Olmert’s Folly?

Israel’s recent response to actions by Hamas and Hezbollah has raised alarms in the region to a higher level than in any time since the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Rather than strengthen Israel’s security, it might well have weakened it by setting the stage, perhaps irreversibly, for a protracted conflict with various groups in the region. At least one of them has reach well outside the region.

Hamas won recent elections in Palestine owing in large part to the corruption and ineptness of Fatah, the old Palestinian political group once led by Yasser Arafat. So bitter was the hatred between Hamas and Fatah that many observers thought a civil war might break out when the former tried to disarm the latter’s security forces. In recent weeks, Gaza-based Hamas forces – a term used loosely here – continued to fire locally-made Qassam rockets into Israel and sortied into Israel to capture an Israeli soldier, precipitating Israeli air strikes on Gaza’s power plant and several ground incursions.

The bravura of Hamas’ forces, manfully presented in parades and political campaigns, was revealed to be an absurd charade. They scattered and ran like cockroaches alarmed by a kitchen light that Israel switched on. In the eyes of many Palestinians, and their backers in the Arab world, Hamas is disgraced and dishonored. If it does not find effective means of fighting Israel in Gaza and the West Bank, it will be disenfranchised and disbanded.

Competition for voters by Hamas and Fatah will likely take the form of attacks on Israelis. Each will seek to demonstrate its legitimacy and fitness to rule through armed attacks. Their sincerity will be demonstrated not through promises exclaimed on a bullhorn but through killing Israeli soldiers and civilians along Gaza and in the West Bank. (Civilian targets, of course, have long been integral to Palestinian rhetoric and actions.) Though each organization is adequately equipped with weapons and killers, a look through events of the last several years might lead an observer to give the edge to Fatah and its sundry affiliates.

Clearly, Hezbollah is a more formidable entity than either Fatah or Hamas. The mainly Shi’ite organization was created in 1982 following Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon that aimed to establish a defensive glacis. Hezbollah, a complicated organization with political, social, and military structures, mounted a sustained and skillful guerrilla war against the IDF, which over the years inflicted sufficient casualties to cause widespread disaffection and a pullout in 2000.

Angered by events in Gaza or at least seeing an opportunity, Hezbollah fired more Katyusha rockets into northern Israel than in previous months and sortied across the border to capture IDF soldiers. In effect, Hezbollah has opened a second front. Israel has responded with air strikes in Lebanon, including Beirut, which aim to turn the Lebanese populace against Hezbollah– a stratagem that might be based on the dubious hope that political calculus can triumph over vengeful rage. Thus far, IDF forays back into Lebanon have been limited to hot-pursuit sallies.

Hezbollah’s answer to Israeli air strikes, as is well known, has been to increase the volleys of Katyushas fired into Israel. Was this a reckless, Sonny Corleone-style response or part of a more clever strategy worthy of his younger brother? Hezbollah’s salvoes may lure Israel’s new government to order something the IDF likely sees coming – another incursion into and occupation of southern Lebanon, designed to take Israeli towns and settlements out of the range of Katyushas (12.7 miles).

Needless to say, southern Lebanon offers Hezbollah the home field advantage, which it will use to wear down the Israeli army as it did in the ’80s and ’90s. Knowledge of the terrain and support from the villagers will provide numerous opportunities for snipers, ambushes, and, to import a term more commonly used elsewhere in the region, IEDs. Furthermore, Hezbollah has a presence in many parts of the world from which it can strike at Israeli, Jewish, and American interests. Over the years, it has done so.

A Shi’ite guerrilla campaign in Lebanon might well attract the sympathies and support of co-religionists abroad. Hezbollah’s support from Iran, in the form of money and armaments, is well known, though likely overstated for propaganda purposes. Iranian support will undoubtedly continue, perhaps with the reward of more money, arms, and advisers for more sophisticated hardware. Iran, sensing that the U.S. and Israel are over-committed and that world opinion is increasingly disgusted with those two countries, might even send teams of snipers and saboteurs. Alternately, perhaps in conjunction with this, Iran could send such units into Iraq to bolster Shi’ite opposition to the U.S. there.

Iraqi Shi’ites, though certainly engaged in settling accounts with the Sunnis, could enter the equation in several ways. First, they could increase their street battles against the U.S. and the fledgling Iraqi army, which as of late have already been rather sharp. Second, they could send a handful of fighters into southern Lebanon to serve with their Hezbollah brethren. Third, key components could pull out of the already rather shaky coalition government of Nouri al-Maliki. Fourth, they could orchestrate large public demonstrations against the U.S. and Israel. The potential for these to erupt into violence should be obvious. A central figure in all of these scenarios is Moqtada al-Sadr, the young and mercurial cleric who recently said of events in Lebanon: “Let it be known to everybody that we in Iraq will not sit by with folded hands.” His Mahdi Army battled the U.S. fiercely two years ago before it was ordered to stop by Ayatollah Sistani. It is battling American troops today in Baghdad, and his party is a key part in the fragile government.

To return attention to southern Lebanon, it is possible that the IDF, remembering all too well the guerrilla war they fought there, unsuccessfully, will not establish a glacis to protect against rocket fire. Instead, it may rely on small reconnaissance teams, aerial observation, and air power to find and destroy launch sites. In this effort, U.S. satellites and AWACs could be of assistance. Such technologies are likely more developed and deadlier than they were in the IDF’s previous campaign in southern Lebanon, but they still might not be effective enough to prevent political pressure to completely end rocket attacks on Israel. Only a ground campaign and occupation can do that.

Israel’s recent actions have opened the door to a widespread conflict from Gaza, the West Bank, and the Lebanese border. Present efforts to intimidate Syria and implicate Iran could make the conflict even more nettlesome than outlined here. This at a time when most of the world, including a portion of the American public, sees Israel as having overreacted. In time, many Americans may come to see Israel as having inflamed anti-Americanism and endangered American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Israel is becoming engaged in a long, costly conflict with Hezbollah, Hamas, Fatah, and thousands of heretofore unaggregated Palestinians who may start a third Intifada. A long conflict with those groups, even with only light Israeli casualties and ostensibly favorable kill ratios, will present severe problems for the small state. Higher conscription, extended active duty, and protracted exposure to hostile fire will lead to manpower problems. In a year or so, Israel could face net emigration as young men, especially educated and relatively secular ones, seek to raise their families and pursue their careers in the safety of other countries, confident that they had done their part.

Sober analysts of security matters are coming to see the U.S. war in Iraq as weakening national security. In time, Israel’s security could also be generally seen as weakened by its reckless war policy.

Author: Ira Chernus

Ira Chernus is professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin, and a Foreign Policy in Focus contributor. Read more of his writing on Israel, Palestine, and the U.S. on his blog.