|The Second Lebanon War|
|By Roland S. Süssmann|
The latest Arab attack on Israel ended up with many question marks. How and why did we arrive to that point? What really happened there? Why did Israel not totally destroy the Hizbullah? How did the Jewish State manage the war? What lessons should be drawn? In order to understand the ins and outs of this conflict, which, notwithstanding a precarious ceasefire is far from being over, we met with Major General Jacob Amidror, former head of IDF’s Military Intelligence.
What is your analysis of the Second Lebanon War?
Ever since the creation of the State there have been two schools of thought in Israel concerning defense, and depending upon the circumstances one or other has been applied. The first holds that Israel is permanently in danger and must carry out a preventive strike at the right time and place, without waiting for the danger to materialize. We acted this way on at least two occasions, the first time when David Ben Gurion launched the Sinai Campaign in 1956 (whose 50th anniversary we are now marking), and the second when Menachem Begin destroyed the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981. In these two cases Israel sensed the danger and decided it could not let it develop. This also shows that defense theories are generally independent of the political outlooks of the government of the time. The second theory is that Israel should not let itself be influenced by its direct environment, that it should be prepared at all times to fight and win a war, but that it is in its interest to push it off as far as possible and to avoid taking the initiative. The more time that passes between two wars the better. That was the approach adopted by the various Israeli governments following the departure from Lebanon in 2000. Prior to that date we were having about 15 soldiers killed each year in Lebanon. We left for a single reason, to obtain international legitimacy for our northern border. We thought we could avoid a war, even though everyone knew very well that Hizbullah was massively arming. We knew exactly what sorts of weapons it was purchasing, and military intelligence submitted numerous reports on the subject. So there was nothing new, surprising or secret. We thought we would be able to live on both sides of a border that enjoyed international recognition, and so long as Hizbullah did not attack us, we would have no reason to either. We had no interest to wage a war in Lebanon and had done everything to delay one as long as possible. Having said which, it should be clearly understood that under the cover of “international recognition” Hizbullah created a totally unusual armed force. It is probably the only terrorist organization in the world (excepting perhaps the American counter-guerilla forces in Afghanistan) that has an arsenal including land-sea missiles. Hizbullah created a veritable Maginot Line in South Lebanon, a terrorist force with true military capabilities. It had the most modern anti-tank missiles in the world, which it had received from Syria. This is the NT missile, manufactured by Russia, which had incidentally assured us that it had not sold these to Hizbullah. We captured large quantities, which still bore Russian inscriptions. This terrorist body possesses land-air missiles that can be used against aircraft and even missiles with a range of 200 km. What terrorist organization in the world has such an arsenal? Thus we were faced with a guerilla organization that had created a state within a state in Lebanon, with an army at least as strong as that of Lebanon. And that’s what made the situation quite simply absurd. Lebanon is a sovereign state and member of the UN, Syria is also a sovereign state and UN member, and here comes Iran that decides to set up men and weapons in Lebanon transited through Syria, to establish not just a state within a state as I have already said, but a powerful guerilla army. The UN and all the world’s countries let this happen, in flagrant violation of UN Resolution 1559, which very clearly forbids the setting up of armed, non-governmental organizations in South Lebanon.
You say that internationally this situation was absurd. But wasn’t it also so for Israel?
Naturally, since we know exactly and in great detail everything Hizbullah has: the thousands of Katyushas, the bunkers, the Russian NT anti-tank missiles and the long-range missiles. In this connection, an interesting situation has developed on both sides of the border. For several years renting rooms in people’s homes has become a very popular form of tourism in the Galilee; people have added rooms to their houses and in their gardens to rent them out. On the other side of the border homes were also extended in the same way, but to install stocks of Katyushas! It should be appreciated that a mass of about ten thousand rockets of this type represents a very respectable arsenal for any state.
Hizbullah felt increasingly reassured since Israel did nothing and said nothing to fight it and allowed the situation to deteriorate. In 2003 it kidnapped three soldiers, killed civilians, fired on the border, without the governments of either Barak or Sharon reacting. Each government clung to the second school of thought I mentioned, believing it right to push off war as far as possible. Then the Olmert government came to power, and on this specific point we must pay tribute to him when he said, “That’s enough, we can no longer take any more of this”. On this I heard a Hizbullah leader state, “The Israeli reaction was illogical. The kidnapping of soldiers merits a moderate response, perhaps a few bombardments, but not a war!” Members of Hizbullah had got into the habit of believing they could continue to kidnap and kill soldiers without us reacting forcefully, out of fear that Katyushas would fall on Haifa and the other towns of northern Israel. From this point of view the current government did something very important for Israel: it said to the whole world and especially to the countries of the region that there is a limit beyond which we would react disproportionately. So obviously the whole world will scold us for our reaction. Now, that is exactly what the guerrilla groups want, that as a state we respond proportionately to their provocations, because that way they can call the tune. You should know that if a state wants to fight guerillas there is only one way, by disproportionate reaction. What, for example, was the US’s “proportionate reaction” after 9/11? Did they satisfy themselves with knocking out two buildings in Afghanistan? No, they totally occupied that country, which was in no sense “proportionate”. This way of acting is accepted in the world as the normal reaction.
