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Decade after Israeli pullout new war looms

Decade after Israeli pullout new war looms
JER2000052403 - 24 MAY 2000 - METULLA CROSSING, ISRAEL/LEBANON BORDER: Israeli soldiers cheer as the last Israeli tank pulls out of Southern Lebanon early Wednesday May 24 at the Metulla crossing more than a month before the scheduled withdrawal. Israel's withdrawal from Southern Lebanon ended a 22 year occupation which cost Israel 900 lives. jr/dh/Debbie Hill UPI | License Photo

BEIRUT, Lebanon, May 24 (UPI) -- Ten years ago Monday, Israel's vaunted army withdrew from its "security zone" in south Lebanon in the face of remorseless Hezbollah attacks.

Today, the Levant -- and probably much of the Middle East -- teeters on the brink of another war between the Jewish state and a Hezbollah that has the trappings of a conventional army.

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U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently noted that Hezbollah, armed by Iran and Syria, has "more missiles than most governments." Israeli military leaders estimate Hezbollah has some 45,000 missiles and rockets, including several hundred that can strike anywhere in Israel.

Hezbollah also has Iranian-built surveillance drones and, the Israelis say, surface-to-air missiles that could seriously challenge Israel's all-important air operations over Lebanon for the first time.

Hezbollah doesn't have tanks, heavy artillery or large-scale mechanized forces. But it has elaborate networks of bunkers, underground arms depots and missile launch sites and tunnels in south Lebanon and in the Bekaa Valley in northeastern Lebanon, its heartland.

And, if Israeli intelligence assessments are to be believed, it has special units totaling up to 2,000 men, whose mission will be to infiltrate deep into Israel to cause mayhem behind the lines and trigger Palestinian uprisings.

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Indeed, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has vowed that his fighters will take the war to Israel if hostilities break out again and will score a "historic and decisive victory."

That would be a strategic triumph compared to the tactical one achieved in the 34-day war of July-August 2006, when Hezbollah fought the Israelis to a standstill.

According to diplomatic sources, Israel's military establishment has been preparing for that eventuality, a feat that none of Israel's Arab foes has been able to achieve on anything but a pinprick scale over the last six decades.

In 2006, the Israel hinterland for the first time came under sustained bombardment. Hezbollah unleashed some 4,000 rockets into the north. That pales almost into insignificance compared to the destruction and death that Hezbollah could now inflict on Israel's cities and this clearly has the Israelis rattled.

Israel's pullout from South Lebanon, which Israel first invaded in 1978, and its equally unilateral 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, occupied in 1967, "have not resolved anything, but only ended up transforming the nature of the conflict," Jordanian commentator Rami Khouri noted in The Daily Star of Beirut.

"Neither long-term occupation nor unilateral withdrawal seems to have given Israel the sort of security, recognition and peace that it has sought from its northern and southern neighbors.

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"Instead, Israeli policies seem mainly to have spurred a greater determination by various Arab and Islamist groups to resist it."

It was Israel's June 1982 invasion of Lebanon that brought Hezbollah into being among its long acquiescent Shiites and transformed them into a deadlier foe than the Palestinians had ever been.

Hezbollah's suicide bombings against the Israelis, and later U.S. and French "peacekeeping forces" in the 1980s, were impossible to counter and took asymmetric warfare to a new and terrifying level.

In 2006, Hezbollah not only survived Israel's military might, whose objective was nothing less than crushing it once and for all, it became even stronger.

The war "illustrated that Hezbollah had not merely perfected the art of guerrilla warfare but had surpassed it altogether with a new paradigm of warfare, which fuses 'non-traditional' methods with the 'usual mode of operations' conducted by conventional armies," says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb of the American University of Beirut.

Saad-Ghorayeb, who writes extensively on Hezbollah, concluded that the movement "has set the strategic bar very high for itself for the next round of conflict."

Nasrallah's "decisive victory" implies nothing less than the defeat of Israel; a result, long unthinkable, that would have immense geostrategic implications for the region.

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Hezbollah would be fighting as Iran's proxy and until Tehran amasses an arsenal of missiles capable of battering Israel -- which it does not yet seem to have -- it's likely to keep upgrading Hezbollah's capabilities.

If war does erupt, Hezbollah would likely be aided by Iran, Syria and Hamas, stretching Israel's military resources to the limit.

There are those in Israel who maintain that the 2000 withdrawal led to the current crisis by undercutting the military's deterrent power.

"We ran away, pure and simple," Col. Noam Ben-Tzvi, a brigade commander in the security zone up to the withdrawal, wrote in the liberal Haaretz.

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