AYTA AL SHAAB, Lebanon — The hue and furor over the humanitarian cost of the Gaza conflict have obscured the matter on which Israel’s campaign against Hamas ultimately will turn: Can military force really alter the course of a populist Islamist movement?
Long after the terms of a cease-fire are hammered out, the answer to this underlying and persistent question will determine whether the offensive was successful for Israel and fatal for Hamas.
President Obama’s foreign policy team is grappling with the same nagging quandary as it shifts the U.S. military's focus from Iraq to Afghanistan: How to wage an effective struggle against groups that often employ terrorist tactics? Obama’s White House seems to have abandoned a conventional one-size-fits-all military approach, but it must confront an array of militants that includes Al Qaeda, the Mahdi Army in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
They’ll be looking for lessons from Israel’s latest conflicts. And they’ll find a warning of sorts in the thriving and resurgent community of Hezbollah supporters on Israel’s northern border. The state of Hezbollah, two-and-a-half years after its own punishing encounter with the hard end of Israel’s military, offers a cautionary tale for those who hope to thwart the emboldened axis of Islamist, anti-Israel militant movements through brute strength.
As it has just attempted to do in Gaza, Israel tried in 2006 to emasculate Hezbollah, the militant Shiite Islamist group that has since come to dominate Lebanese politics. Then, Israel hoped to sap popular support for the group by bombing infrastructure targets, as well as to decapitate the leadership and decimate Hezbollah’s military infrastructure.
On all those counts, most military analysts would agree Israel ultimately failed. Less than three years after the war, observers say Hezbollah wields a more formidable military arsenal than in 2006, including anti-aircraft batteries that could reduce Israel’s battlefield advantage. The group has secured more political influence than ever before, including veto power over all Lebanese government decisions. And the increasingly radicalized rank-and-file Shiites, Christians and Palestinians who support Hezbollah are exhibiting a startling thirst for a new confrontation with Israel.
All this despite a war in 2006 that ravaged Lebanon’s infrastructure, killed hundreds of Hezbollah fighters, and by traditional measures of military success was a victory for Israel.
Hezbollah's most important asset
A military balance sheet of the war fails to take into account Hezbollah’s most important asset: the fervent ideological support of its Shiite base, motivated in equal measure by the cause of anti-Israeli resistance and by religious devotion.
Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s supreme leader, says he is in regular contact with his backers in Iran, and with Hamas — presumably swapping ideas on tactics, strategy and ideology. It’s hard to imagine that Hamas isn’t drawing on Hezbollah’s 2006 playbook.
Hezbollah’s brightest tactical move in 2006 was to declare at the outbreak of conflict that all it had to do to win was to survive. With its decentralized hierarchy, bevy of technocrats, and a million or more supporters, Hezbollah is likely to persist after an armed conflict, no matter how bruising. So on its own terms, it can’t be defeated no matter what losses it sustains. Hamas seems to have adopted a similar rhetorical stance in its fight with Israel.
Israel might have waged these campaigns against Hamas and Hezbollah, but in the Muslim world and among many of America's allies, Washington is perceived as inextricably linked to them. The United States rushed extra bombs to Israel during its 2006 war with Lebanon. And in one of its final foreign policy acts the Bush Administration gave the green light to the aerial bombardment of Gaza. Israeli officials rushed to execute the offensive in Gaza before Bush left office in part because they weren’t confident that an Obama White House would approve such military moves.
Contemplating the wreckage in Gaza and the failure to de-fang Islamist movements across the Middle East, Obama’s team, like Israeli policy-makers, will have to forge a new, strategic, comprehensive approach. Smart power, perhaps; smart bombs, not so much.
But more to the point in terms of lessons learned — and more chilling for Obama’s policy team and military planners — is how Hezbollah capitalized on the 2006 war to recruit new members and redouble the passion of its inner cadres. By its own account, membership in the party and its militia has doubled, as have the ranks of its youth scout program, which trains future Hezbollah fighters and bureaucrats.
Border villages hard hit during the war have been quickly rebuilt. Ayta al-Chaab, the frontier town from which Hezbollah launched its cross-border raid, kidnapping two Israeli soldiers and sparking the 2006 conflict, was ravaged by bombing and then ground fighting: About 90 percent of the town’s buildings were ultimately damaged or destroyed. Now, it’s been almost completely reconstructed, and expanded. There are several hundred new houses, built by Hezbollah supporters who were encouraged by the party to relocate to the sensitive border region, to counter a perceived Israeli desire to depopulate southern Lebanon.
