ANALYSIS: Damaged militarily, Hezbollah a formidable foe despite Israel's seeming edge
SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE Page A - 1
Monday, August 7, 2006
Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service
Manara, Israel -- Nearly a month after the capture of two Israeli soldiers and the deaths of eight more in a border raid by Hezbollah on July 12, Israel's military response has failed to secure any of the war aims set out that day.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised "a new reality" in Lebanon, where the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militant group would be downgraded and its threat to Israel removed.
But nearly four weeks on, 2 million Israelis remain under daily Hezbollah rocket bombardment across northern Israel. Hezbollah fighters are putting up stiff resistance against advancing Israeli ground forces. The Shiite militia is gaining political support. And the implementation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls for the deployment of Lebanese government forces up to the international border and the disarming of nongovernment militias, appears as distant as ever.
Israeli military planners had envisioned a swift victory without a large ground invasion. That strategy failed, and now about 10,000 Israeli troops are encamped across the border and appear set to stay in southern Lebanon, sparking for many fears of a return to the 18-year Israeli occupation that ended in May 2000.
Hezbollah has used the six years since the Israeli withdrawal to create what Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, speaking on the first day of the fighting, called "a state within a state" in southern Lebanon. It comprises thousands of well-trained guerrillas, a huge stock of weapons, about 14,000 rockets supplied by Iran and Syria, and an intricate network of cells, bunkers, outposts and command centers secreted in local villages and united by a common ideological aim of wiping Israel off the map.
In the past four weeks, Hezbollah has been damaged militarily but not destroyed. Its Dahiya stronghold in the Lebanese capital is in ruins and under daily Israeli shelling. Many of its fighters near the Israeli border have been killed and their bunkers, command posts and weapons caches destroyed.
But over the weekend, Hezbollah militants proved that they retain the ability to launch dozens of rockets each day at northern Israel, killing, maiming and terrifying the population into shocked paralysis.
As the Israeli operation stretches toward a second month, the widespread killing of Lebanese civilians and the destruction of homes, roads, bridges, water and electricity supplies has galvanized political support for Hezbollah inside Lebanon and across the Arab world.
Israel military power is far superior to that of Hezbollah, but the Shiite guerrillas are far from defeated. What, from Israel's point of view, went wrong?
"There were those who thought air power would work, that three weeks of pounding from the air would force the Lebanese government to disarm Hezbollah, and Hezbollah would be ready to be disarmed. They got it wrong, because the use of air power against a well-entrenched terrorist group that's willing to sacrifice huge numbers of civilian lives by operating from their midst won't work," said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University and an adviser to the Israeli government. "What worked in Serbia didn't work in Afghanistan or Baghdad or now in Lebanon."
There were also intelligence failures. Israel didn't know Hezbollah had the Iranian C802 surface-to-surface missile until it blew up one of Israel's gunboats. The Russian-made Cornet anti-tank rockets are destroying the Israeli Merkava tanks at a rate of one a day. Far from being a ragtag guerrilla band, Hezbollah has deployed highly trained and well-equipped commandos who fight and behave like disciplined soldiers.
Dan Halutz, the Israeli military chief of staff, defended the war planning in an interview broadcast on Israel's Channel 2 on Saturday. He said the fighting was "unfolding almost precisely according to the plans we laid out at the start."
Halutz said the aim of Israel's aggressive response to the Hezbollah raid on July 12 was threefold: "Significantly, to weaken Hezbollah so the price it can demand in every internal Lebanese debate will be as small as possible. Second, to create the conditions for the return of our soldiers. Third, to create the conditions so that U.N. Resolution 1559 can be enforced."
But, he said, "the solution does not rest solely on military power."
"We will continue to clear out the terrorist nests in the area, to push Hezbollah back as far as possible, and continue the air, sea and deep-penetration operations until the issue can be resolved diplomatically," he said.
The Israeli military campaign began with two weeks of artillery fire and aerial bombing raids focusing on Hezbollah's long-range rocket launchers and command posts. It largely succeeded, but Israeli planners were surprised by the havoc wreaked by Hezbollah's more primitive short-range rockets.
"It didn't have the consequences they expected," said Eran Lerman, a former Israeli military intelligence colonel who now heads the American Jewish Committee office in Jerusalem. "Three weeks later, Hezbollah are still lobbing 200 Katyusha rockets and killing eight civilians a day. But it had to be tested. There is a lot to be said for the 'air-force-first' strategy if it works. You don't know if it works until you try."
At a briefing in Tel Aviv last week, Brig. Gen. Amir Eshel, the Israeli air force commander, sought to explain the difficulties faced by the Israeli military.
"We concentrated first of all in dealing with the rockets that have large amounts of explosives ... and achieved no small success," he said. "The more problematic area, where we are less successful, is the short-range rockets with the smaller warheads. Action against these rockets is much more complex. They are spread out across a wide area. There are hundreds of launchers, some of them jeeps and small trucks. Some are simply pipes which are set up, put on a timer and fired at a specified time. ... The only way to deal with this problem is through the ground operation, which we are now putting in place and expanding."
A former security adviser to the Israeli government, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the first plan of aerial attack was justified.
"I don't think it was a mistake," he said. "It was legitimate to try a strategy which would save lives in the hope it would work out and, if it didn't, to adopt a different strategy.
"In a ground attack involving eyeball-to-eyeball fighting in built-up areas, where the defender has an obvious advantage, one should expect a pretty considerable loss of life in the attacking force. There was a hope that the major losses could be avoided. That's why whoever it was recommended ground attacks as a last resort and not a first choice," he said.
The first week of Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon killed up to 10,000 Lebanese and Palestinians, and 300 Israeli soldiers. The casualties in this conflict are a fraction of those numbers.
"Precisely because of that we are trying to use a different approach, without jumping straight in," said Halutz, the chief of staff.
But weeks in bomb shelters and growing casualties on both sides proved too much for Israeli leaders and strained the patience of the international community, which at first appeared willing to allow Israel some time to degrade Hezbollah.
Brig. Gen. Benny Gantz, commander of Israeli land forces, said Israel's decision to pour troops into Lebanon was taken as a last resort to stop the firing of Hezbollah rockets.
"We are bringing this destruction to Lebanon not because of any desire on our part, but because we have no choice," Gantz said. "When the people of south Lebanon wake up and see buildings which were used as bunkers, or weapons stores, or command posts or outposts of Hezbollah, and they see those buildings leveled, it's not because of Israel's destructive desires, but because of the strategic disaster which (Hezbollah leader Hassan) Nasrallah brought them."
But four weeks into the battle, few experts are betting on the outcome. Hezbollah remains intact, and it is hard to imagine the Lebanese government forcing them to disarm. The Israeli troops could be in Lebanon for some time yet.
Ephraim Halevy, former head of Israel's Mossad intelligence agency that spent years collecting information on Hezbollah, said he could not predict where this would end.
"I cannot say," Halevy said. "It's too early to know, much too early. The elements of doubt and areas of variables and uncertainty are greater than they ever were."