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August 9, 2006

Israel's Military Invincibility Dented by Hezbollah

by Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS - Israel's phenomenal victories against collective Arab armies in 1967 and later against Egypt in 1973 firmly established the Jewish state's legendary military superiority in the Middle East.

The 1967 war – called the Six Day War – was so swift it ended in less than a week, with Egypt losing 264 aircraft and 700 battle tanks, Jordan 22 aircraft and 125 tanks, and Syria 58 aircraft and 105 tanks.

The only equipment losses suffered by Israel in the 1967 war were 40 aircraft and 100 battle tanks, according to Dilip Hiro, a Middle East analyst based in London.

The war ended with Israel capturing East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, Bethlehem, Hebron, Jenin, Nablus, the Golan Heights, and Sharm al-Sheikh – some of which are still under occupation despite UN Security Council resolutions seeking Israeli withdrawal.

But as the relentless military attacks against Hezbollah and Lebanon continue into the second month, the duration of the current conflict and the resistance by the Islamic militia have dented Israel's reputation of military invincibility in the Middle East.

"Hezbollah has succeeded in preventing Israel from achieving any of its strategic objectives, and most of its tactical objectives as well," says Mouin Rabbani, contributing editor to the Washington-based Middle East Report.

"Arguably, Israel is fighting the war Hezbollah prepared for, rather than the war Israel intended to conduct," Rabbani told IPS.

He believes that Israel's strategy was to deliver a rapid and devastating military blow against Hezbollah.

"And it wanted to reinforce this by generating official and popular Lebanese pressure against the movement by devastating Lebanon's infrastructure, creating a mass exodus from southern Lebanon, and making the civilian population pay, in life and limb, for Hezbollah's actions and its support for the movement."

One month later, Rabbani said, "the shock and awe in this campaign appears to have mainly been inflicted upon, rather than by, Israel."

It is often said that in confrontations between conventional military forces and guerilla movements, "the latter win by not losing and the former lose by not winning," Rabbani noted. This certainly appears to be the case here.

Nadia Hijab, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Institute for Palestine Studies, says in one sense, Hezbollah has already won, if anyone can be considered a winner when there has been such enormous death and destruction.

"They have stood their ground against Israel longer than any combination of Arab armies in 1967 or 1973, and inflicted heavy casualties," Hijab told IPS.

Their fighters are very well trained, disciplined, battle-hardened through fighting against Israel during its 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon, and well-armed.

A crop of newspaper headlines in the U.S. mainstream media spell out of the dramatic new development in the Middle East: "Israel Facing a Well-Trained and Supplied Army"; "A Disciplined Hezbollah Surprises Israel With Its Training, Tactics, and Weapons"; "Hezbollah Unleashes Fiery Barrage"; "Among Militia's Patient Loyalists, Confidence and Belief in Victory."

A piece in Saturday's New York Times not only singled out Hezbollah's military prowess but also its charitable and social services, which have helped the movement to win strong support from the average Lebanese.

"Hezbollah fighters move like shadows across the mountains of southern Lebanon; its workers in towns and villages, equally as ghostly, have settled deeply into people's lives. They cover medical bills, offer health insurance, pay school fees, and make seed money available for small businesses," said the Times.

Still, even though Hezbollah is a recognized political party with two of its members in the Lebanese cabinet, the United States continues to treat it as "a terrorist organization."

Last week, the 25-member European Union (EU) rejected a request by Washington, and refused to include Hezbollah on its list of terrorist organizations."Given the sensitive situation where we are, I don't think this is something we will be acting on now," said Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja, whose country is the current president of the EU.

Robert A. Pape, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, says that Israel has finally conceded that air power alone will not defeat Hezbollah.

"Over the coming weeks, it will learn that ground power won't work either. The problem is not that the Israelis have insufficient military might, but that they misunderstand the nature of the enemy," he wrote in an op-ed piece last week.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Hezbollah is principally neither a political party nor an Islamist militia. It is a broad movement that evolved in reaction to Israel's invasion of Lebanon in June 1982, said Pape, author of Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism.

Hijab of the Institute for Palestine Studies said that Israel and the United States have made much of the fact that Hezbollah is supplied by Iran – but it is in fact Israel that had to receive rushed deliveries of additional bombs and fuel to supplement the $3 billion-plus it already gets each year from the United States, the bulk of it in outright military grants financed by U.S. taxpayers.

Most importantly, Hezbollah believes its cause is just, and a majority of people in Lebanon and throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds agree, she said.

Hezbollah's immediate objectives were the release of Lebanese and other Arab prisoners held in Israeli jails, return of the occupied Shebaa Farms, and the release by Israel, as previously agreed, of maps showing the location of some 300,000 land mines (now doubtless many more) Israel had left behind in Lebanon, Hijab said.

"But the extent of Hezbollah's preparedness underscores the extent to which they see Israel as an implacable enemy that is determined to extinguish the last flames of Arab nationalist resistance," she said.

Though they may not have expected Israel's massive response on this occasion, Hezbollah knew the fight would come one day, and they were ready, she added.

Rabbani of the Middle East Report pointed out that the Israeli government has in fact continually adjusted its objectives downwards – from the eradication of Hezbollah, to its disarmament, to the elimination of its missile capabilities, to the removal of its long-range missile capabilities, to pushing the movement north of the Litani River, to creating a free-fire zone south of the Litani pending the arrival of foreign forces.

If things continue as they are it is quite likely the latter will need to be revised as well, Rabbani predicted.

He also said that Hezbollah appears to have had good intelligence about Israel while Israel had weak intelligence about Hezbollah. For example, Hezbollah understood that the core of Israel's military doctrine is to ensure that any military confrontation be transferred as rapidly as possible to enemy territory. "It therefore undertook measures to undermine this fundamental principle, both by heavily defending territory immediately inside Lebanon, and conducting persistent rocket attacks on Israeli territory."

"It is often said that one of the Israeli military's strongest features is its capacity to learn from its mistakes and to do so quickly enough to make a difference. This quality has not been much in evidence in the current war," he added.

(Inter Press Service)

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    Thalif Deen has been Inter Press Service's U.N. Bureau Chief since 1992. A
    former Information Officer at the U.N. Secretariat and a one-time member of
    the Sri Lanka delegation to the General Assembly sessions, he is currently
    editor of the Journal of the Group of 77, published in collaboration with
    IPS. A Fulbright-Hayes scholar, he holds a Master's degree in Journalism
    from Columbia University in New York.

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