Register Sunday | June 16 | 2019

Zero-Sum Game

Will Israel finally bring Hezbollah to its knees?

It is Monday afternoon and a crowd of Lebanese Canadians, holding flowers and balloons, presses forward to meet the first arrivals from Lebanon who are now trickling into Montreal's Pierre Elliot Trudeau airport. Pushing carts of bottled water, Red Cross workers speed toward the evacuees who have been in transit for three long days. A middle-aged blonde woman, wearing a black dress and clutching a soggy tissue, walks over: "Are you a reporter? My family was killed when Israel bombed Tyre last Monday."

Rasha-the only name she gives me-breaks into tears. Her husband is quickly at her side. "Her aunt and three cousins were killed when a missile hit their home," he says, showing me pictures of the dead on his cell phone. Two Israeli missiles hit the home her relatives were staying in-part of the Israeli response to Hezbollah missile attacks against Haifa. "The first landed in the garden," he explains, "and another one followed."

The conflict began on July 12 when Hezbollah guerillas kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and killed three others in a cross-border raid, demanding the release of Lebanese prisoners detained in Israel.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah is widely credited with liberating the south of the country from an eighteen-year-long Israeli occupation in 2000 and the group, which has representatives in the Lebanese government and cabinet, runs a network of social services in the mostly Shiite south. But the governments of Canada, the US and the European Union consider the Syrian- and Iranian-backed group a terrorist organization, in part because of its attacks against French and US troops and its kidnappings of Westerners in Lebanon during the 1980s.

In 2000, Hezbollah ambushed an Israeli patrol and later exchanged a kidnapped Israeli businessman and the bodies of three soldiers for Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners. But the group has faced increasing pressure from within Lebanon to disband its military wing. As the ongoing conflict intensifies, support for Hezbollah remains strong among Shiite Lebanese, though other Lebanese have criticized the group for provoking the crisis.

"We don't blame Hezbollah," says Rasha. "They're defending us," she says, adding that Hezbollah should keep a military presence in the south as a deterrent to Israel.

Israel hopes its ongoing campaign will remove Hezbollah fighters from the south of Lebanon. "The IDF (the Israeli Defense Forces) wants to change the ground rules between Israel and Hezbollah," explains Ze'ev Schiff, defense editor with the Israeli daily Haaretz, speaking over the phone from Tel Aviv. "In the past, Israel reacted to Hezbollah with short-ranged responses. Now the strategy is to weaken Hezbollah. Lebanon has to take responsibility for what happens in its borders and outside."

"There is a military strategy," adds Schiff, dismissing criticisms that the Israeli army is simply seeking vengeance for the kidnappings, which came shortly after Palestinian Hamas militants kidnapped a soldier and killed two others in a similar raid from Gaza. In fact, the strategy to target Hezbollah may have been planned well in advance, according to a report published in the San Francisco Chronicle last week: "More than a year ago, a senior Israeli army officer began giving PowerPoint presentations, on an off-the-record basis, to US and other diplomats, journalists and think-tanks, setting out the plan for the current operation in revealing detail," reported Matthew Kalman, the Chronicle's Middle East correspondent.

But with more than 350 Lebanese civilians killed in the bombings thus far, and the extensive damage to Lebanon's infrastructure, Israel's choice of military targets is causing bewilderment and outrage. In the opening salvoes of the campaign, fighter jets targeted the runaways of Beirut's airport, and bombed power plants and fuel depots. "The situation is one of extreme misery," explains Lebanese Red Cross official Hassib Lahoud over the phone from Beirut. "Hundreds have been killed and we have 750,000 people displaced. Electricity is out, water is scarce, and communications are weak." A day earlier, Lahoub notes, six Red Cross workers were injured when an Israeli missile hit their ambulance. The Red Cross has reported at least five incidents where its staff has come under fire.

