Israel’s Quagmire

Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, has asserted that Israel will destroy Hezbollah or at least force it far enough north so that its rockets cannot threaten the Jewish state. As many have noted, this is turning out to be more difficult than expected. Since Hezbollah forced them out of Lebanon in the year 2000, it is hard to understand why they believed it would be a simple task.

Consider the beginnings of this tragedy: Hamas, after being duly elected to govern the Palestinians, was isolated, deprived of funds, trade and attacked routinely. On June 25, Hamas launched a raid into Israel in which they killed two soldiers and captured a third, whom they spirited back to Gaza. They demanded a trade of women and children prisoners in exchange for their captive. Since Israel had in the past exchanged prisoners for hostages, Hamas leaders had reason to think that Israel might trade. Prime Minister Olmert, new on the job and with no military experience, believed apparently that he must show strength to remain in power. In any case, he responded by air raids, tanks, and bombs that quickly took out much of the infrastructure of Gaza, such as the power plant.

About two weeks later, Hezbollah, in a copy-cat move, crossed over into Israel, killed three soldiers and abducted two. The leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, asserted that the Israeli prisoners could solve the Gaza crisis through a trade for Lebanese prisoners. Demanding the return of the soldiers, Olmert retaliated immediately by bombing villages, towns, and cities in Lebanon from the air and from the sea. It wasn’t until the next day that Hezbollah responded by firing rockets and mortars into Israel and on their towns and cities. In other words, it was Israel that first launched attacks on civilians.

The Israelis assert that they do not target civilians while Hezbollah aims its rockets at non-combatants in Israel. As a result, according to the Associated Press, by August 3 at least 525 Lebanese have died from Israeli action, 450 of whom have been civilians. Hezbollah, on the other hand, has succeeded in killing about one-tenth of that number of Israelis, that is, 68, of whom 41 have been soldiers. One can only conclude that both sides have been very inaccurate with their weapons — Israel with its "pinpoint" bombs has managed to miss Hezbollah fighters and devastate civilians while Hezbollah with its rockets has missed the "targeted" Israeli civilians and taken out some local soldiers.

Meanwhile, the US and Israel have been calling for a cease-fire, but only after Hezbollah is disarmed and moved away from the border with Israel. Initially Israel was going to do the job itself, but it has turned out to be much more difficult than expected. In fact, it is virtually impossible. Guerrillas can meld back into the local communities and hide their weapons. This is why the Israeli military dropped leaflets telling civilians to leave southern Lebanon. If they all left, Israel could kill any one they found, knowing that those were militants.

The leader of the militants promised that if Israel halted its bombardments in Lebanon, the group would halt its rocket attacks on Israeli cities. So far the Israelis have been unwilling to make that deal. Hezbollah has shown that it is willing to scale down the violence. During the 48 hours that Israel suspended air strikes partially, it virtually stopped missile strikes on Israel.

Although there seems no doubt that Israel can conquer all of Lebanon it chooses; once it has it, how do the Israelis hold it? Thus the plan that the US and Israel are pushing in the UN. They want a "robust" international force with guns and rules of engagement that will allow these UN sponsored troops to keep Hezbollah out and away from Israel. So far they have no takers. No country wants to send its troops into harm’s way.

The last time the US and France sent troops into Lebanon, Hezbollah attacked the US marines and the French soldiers and drove them out of the country. Even if Hezbollah agreed to be disarmed, a very unlikely outcome, keeping militants from re-arming and attacking whatever force is occupying the southern part of Lebanon is likely to be costly in lives and in cash. Who is going to pay for this force — some say it would take 20,000 well-armed troops. Although it may be that the US could be convinced, perhaps with a few other countries chipping in, to cover the cost, the problem of securing troops from willing countries is huge. The US, even if so inclined, is so tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan that it can do no more than play a supporting role. The UK is also fully committed. France might have the troops but is reluctant unless Hezbollah concurs. Germany has said that it will send troops only if all parties, including Hezbollah, are agreed.

If Israel cannot get a "robust" international force, what can it do? Continue fighting in order to prevent Hezbollah from winning? Lebanon and Hezbollah may be Israel’s Vietnam.