So no one did anything to prevent Hizbullah from entrenching itself militarily in Lebanon, and at a given moment Ehud Olmert’s government decided that the point of no return had been reached. However, the prevailing impression among Israelis is that even the army was surprised how this war developed. Why?
I personally was astonished to see that people had been taken by surprise. I have been saying for over three years that the day Israel decides to counterattack, it would find itself in a long and difficult war, with rockets inevitably falling on Haifa and with the involvement of ground forces in Lebanon unavoidable. Having said which, it should be highlighted that the blow our air force gave on the first day of the war was a true masterstroke. Over the years we have meticulously assembled an extremely accurate and detailed database that allowed us to act with high precision. We destroyed the entire infrastructure Hizbullah had built up since 2000 and that would have allowed it to fire long-range missiles at the State of Israel. We did not succeed in destroying the 220mm and 302mm Katyushas manufactured in Syria and transferred by it to Hizbullah. However, less than five minutes after each of these rockets landed in Israel their launch sites were obliterated by our air force. You should know that in comparative terms no other army in the world has the capability to carry out something like that.
But then how come so many Katyushas fell on Israel and that the population of the North was obliged to live in shelters for almost the entire month?
That was simply due to the fact that 96% of the rockets that fell on Israel were small and can be fired from a kitchen, roof or garden. There is no technology that can stop them, but there is one method: occupy the area and mop up from house to house, that is to say kill the Hizbullah’s men and destroy the Katyushas. On this very aspect of the war Israel made a mistake.
We thought the air strikes would be much more effective, because we did not wish to destroy Lebanon nor inflict intolerable suffering on the civilian population. We wrongly thought we could avoid a vigorous ground offensive, and because especially the people, and not the army, was thought to still be traumatized by its last experience in Lebanon. The Israeli decision not to commit ground forces was simply wrong. And finally, when the government took the decision it was too late and the army could no longer achieve much. Yet in the first 5 to 7 km in which the army was able to deploy after two weeks of fighting, there were effectively no more Katyushas, as we managed to wipe out over 95% of them. What we were unable to do was destroy the main Hizbullah forces located north of this area. It was only two days before the cease-fire that the government gave the green light for the army to move further north, and obviously in two days it could not do what it needed a week for. And therein lies the big question, for which it is too early to provide answers: why did the army not propose to the government earlier to launch a strong ground offensive and why did the government not ask for one? I think in time we will know what happened.
I had the opportunity to speak to many infantry reservists, who all said the same thing: the army did not take consistent decisions. For example, a soldier was sent out eight times on a mission with his unit and each time called back before getting into combat, another eleven times etc. How do you explain this state of affairs?
Throughout the entire period prior to launching the actual ground offensive, the orders were indeed fairly unclear. One day a force entered a location and then it was pulled back even before attaining its objective, the next was the turn of another unit, and so on. This is not the way to wage war. In the first classes of every military academy we learn that the decision to go to war is not an easy one and must be properly assessed before the commencement of hostilities. But once the decision has been taken, war cannot be waged on a day-to-day, short-term basis. From that moment on, you must attack with all available forces and do everything to win. Discussions and hesitation only have a place before starting the war, not during. Here too, the enquiries that will be undertaken will in time tell us at what level these serious errors took place, at the political or military echelon, and it is possible that these two bodies are both responsible. Having said which, it should be stressed that everywhere the army became involved it completely thrashed the Hizbullah. However, the decision to act properly and from an overall perspective was never taken.
In the light of what you have just said, the question is did we win or lose the war?
At the purely military level there is absolutely no doubt that we did not lose, because we destroyed Hizbullah’s infrastructure and killed a large number of its fighters. Despite this, that organization emerged from the war still in existence and capable of operating. We saw on the last day of the war, when it made a special effort to launch a large number of rockets at the north of Israel. However, it is not possible to assess the war’s end solely from the military point of view, and we must also consider the political angle. There too, as in the military question, the answer is not black or white. It should be understood that had we achieved a clear, dazzling victory, the world would have applauded us and the Jewish community worldwide would have been even more proud of us. Moreover, the fact that we did not totally destroy Hizbullah militarily allows it to claim that it won the war, which is absolutely not the case.