Robert Fisk, a veteran Middle East correspondent with the UK Independent, says an Israeli aircraft targeted two run-down trucks, abandoned for years, in a lot close to his Beirut home. "Israel also hit a milk factory and a Procter and Gamble factory-obviously terrorist targets."

"The Israeli army is making up plans at the spur of the moment," he says. "It reminds me of the line from King Lear: 'I shall do such things I know not, but they shall be the terrors of the earth.' The bombing is intended to destroy Lebanon. And of course the Europeans will have to pay for it again."

"You have two enemies that are unable to reach each other," explains Patrick Haenni, a Beirut-based senior analyst with the International Crises Group. Over the past week, Hezbollah fighters and Israeli soldiers have engaged in pitched battles in two Lebanese border towns, but the Israeli army has not had much success in stopping Hezbollah gunners from firing rockets at Israeli cities. Hezbollah has also had little success in targeting the Israeli military. The group hit an Israeli military installation in the north of Israel, and damaged an Israeli warship with rocket fire, but for the most part has bombarded Israeli cities with rocket fire, killing at least nineteen civilians. "They're fighting a proxy war with civilians," says Haenni.

"It hasn't been a good week for the Israeli army," remarks Fisk.

Nor has it been a good month for Hezbollah. Israel's reaction to the kidnapping took Hezbollah by surprise, a senior Hezbollah official recently admitted. "Hezbollah was expecting some bombings, like what happened the last time but they weren't expecting this," says Haenni, who has been in touch with officials close to Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah. "They were expecting a manageable response."

Hezbollah military commanders only ordered their cadres to go into hiding two days into the Israeli offensive, when the scale of the campaign became clear, Haenni says. "Sources close to Nasrallah say he wasn't even informed of the exact timing of the operation."

In fact, the timing of the conflict couldn't have come at a worse time for Lebanon, and a more politically damaging time for Hezbollah. 2006 was supposed to be the year of increased tourism and profits for Lebanon. An International Crisis Group report said Nasrallah had promised the Lebanese government to keep the south quiet over the tourist season. The Israeli operation came even as resentment had begun to mount against Hezbollah from within Lebanon's government, and among many Lebanese, over faltering talks aimed at getting the group, which has seats in the cabinet and parliament, to disarm in compliance with the UN Security Council resolution 1559.

"A lot of people in the government want disarmament. Some are saying, 'Okay maybe this war can bring it about,'" Haenni says. The ferocity of Israel's campaign in Lebanon has shifted the resentment towards Israel, he says, but once the dust settles attention would shift back to Hezbollah's status in Lebanon.

Some politicians in Lebanon have already come out in support of the US and Israeli position that a ceasefire should only be called once Hezbollah agrees to disarm. "There should be no ceasefire without international forces or the Lebanese army spreading in the south of the country. The Lebanese government should control all weapons in the country," Lebanese Member of Parliament Walid Jumblatt explains from Beirut. Jumblatt was at the forefront of an opposition movement that succeeded in forcing Syrian troops out of Lebanon last year. He sees Hezbollah's raid as revenge from Syria.

"The kidnappings caused the Israeli attacks. Hezbollah created chaos. This is Syria's response to the Cedar Revolution," he says, referring to the demonstrations that led to Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon, "and it's using Hezbollah."

Hezbollah has never faced as sharp criticism from Arab governments as it has since the hostilities started. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan-which have no love for Hezbollah and face challenges from their own Islamist dissidents-roundly blamed Hezbollah's "adventurism" for the crisis. Their rhetoric has been toned down more recently in the face of popular outrage over the casualties and damage in Lebanon.

The ground rules between Lebanon and Israel have changed. The world's nations, including Arab governments, are calling for an international troop presence in southern Lebanon. It is too early in the conflict to judge the extent of damage Israel has inflicted on Hezbollah's military strength. However, it is clear that the Shiite group-which has often come out as the victor in its battles with Israel-has suffered its first, perhaps lasting, political defeat.