July 21, 2006
By Amos Harel
It was a bad news day. In the morning, Israeli forces in Lebanon clashed with Hezbollah near Avivim. Two soldiers were killed. In the afternoon, Hezbollah began to shell the entire northern region heavily. Scores of Katyusha rockets were fired and two children from Nazareth were killed. For eight days, the Israel Defense Forces has been pounding Lebanon and dropping thousands of tons of bombs on it, yet Hezbollah remains the same intransigent rival as before. It is showing no signs of breaking.
The Israeli detail, operating in an especially entangled area in the former buffer zone, intended to take out Katyusha launchers. But the Hezbollah unit responsible for most of the short-range rocket fire from South Lebanon was not sufficiently harmed.
The air force’s first assault last week, aimed at long-range rockets in central Lebanon, caused considerable damage. Now the army is conducting a series of small ground operations to trace launchers in the thicket close to the border. The soldiers in the Maroun Ras area found a compound in a forest, complete with weapons bunkers, shelters and launchers that had been prepared a long time in advance. From here, rockets were launched at Safed, Ma’alot and the Miron Air Force base. The Hezbollah group hiding there surprised the IDF force and in the close-range fire exchange, two Israeli soldiers and two Hezbollah members were killed.
This incident illustrates three things. First, that like the IDF, Hezbollah too has been preparing for this confrontation for six years; second, that not everything can be done from the air. Third, that such a ground operation involves quite a few casualties and the government will have to consider this fact if it decides on a more massive invasion in the future.
The UN delegation that came to try to solve the crisis, is not optimistic. One member said it would be five-six weeks before the fighting ended. The envoys believe Hezbollah is not interested in a cease-fire and Israel cannot agree to one.
Despite its losses, whose extent is debatable, and the destruction of its headquarters, the Shi’ite organization is far from feeling defeated. Apparently Iran is encouraging it to go on fighting, while Israel’s only real weapon is military pressure. Once Israel eases the pressure, Hezbollah will have no reason to reach an agreement. Deploying the Lebanese Army, a multinational force or both along the border, is in Israel’s interest and perhaps Lebanon’s, but not Hezbollah’s and certainly not Iran’s.
Israel in a trap
European diplomats believe Israel has maneuvered itself into a trap. It cannot stop the operation without having real political achievements to show its public, but prolonged fighting will seriously try its citizens’ fortitude and will not guarantee the expected achievements.
When Hassan Nasrallah decided to launch the attack on Israel, he did not take into consideration the fundamental change in Israel’s attitude to fatalities – both its own and the enemy’s. There is, of course, a terrible human and psychological price for the murder of 15 Israeli civilians in a week, but we have experienced worse weeks and months. In March 2002 more than 130 Israelis were killed. On the other hand, the emotional callousness toward killing Palestinians applies to Lebanon as well. This enabled the government to order attacks on rockets inside houses in Lebanese villages, even though it was clear that many civilians would be killed as a result.
The war in the north, which has no official name yet, is a strange confrontation in which front line and home front mix. The Gulf War in 1991was longer (about six weeks) and also threatened the center, but ended with one Israeli fatality. This time the north is under a much greater threat. But after a hard week there are no displays of hysterics like in Tel Aviv of ’91. Those who want to leave do, but nobody is condemning them as they did in the past.
A Home Front Command poll at the beginning of the week shows that most people in the north rate its fortitude as “medium to high.” Most residents do not intend to leave their homes and their level of solidarity with the military operation is very high.