 1970s Israel responded to these provocations by means of artillery strikes, bombing, and raids into Lebanon. Commando raids, including the famous one when future chief of staff and Prime Minister Ehud Barak dressed up as a woman, were also launched. Yet none of this had the desired effect of restoring peace and quiet; instead the country sank into a vicious civil war, which in turn caused large parts of it to fall under Syrian domination. The climax came on 5 June 1982 when six Israeli divisions, with over 1,000 tanks between them, invaded Lebanon, taking just a week to reach the outskirts of Beirut. Again the outcome was not what Israel had expected. Not only did it fail to impose its will, but its forces became involved in a protracted counterinsurgency campaign against various Lebanese militias. In the end, eighteen years were to pass before the last Israeli troops finally gave up their occupation of southern Lebanon, and in May of 2000 they withdrew across the international border.
During this thirty-two year period, Israel’s main enemies were first the PLO, then a militia known as Amal, and, from the mid-1980s on, Hezbollah. Like Amal, Hezbollah was rooted in the Shi’ite communities of southern Lebanon and southern Beirut. Like both Amal and the PLO, it enjoyed Syrian support in the form of money, arms, and training. It was, however, much better organized than its predecessors, receiving weapons not just from Syria but from Iran as well. Once Israel had left southern Lebanon, Hezbollah’s declared objective in continuing its “resistance” was threefold. First, it sought to free several thousand Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. Second, it sought to “liberate” Shaba farm, a small piece of territory which, against all evidence (including that of specially-appointed U.N Commission that marked the border on the ground), it claimed belonged to Lebanon. And third, Hezbollah, which is a political party as well as paramilitary organization (it even has two ministers in the Lebanese cabinet), had to show it was “resisting” Israel so as to justify its own continued existence in the eyes of its supporters as well as the wider Arab public.
2. The War
Just why Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah launched the raid on 11 July which marked the beginning of the war, and whether this raid was part of a wider plan in which Syria and Iran were also involved, will probably only be known if Wikileaks is able to put its hands on original documents coming from Damascus, Tehran, and Beirut. Suffice it to say that since Israeli troops were not just killed (as had happened several times in the previous six years) but captured, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had no choice but to retaliate in force. Had he not done so, he would have been swept away.
Though the decision to retaliate in force was inevitable, it also meant that the Israel Defense Force (IDF) was taken by surprise and did not have time to prepare properly. Of the entire vast order of battle, only five regular brigades were immediately available. Moreover, these brigades had spent years doing little but carrying out counter-insurgency operations in the Occupied Territories. As a result, they had almost forgotten how to fight a real enemy; he who fights the weak will end up by becoming weak. Some of the burden fell on the Israeli Navy which shelled Lebanon’s coast, imposed a blockade, and cut the country off from the world. In doing so, one of its modern ships was hit by an Iranian-built surface to sea missile, suffering damage and taking some casualties. Since this was the first time in thirty-nine years anything of the kind had happened, it was a considerable propaganda victory for Hezbollah. At the same time it proved how much the crew had underestimated the enemy, since they (perhaps acting on their superiors’ orders) had not even switched on the vessel’s electronic defenses.
The most important part of the response, however, was carried out by the Israel Air Force (IAF). Back in 1991, the Gulf Coalition aircraft had hunted Saddam Hussein’s mobile missile launchers for weeks without locating and destroying even one. In 2006, the outcome was very different. Highly motivated and superbly trained, equipped with the latest precision-guided munitions and even better command, control and communication facilities, the IAF had been flying over Lebanon for many years. Now it started the campaign by delivering a stunning blow to Hezbollah. Most of the latter’s medium-range (50 km and more) missile-launchers were knocked out during the first forty-eight hours and the rest forced to take cover. The organization’s central headquarters as well as several important communication-centers were demolished, as was a large part of the Shi’ite quarter of Beirut where they had been located.
That accomplished, the IAF’s remaining operations were less successful. Several “in depth” heliborne raids were launched, but none of them met expectations in causing the death or capture of important Hezbollah leaders. Instead, three helicopters were lost. Vast destruction was inflicted on Lebanon’s infrastructure, roads and bridges in particular, but whether traffic from Syria to the west and from central Lebanon to the south was really brought to a halt is not clear. Above all, the IAF did not succeed in ending the hail of short-range rockets—some 3,500 in all—that came down on towns and villages all over northern Israel, causing considerable physical damage, driving several hundreds of thousands people from their homes, and paralyzing about one third of the entire country. It was this failure, above all, that has caused Israeli public opinion to turn against the IDF, which includes the IAF. Still the accusations are unfair. Given how numerous the rockets were, as well as the ease with which they could be transported, concealed and fired, stopping them was probably beyond the capabilities of any air force, however sophisticated and however well prepared.
