The limits of force I

Amin Saikal

Perhaps the Lebanon conflict was the one that Israel had to have. It may have defined the limits of Israel's power in the same way that the Iraq war has shown to the United States that military power is not an answer to all its problems. This should stand once again as a warning that the use of force may not be the best means to bring about peace and stability to the Middle East.

Israel's objectives in this conflict were clear: to secure the unconditional return of its two soldiers kidnapped by Hezbollah fighters on July 12, to depopulate and occupy southern Lebanon up to the Litani River, to destroy Hezbollah, to inflict damage on Lebanon so as to set a clear example for any other force which might want to challenge Israel, and then to make a phased troop withdrawal at an appropriate time from a position of strength.

Behind these objectives lurked the wider shared Israeli and American aim of weakening the links between Lebanon and Syria, and between Hezbollah and Iran, thus redressing the strategic imbalance that has come about as a result of the Iraqi fiasco, which has strengthened Iran and Syria in the region.

Whatever way one looks at it, Israel has failed to achieve these objectives. Contrary to all Israeli expectations and those of the Bush administration, Hezbollah and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, have more than survived the Israeli onslaught. They have fought fiercely and inflicted a heavy toll on Israeli troops and civilians. Israel has already lost at least 117 soldiers and 40 civilians, not to mention the wounded and the property damage and economic costs that it has suffered.

In comparison to the damage inflicted upon Lebanon and Hezbollah, Israel's losses seem fairly small. But Israel is not used to losses even on such a scale. It has successfully managed several wars in the past, but it now has to come to terms with the fact that the days of Israel defeating the armies of three Arab states within six days, as it did in June 1967, are over. To make such an adjustment, it will be required to engage not only in a review of its military strategy and force effectiveness, but also in a psychological transformation.

Israel says it killed 530 Hezbollah fighters, while Hezbollah says it lost 80. Either way, Hezbollah is left with a capacity to conduct guerrilla warfare in southern Lebanon, as it did during the 18 years of Israeli occupation from 1982 to 2000, and to target Israel with longer-range missiles. At this point, it is highly doubtful that UN peacekeeping force - or, for that matter, the Lebanese Army - will be able to disarm Hezbollah totally.

It should also be noted that ultimately Hezbollah has the option of integrating its forces into the Lebanese Army, as its political wing is part of the Lebanese government.

The conflict of the last month has dramatically raised the stature of Hezbollah and its leader, not only among the Lebanese but also in the wider Arab and Muslim worlds, as the only force that has been able to stand up to Israel.

Israel now has to rely on diplomatic negotiation and the deployment of a robust Lebanese and international force to enable it to disentangle itself from Lebanon. In addition, its leaders will have to deal with serious domestic fallout from the conflict: Divisions and recriminations have already begun to haunt Israeli politics. This is a development that Israel's international opponents may seek to exploit to their advantage.

If Israel really wants to have a peaceful, secure and normal life in the region, its leadership should seize on UN Resolution 1701 to engage in bridge-building with its neighbors. As a central component of this, it must address urgently the Palestinian problem on the basis of the internationally backed two-state solution.

While Egypt and Jordan have already made peace with and recognized Israel, the remaining Arab countries, with their Beirut Declaration in March 2002, have offered Israel full recognition in return for Palestinian statehood.

A comprehensive peace would also delegitimize the very causes that groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad have used to justify their violent actions. What Israel and its international backers, especially the Bush administration, consider to be terrorism is often a symptom of deeper causes. Unless these causes are prudently identified and addressed, the symptoms will continue to manifest themselves.

return to index