However, you must realize that the Olmert government made all the countries of the region understand that we will react extremely vigorously if they go beyond tolerable limits. And don’t forget that our neighbors had forgotten that, since we had not reacted so forcefully for many years. At this level, the record was set straight. Unfortunately, on the other hand, because we did not achieve a crushing victory and Hizbullah continues to exist, certain Arab countries in the region might think that the IDF is not as strong as they feared. This illusion is extremely dangerous, because it might encourage unpropitious ideas in the minds of certain Arab leaders. Now the fact is that the IDF far from used all its power; the air force committed about 30% of its strength while the ground forces barely 20%. This was primarily the result of a conscious decision and not a matter of capability or strength. But that is not how the outside world views and assesses the situation. In respect of international politics, I would like to say that the UN resolution is not at all clear, and effectively offers no solution for example to the question whether the international force should or can prevent Syria from continuing to rearm Hizbullah, and other similar questions. But at the political level the conflict did lead to one major change. Prior to the war no one considered it worthwhile dealing with Hizbullah, even though it constituted an independent army established within a sovereign state. Today everyone is talking of Hizbullah, the Lebanese are talking about it, the Lebanese government is fixated with the issue and Hizbullah’s leaders are very much aware that they are up against a problem. That is the reason that they initially opposed an international force before accepting it, and they opposed the deployment of the Lebanese army on the south of Lebanon before finally accepting that too. We can regret that the UN resolution is not clearer and more precise, but on the other hand there exists today in Lebanon a situation in which there are a certain number of forces, starting with the Lebanese army, that no longer want the costs of a war waged by Iran on its territory. They want to rid themselves of Iranian influence. One of the most negative aspects of the resolution is the fact that it is under the control of UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, in whom we can have no confidence, and who judges Israel through a series of clichés. We should also wait to see what will be the attitude of the Lebanese, the Americans and the Europeans. Of course, things would have been completely different and much simpler if we had destroyed 2/3 of Hizbullah. But that was not the case and we now have to play the diplomatic game on the chessboard today.
The media conveyed the image of Israel’s destruction of Lebanon and particularly of Beirut. What was the truth of the matter?
The famous “destruction of Lebanon” that we were meant to have undertaken was simply a myth. So when we bombed the Dahiya area of Beirut, to the north of the city people went perfectly calmly to the beach, knowing full well that with us they were risking nothing. The borough of Dahiya covers an area of one square kilometer and is entirely held by Hizbullah, to the point that if the Lebanese President wanted to go there he would need authorization from Nasrallah. In addition we bombed a Lebanese army camp, which had provided information to Hizbullah so that it could fire on one of our patrol boats, and a bit around the airport. In Beirut life continued, the cafes were open, we didn’t touch the supply of water or electricity, and very quickly the city’s inhabitants understood that we were only taking on the Hizbullah. Anyone who says that we destroyed Beirut or Lebanon is lying. By destroying what Hizbullah used we acted in accordance with the Geneva Convention that states clearly that anything civilian that services the fighting purposes of the enemy may be destroyed. It was the same with the unhappy Kfar Cana episode. From the yard of the house that was destroyed, 150 Katyushas had been fired at Israel. Had the civilians in that building left as we had asked them to, no one would have been killed. By the way, if we did destroy Lebanon, where are all the dead? This war caused about one thousand fatalities in Lebanon, of which 500 were Hizbullah members, and we do not know how many terrorists there were among the other 500 victims. The figure for civilian victims was particularly low when we take into account that Hizbullah runs most of its operations from densely populated areas. We did everything we could to avoid hitting the civilian population, but clearly the media, the faked photos and films, manipulated by computer, etc tarnished our reputation. I am convinced that in this matter Israel acted correctly.
Today the Lebanese army is moving into southern Lebanon. Do you think this is a serious step or just an open door for the reestablishment of Hizbullah?