For Hezbollah’s supporters, the question isn’t if they’ll fight Israel again, but when. “Now is not a good time for the people. We have just recovered from the last aggression. And the Islamic resistance does not want to be seen provoking a war,” says Faris Jamil, 52, a Hezbollah supporter whose house was destroyed in 2006.
Jamil and his family live in the basement of their half-completed home, an ornate three-story structure accented with Grecian marble columns and floral stone cornices. From his front door, he watches the sun set behind the next line of hills, a mile away in Israel.
“We are ready to respond if attacked,” Jamil says, warming himself by a wood stove. “But otherwise, we should expect the next war in two or three years.”
Israel Alarmed by Rising Calls for its Destruction
Equally alarming to Israel and its friends — and more energizing to the “resistance axis” that spans Tehran, Damascus, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and a panoply of smaller Palestinian, Iranian and Arab Islamist groups — is the swelling rhetoric about “liberating Jerusalem,” sending Israel’s Jews “back to Europe and America where they came from.”
Such words are nothing new in the Middle East; but the conviction that a total military defeat of Israel is a realistic possibility is. One hears echoes of it in the words of Iran’s supreme leader — Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — the speeches of Nasrallah, the statements of Hamas, and in the bubbling ferment of anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish hatred roiling the region’s mosques, television channels and cafe chatter.
This belief, that an Islamic resistance can eventually disestablish Israel as a state, is in part an outgrowth of an approach that has prioritized the law of the strongest above all else. Israel, at its peak, extended a tight grip over the West Bank and Gaza, building homes for hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers.
Now, the Islamists see their own star rising and believe Israel’s is waning; Hezbollah drove Israeli forces out of southern Lebanon in 2000, after 18 years of occupation. In 2005, Israel unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip, and Hamas successfully sold the pullout to its constituents as a victory for its fighting brigades. Hezbollah’s successful reemergence from the 2006 war only strengthened the Islamist bloc’s narrative of growing prowess.
Critics inside Israel’s political and military establishment have consistently bemoaned the rise of an Islamist axis and have decried the vain effort to quash it by force. Only months before the Gaza conflict, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in a candid exit interview, harshly derided his own tactics, declaring that Israel could only achieve peace through political negotiation, not by conquering hilltops.
Israeli analyst Gideon Levy wrote in Haaretz at the close of the Gaza conflict that Israel had failed all its aims, and had increased popular support for Hamas. “Deterrence, my foot,” he wrote. “The deterrence we supposedly achieved in the Second Lebanon War has not had the slightest effect on Hamas, and the one supposedly achieved now isn't working any better… Their [Hamas’] war has intensified the ethos of resistance and determined endurance.”
There are certainly differences between Israel’s two most recent campaigns, against Hezbollah in 2006 and Hamas in 2009. Hezbollah benefits from unimpeded access to armaments supplied by Iran and transferred through Syria. Hamas smuggles in some weapons through tunnels from Egypt, and relies primarily on the locally manufactured Qassam rockets, which cause more terror than actual damage and death in Israel. Hezbollah is larger and better-funded than Hamas; its fighters operate in wide expanses of hilly and mountainous terrain, which offer cover and room for maneuver not to be found in the flat, claustrophobic, urban Gaza Strip.
And Israel appears to have learned at least some lessons from its failures in 2006, this time around acting with decisive force. Israel’s military and political leaders have acted more in concert, and have avoided setting impossible goals like the elimination of Hamas.
Tel Aviv strikes, but leaves room for negotiation
The Islamist axis commands real power and is a force to be reckoned with. Israel has never stopped negotiating with Hamas and Hezbollah. European diplomats are quietly talking to Hezbollah officials, and looking for ways to initiate contacts with Hamas without violating European law. American intelligence services and diplomats find they have less and less leverage and understanding from their increasingly isolated stations and embassies; they’ll need to craft new channels through which to speak to groups in the Islamist axis.
Military force surely will continue to play a central role in the Middle East, a region where competing well-armed groups frame every conflict as a question of survival and are quick to shoot back when provoked. But Israel’s conflicts failed to decisively turn the popular tide against Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Israel, like the United States, wants to shift the balance of power in the Middle East away from militant Islamist groups. To accomplish that end, the Obama administration and its allies will have to forswear an approach built around military force. Bombs alone will not eliminate popular ideological movements like Hamas, Hezbollah, or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
(Thanassis Cambanis is writing a book about Hezbollah for Free Press, due to be published in 2010.)