It has been more than two weeks since Hezbollah launched a raid on Israel that prompted a brutal Israel response and appears to have triggered what can only be called a war. The international community has sharply criticized the combatants, but has done little more than protest. There is talk of inserting a multinational peacekeeping team, but the odds of that occurring are long under current circumstances. Most disturbing is the apparent failure on all sides to set realistic objectives in this crisis. Without them, this incident will be another bloody interval in Lebanon’s sad history.
On July 12, the militant Islamic group Hezbollah launched a raid on northern Israel, kidnapping two soldiers. Israel responded by sending troops to find and retrieve the two. They failed, but not before several other soldiers died when their armed personnel carrier hit a land mine. Israel retaliated by bombing key targets, including infrastructure, within Lebanon. Hezbollah responded with rocket attacks on Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city, which prompted full-scale bombing of Lebanon by Israel and a blockade of major ports.
Thus far, the fighting has killed hundreds of Lebanese and dozens of Israelis. The United Nations estimates that 600,000 Lebanese, more than 15 percent of the population, have been forced to flee their homes. Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora has said Israel’s bombardment has taken his country “backward 50 years.” That may provide some primitive satisfaction for those Israelis seeking vengeance for the wounds inflicted by Hezbollah. But the airstrikes weaken the Lebanese government while strengthening Hezbollah, which has won popular support for both its ability to hurt Israel and to deliver social services to Lebanese who have been all but abandoned by their own government. The creation of a failed state on its northern border does not strengthen Israel’s security.
The reaction of the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is driven by two considerations. The first is the leadership’s lack of military experience. Mr. Olmert is the first Israeli prime minister who has not served at the senior level of military command. His predecessors would not have been subject to criticism that they were soft; Mr. Olmert and his Cabinet may have overreacted to forestall any such criticism.
At the same time, the Israeli government senses the opportunity to break Hezbollah once and for all. There is little sympathy among governments in the Middle East — with the exception of Iran and Syria — for the group’s tactics. The Israeli Cabinet felt this was the chance to go into Lebanon, seize Hezbollah’s arms and kill or capture its militants without fear of censure. And indeed, the initial Israeli response was greeted by silence from many Arab governments. Its supporters — in particular, the U.S. government — argue that a ceasefire is meaningless without addressing “the root cause of the hostilities” — Hezbollah’s operating with impunity from southern Lebanon. Any solution must include disarming Hezbollah and removing the missiles that it has used to attack Israel.
Yet, as the offensive has continued, perceptions have changed and Israel is now seen as going too far. The sustained assault is proving to be another diplomatic black eye for the country. Arab governments that do not support Hezbollah’s radicalism worry that the group’s ability to stand up to Israel will empower radical movements elsewhere in the region.
Israel nurtured high hopes when it invaded Lebanon in the 1980s. Then, the objective was to break the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Israeli troops drove the PLO leadership into exile in Tunis, but the resulting political and security vacuum opened the door to Hezbollah. Its military presence in Lebanon posited Israel as an occupying force, denying it the moral high ground. Lebanon’s borders proved porous and insurgents and weapons poured in. Syria, in particular, had a stake in maintaining pressure on Israel as Damascus wanted leverage to bargain for the return of the Golan Heights. Israeli troops were targets for continuing attacks until then Prime Minister Ehud Barak called for the unilateral withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon in 2000. Hezbollah called that a military victory. Oddly, the U.S. experience in Iraq has not dissuaded the Bush administration from embracing equally far-reaching ambitions elsewhere in the region.
There is talk of deploying a multilateral force in southern Lebanon to create and maintain the peace. There are several problems with this approach. No government is ready to commit troops. In addition to other commitments, none wishes to become the target of radicals. Everyone remembers too well the experience of French and U.S. forces targeted by suicide bombers in the 1980s. They worry that history will repeat itself. Sadly, that appears already to be the case.
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