The Lebanese army is much stronger and larger than Hizbullah. It has solid but not special armaments. What is important here is that the Lebanese government has taken the political decision to dismantle Hizbullah. It should be remembered that in Lebanon there had been other militias, which have all disappeared from the board, Amal, Druze, the Maronites and others. There is therefore no reason to believe that Hizbullah cannot be dismantled. It is exactly on this point that the international force has an important role to play. This force must be set up with a mandate that is very clear on two points: to assist the Lebanese army fulfill its own role, which means that UNIFIL soldiers must operate actively in coordination with the Lebanese army (which will demonstrate that it has the support of the whole world and not just of the Lebanese government; and it must also establish itself very strongly along the border between Syria and Lebanon, in order to prevent rearmaments for Hizbullah getting through. I do not believe that Syria will try to force a way with its army, because it would have to launch a military attack on UNIFIL. On this point I must yet again emphasize that Israel must continue to refuse soldiers from states that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel, such as Malaysia and Bangladesh, from participating in the international force. In respect of Lebanon’s sovereignty, I believe that on account the historic links between that country and Europe in general and France in particular, it is the responsibility of the European Union to do everything to ensure it is maintained and strengthened. That would be an opportunity for the EU to show that it is prepared to something else apart from just condemning Israel.
Is there a risk that Hamas will create a military fortress like the one Hizbullah built in south Lebanon?
That depends on three issues: the state of relations between Hamas and Hizbullah, the ideological points they have in common, and the future of Hamas in Gaza. Firstly it should be recalled that the two factions represent radical Islam, even though one is Shiite and the other Sunni, who are killing each other in Iraq. However, they share the ideology of putting an end to liberal democracy throughout the world. In this connection, Israel, in addition to being a Jewish state, represents the first bulwark of this type of democracy in the Middle East and so must disappear. As to relations between the two factions, you should know that for many years the Lebanese-Iranian Hizbullah has been providing arms and money to Hamas, and that Hamas members, even though they are Sunnis, are trained in Iran. This Iran-Hamas-Hizbullah triangle thus has very close, strong connections. Further, many of the attacks that have taken place in Judea and Samaria have been carried out by Hizbullah men and not by Hamas. As to whether Hamas is capable of achieving the military level of Hizbullah in Lebanon, the answer is in principle yes. From the moment Israel abandoned control of the border between Hamas and Egypt, it depended entirely on that latter country. Recently, Israel’s Head of Military Intelligence told me that recently enormous quantities of arms of every sort have come into Gaza. If the little Katyushas, which we were unable to destroy in Lebanon, are installed in Gaza, they can hit beyond Ashdod, almost to Beer Sheva, since they have a range of 40km. Israel is very aware of this and must soon take a political decision, which will be to act according to one or other of the two schools of thought I spoke about at the beginning of our conversation. The facts speak for themselves: in Gaza, where the army is effectively not present, Hamas fires Kassams daily at Israel; in Kalkilya, located just 700 meters from Kfar Saba, where we are located, a rocket has never been fired. If we do not want Hamas to become stronger and decide to end the firing of Kassams, we will have to put the army back into Gaza.
Do you think that if Israel had not left Lebanon, this last war might have been avoided?
Despite everything Hizbullah would have been reinforced, but we would have been able to destroy its infrastructure much earlier.
The prevailing feeling is that the ceasefire came into force when “the work was not yet completed”. In your opinion, will the next war against Hizbullah be soon?
Even though Hizbullah was not completely defeated, despite everything the IDF dealt it a deadly blow. It must therefore rebuild itself, recruit and train new men, prepare for war and recreate a military infrastructure. In my opinion, a new clash should not take place in the next two to three months. This depends above all on the effectiveness of the multinational force, on the attitude of Syria and on the decisions to be taken in Teheran.
How has this Second Lebanese War affected Israeli society?
I think it has had a very brutal awakening and has relinquished its illusions. In Israeli society there was a myth that all our problems stemmed from one single fact: our presence in Judea and Samaria, what the Left calls “the occupation”, and that it was enough just to leave these areas for all our problems with our neighbors to be resolved. We had left Lebanon to the last meter. By the way, near Kibbutz Manara, there is a tomb held on one side by an Israeli soldier, in the middle by a soldier from UNIFIL and on the other side by a man from Hizbullah, because the international border crosses exactly over this tomb; elsewhere the border goes right through a village, and so on. Despite everything, Hizbullah has never accepted our existence as a State. Israelis have started realizing that it is our very right to exist as a Jewish State in the Middle East that is being challenged, irrespective of what part of the land we wish to live on. Israelis have understood that we are not accepted by our surroundings and that the time to lay down our arms has not yet arrived. This in fact means that we must accept to still live for a long time with a drawn sword in our hand. The last war has also clearly shown that unilateral initiatives are unsustainable. This by no means excludes that in the future we will hold negotiations with those of our immediate surroundings that might result in viable, reciprocal accords that can be implemented on the ground. To conclude, I would say that the idea of a unilateral withdrawal saying, “we are here, they are over there” is no longer accepted by the overwhelming majority of Israelis.