Originally the Israelis seem to have hoped to accomplish their objective—teaching Hezbollah, as well as that part of the Lebanese people which supported it, a lesson they would never forget—without engaging in large-scale ground operations. This explains why they only sent three brigades to their northern border, leaving the remaining two to police the area around the Gaza Strip and the West Bank; only gradually did they realize that these forces were far from enough. First one reserve division, then two more, was called up. Contrary to the fears of some, the men proved willing enough and there were few, if any, refusals to serve. Fulfilling the fears of others, the mobilization process did not come up to expectations. Years had passed since the men had trained together, and a great many of them were out of condition and had forgotten how to fight. Many kinds of equipment such as webbing, bullet-proof vests, ammunition, and communications gear were in short supply. The part of the logistic system responsible for Class I supplies did not function properly either. It left thousands without either food or water for days on end, forcing them either to rely on handouts from the civilian population—those who had not fled their homes—or else to scavenge for what they could find inside Lebanon itself. In fact, the defective performance of the IDF’s logistic system was one of the main shortcomings revealed by the war. Civil defense, too, proved inadequate, leaving many people stranded in their shelters.
Above all, when IDF ground operations in southern Lebanon got under way they proved clumsy, heavy-handed, and slow. Very large forces—as many as 500-600 tanks with all their accompanying firepower—were deployed. Partly for that very reason there was no attempt at surprise, no attempt at attacking the enemy from unexpected directions (only late in the war did the IDF start using its helicopters to land troops in Hezbollah’s rear), and little or no cooperation among the various participating formations. Just who was to blame for these shortcomings is not clear. So unhappy was Chief of Staff Dan Halutz with his commander on the ground, General Udi Adam, that he fired him in the middle of the war. Adam, on his part, did not remain silent but blamed the Government and the Chief of Staff for holding him back and not allowing him to carry out his carefully-laid plans during the first days of the war.
Adam’s replacement was Halutz’s own deputy, General Moshe Kaplinsky. However, his appointment did not cause the situation to improve to any noticeable extent. Units continued to receive contradictory, ever-changing orders; the number of different ones received by just one with which I am familiar during a twenty-four hour period has to be seen to be believed. Some forces never entered Lebanon. Others, which did, engaged in heavy-handed, frontal attacks against fortified Hezbollah positions. On one occasion an entire division, complete with all its armor and artillery, was “fighting” fifty Hezbollah combatants! Though most of the positions were occupied in the end, several were abandoned later on, demoralizing the troops who asked why they had to fight and die if their achievements were to be discarded in such a way.
Some of the difficulties the IDF experienced seem to have been due to the fact that the terrain is mountainous and unsuitable for armor (a fact, however, that should have been obvious in advance). Many others felt sheer confusion from the top, including the Minister of Defense, the Chief of the General Staff, and senior commanders near or at the front itself. Here and there, so idiotic did the troops consider the orders with which they were issued that they simply refused to carry them out.
At the tactical level, too, results proved disappointing. The Hezbollah guerrillas came under massive bombardment both from the air and from ground artillery. Nevertheless, on the whole they fought very well. They stood their ground, firing Russian-made anti-tank Kornet missiles at the advancing Israeli Merkavas, inflicting casualties, and destroying or disabling several tanks. Their bunkers turned out to be well-built with several openings to each one. From time to time they left those bunkers to fight in the open, where their skills at using camouflage and fighting in the dense vegetation characteristic of the area proved at least equal to those of their opponents.
When the war was finally brought to an end the IDF claimed to have killed between five and seven hundred Hezbollah members. Yet it had almost no prisoners to show; proof that it had not succeeded in taking them in the rear, blocking their escape routes, and demoralizing them. Above all, in thirty-four days of fighting the IDF did not succeed in ending the hail of Katyusha rockets. It did not even succeed in greatly reducing Hezbollah’s ability to fire them; if the number of Israeli civilian casualties was limited, this was due less to any countermeasures or civil defense than to the fact that most of the population had fled, as well as the rockets’ own extreme inaccuracy. Thus, not merely the IDF’s own operations but those of its supporting organizations as well, can hardly been seen as a great success.
