New York Times
As the bloodbath in Lebanon spilled past its second week — with at least 400 Lebanese dead and many more presumed buried in rubble; some 800,000 refugees, nearly a quarter of the population, on the run; and the fragile nation’s infrastructure shattered — there was no easy way out for either Israel or Hezbollah, the combatants locked in what each saw as a deadly existential struggle.
The very clear winner, for the moment at least, was Hezbollah and its leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. (Unless, of course, Israel succeeds in its efforts to assassinate him.) As the only Arab leader seen to have defeated the Israelis — on the basis of their withdrawal in 2000 from an 18-year occupation — he already enjoyed wide respect. Now, with Hezbollah standing firm and inflicting casualties, he has become a folk hero across the Muslim world, apparently uniting Sunnis and Shiites.
The standoff stunned Israel, whose offensive came in response to a Hezbollah cross-border raid that resulted in the death of eight Israeli soldiers and the capture of two others. Central to the embattled nation’s sense of survivability is the idea of its invincibility. Its intelligence knows everything, the mythology goes, and no army dare stand against it. In truth, Israel has, in part, been lucky in its enemies, mostly Arab regimes with armies suitable mainly for keeping their own populace in check.
What was clearly conceived two weeks ago as a quick battle using air power and strikes on specific targets with commando raids to degrade Hezbollah’s resources, particularly its stores of thousands of rockets, has turned into a crisis. “Israel is far from a decisive victory and its main objectives have not been achieved,” wrote the country’s most respected military analyst, Zeev Schiff, in the daily Haaretz.
Hezbollah, Sheik Nasrallah has said, “needs only to survive to win.” That seemed increasingly likely by week’s end. Deeply entwined among the Shiite community that makes up perhaps 40 percent of Lebanon’s population, it would be impossible to eliminate. But there is more. Although the Israelis announced within days that they had destroyed 50 percent of Hezbollah’s munitions, the guerrillas have continued to rain more than a hundred rockets a day on Israel. And on Wednesday, in Bint Jbail, a town the Israelis said they controlled, a well-laid Hezbollah ambush pinned down infantrymen from the elite Golani Brigade for hours. At times the firing was so heavy the brigade’s soldiers could not return it; eight Israelis were killed. The highly advanced Merkava tanks were reduced to ambulances and several were destroyed.
The idea that a supposedly ragtag group of guerrillas could trap the Golani Brigade was a visceral threat to the future. Still, while there has been criticism of the conduct of the war in Israel, with the rockets hitting northern Israel and Hezbollah still entrenched, there is wide popular support for continued combat.
Yoel Marcus, a columnist for Haaretz who had earlier acidly asked if this was the same army that had defeated all of the Arab forces in just six days, ended the week writing: “It is unthinkable to walk away from the battlefield with the depressing sense that out of all the wars Israel has ever fought, only Hezbollah, a mere band of terrorists, was able to bombard the Israeli home front with thousands of missiles and get off scot free.
“Before any international agreement, Israel must sound the last chord, launching a massive air and ground offensive that will end this mortifying war, not with a whimper but a thunderous roar.”
It is the United States that may well come out the worst in this impasse, particularly in terms of its influence in the Arab and Muslim world. Already widely seen throughout much of that world as the lapdog of Israel, it is now viewed as publicly sanctioning the continued pounding of Lebanon, blocking efforts for a cease-fire and even rushing the Israelis more laser-guided bombs.
“I think this is a loser,” said Augustus Richard Norton, an expert on the Shia of Lebanon who teaches at Boston University. “Time is working against us, not with us. The options stink.”
Vali R. Nasr, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, said that “the reason it’s an impasse is that there is a lot riding on it for the U.S. and Israel.” He added: “It potentially puts into question the entire rationale of whether overwhelming military force can shape the region. The bar for victory for the U.S. and Israel is growing every day and for Hezbollah it is lowering every day.”
Israel has been down this road in Lebanon before. In both 1978 and 1982 it invaded to drive out Palestinian guerrillas and employed a heavy bombing campaign that drove many Shiites from the south to Beirut’s southern slums. Its 18-year occupation of the south brought Hezbollah into existence.
“Hezbollah had 20 years to hone their skills and hatred against Israel,” said Mr. Norton, a former Army officer who served with the United Nations in southern Lebanon and taught at West Point. “That hatred was created by Israel; it wasn’t there at the beginning.”
Israel’s battle plan rested on air power, hoping that heavy bombing would demoralize the population and turn it against Hezbollah, although many military experts say that rarely works. Officials last week seemed uncertain how to proceed: they said they would keep bombing rather than launch any big land attacks, but still called up as many as 30,000 reserves.
As international concern grew over the destruction, there was a flurry of diplomatic maneuvers aimed at creating a peacekeeping force. But while there was widespread support in principle, no nation seemed eager to send its own troops, particularly if the mandate was to disarm Hezbollah, in effect, to become another combatant.
On Friday, as crowds spilled out of a Sunni mosque in Cairo, capital of one of America’s key allies, they waved posters with the bearded, black-turbaned portrait of Sheik Nasrallah.
“Oh, Sunni! Oh, Shiite! Let’s fight the Jews,” the crowds chanted. “The Jews and the Americans are killing our brothers in Lebanon.”