Tactically and operationally, the IDF’s ground campaign against Hezbollah in Lebanon brought to light many major shortcomings. The IAF did much better, especially during the first forty-eight hours, when it accomplished what Schwarzkopf’s juggernaut had failed to do over a period of six weeks. In addition, since Hezbollah’s missiles were smaller than those of Saddam Hussein and were carefully concealed in urban areas, the IAF’s achievement was much greater still. Later though, a shortage of suitable targets caused its effectiveness to decline. Fighter-bombers worth tens of millions of dollars found themselves trying to chase individual cars and even motorcycles that might or might not carry Hezbollah members and rockets. Attack helicopters were used far too cautiously; at the same time they were put at risk because, surprising as it may seem, intelligence concerning topographical conditions and obstacles in southern Lebanon was not good enough. The one attempt to mount a heliborne assault operation failed to achieve anything. The IAF did inflict quite a number of civilian casualties, but in the end it was unable to achieve the one thing that really mattered.
Disappointed by the slow pace of ground operations in particular, and recalling thousands of rockets that struck their own country, Israeli public opinion has been loud in demanding that the conduct of the war be investigated and those responsible for the “failures” taken to account. The Winograd Commission was appointed to do just that, and its report was not sparing of the IDF’s shortcoming. Moreover, in the international arena, there was a widespread feeling that the campaign had not been a success – to put it mildly.
On the other hand, it should be kept in mind that war is not a game of football in which a decision is reached by means of the number of goals scored on each side. Instead, it is the continuation of policy with an admixture of other means, a physical and moral struggle by means of the latter; in such a struggle the side with the strongest will wins. If anybody had predicted, a few days before the war, that in response to the capture of two of its soldiers, Israel would launch an air campaign all over Lebanon, mobilize three reserve divisions, send them across the border, and keep up the pressure for over a month while taking thousands of rockets and suffering more than a hundred casualties, he would have been considered stark raving mad.
“Stark raving mad” (majnun, in Arabic) was, in fact, the way many people in Lebanon and the rest of the Arab world reacted to the Israeli attack. As the statements of several of Hezbollah’s top leaders indicated, they too were surprised by the strength of the Israeli reaction. None of the organization’s original objectives were achieved. Its fighters remain in prison; the Israeli “occupation” of Shaba Farm continues; and Jerusalem, which it set itself as its ultimate objective to liberate, remains as firmly in Israeli hands as it has been during the last forty-four years. What the war did do was to show that, in case of war, neither Syria nor Iran would necessarily come to Lebanon’s rescue. The country’s infrastructure was left in ruins. Thirty thousand dwellings were destroyed or damaged, and dozens of bridges, underpasses, and gas stations demolished. Hundred of thousands of people were forced to flee, and as many as 2,000 killed.
As a result, since the middle of August 2006, all over southern Lebanon hardly a shot has been fired. This was not for lack of provocation. First, Israeli troops remained in the country for weeks, putting the lie to Nasrallah’s promise to continue fighting them as long as they did so. Next, a senior Hezbollah official, Imad Mughniyya, was assassinated in Damascus. Perhaps most serious of all, Israeli drones continue to fly over Lebanon as they have done for years. From time to time they are joined by fighter-bombers. They gather intelligence, produce the occasional sonic boom, and in general behave as if Lebanon were not a sovereign country. While, it is true that Hezbollah has been rebuilding its military strength and receiving weapons, including missiles capable of hitting every Israeli target as far away as the Red Sea. It remains, on the other hand, bluster as he may, that Mr. Nasrallah himself has gone on record as saying he and his organization would be in no hurry to pull the trigger again. On the rare occasions when a few rockets have landed in northern Israel, he and the organization of which he is the head were almost hysterical in blaming others and begging Israel not to retaliate.
As of early 2011, it looks as if then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has achieved what no other Israeli prime minister from Golda Meir to Ariel Sharon was able to do for thirty-eight years between 1968 and 2006; namely, he put an end to hostilities on Israel’s northern border. Moreover, given the IDF’s numerous documented failures, it is arguable that this achievement was due solely to his persistence in continuing the war, in spite of all the difficulties. To the extent that things may change at any moment – of course the jury is still out, and may it remain so for a long, long time to come.