Israel and Lebanon: a long and bitter entanglement

Does the latest conflict fit historical trends or is this something different?

Arab militants strike across the border from southern Lebanon, provoking a massive Israeli response, with thousands of soldiers pouring into Lebanese territory and airstrikes pounding enemy positions.

The Israeli prime minister says the only objectives of the invasion are to "root out the evil weed" of terrorism. Israel will protect itself by pushing militants beyond the Litani River and establishing a buffer zone along the border. The Israeli incursion is also described as "limited." And though Israel says its strikes are carefully targeted against militants, at least 100,000 Lebanese civilians flee their homes and hundreds die.

That was 1978. A chain of events was set in motion that included a failed United Nation's peacekeeping mission, Israel's larger invasion of southern Lebanon in 1982 to drive out the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), its occupation of Lebanese territory for 18 years, and the emergence of Hizbullah as a dominant military and political force.

While scholars debate the limits of historical analogy – Israel supporters say it's a dramatically different world than 1982, critics say it's déjà vu – the past implies that almost no one comes out a winner from these confrontations. Israel may take lots of casualties and eventually withdraw, leaving a more radical threat behind.

"This is one of the past parallels: In 1982 the Israelis go in to drive the Palestinians out of Lebanon. What happens next is that Hizbullah is created," says Wayne White, who retired as head of the Middle East desk at the US State Department's Intelligence and Research office last year.

"In Lebanon, the entire political spectrum is becoming more radicalized as a consequence of this. I think [Israel] can substantially destroy the existing Hizbullah infrastructure, but how long will it take? And in the end, they'll reconstitute themselves and they'll be turning recruits away by the thousands."

Lessons from the past

For now, the recent history of Israel and Lebanon's entanglements is being reflected in the strategic decisions of all parties to the conflict – all of whom seem to draw different lessons from the past.

Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah is refusing to accede to any Israeli demands, as it appears he believes his movement's relentless guerrilla attacks on Israeli forces in the 1980s and 1990s were what drove Israel from the country – and today provide a model that can be successfully pursued again.

Based on his comments and his government's actions, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sees history as evidence that UN peacekeepers can't be trusted to disarm militias, and is seeking to destroy Hizbullah on his own, while somehow avoiding another costly occupation, going much further, much faster than Israel went in 1978.

The US, Israel's closest ally, too, seems to see the UN as ineffectual, but is also leery of committing troops of its own – something that ended in disaster in 1983, when 241 US marines were killed in a suicide bombing on their barracks in Beirut. This time, the US is running diplomatic interference for Israel, seeking to buy time for Israel to "finish the job" of destroying Hizbullah and then find a recipe for the "enduring solutions" that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke of during her trip to the region.

To be sure, the differences between the early 1980s and today are being taken by supporters of Israel's latest action as evidence that it can accomplish more – and do it faster – without taking on as many risks.

Israel's last invasion of Lebanon was spurred by its desire to destroy the military capacity of the secular-leaning PLO, an organization whose militants enjoyed wide support among the Sunni Arab states of the region and that by 1978 had created large enclaves outside Lebanese government control. Today, it's confronting Hizbullah, a Shiite militia whose principal backer is Shiite and ethnically Persian Iran.

The Syrian connection

Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Israel's Bar Elon University and a consultant to Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, says a key difference between then and now is the relative military weakness of Syria, which has supported Hizbullah, primarily by allowing Iranian arms shipments to pass through its territory.

In 2005, Syria withdrew its forces from Lebanon, pushed out by a wave of anger at the assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister and a leader of the anti-Syrian opposition in the country. The UN has since blamed Syria for his murder.

"Syria is much weaker than it was. One of the goals of the 1982 war was to severely weaken or defeat the Syrian Army and to change the face of the Middle East. That's not even in the footnotes now," says Mr. Steinberg. "Israel could not have moved against the PLO in 1982 without engaging the Syrian Army ... today, there's no confrontation with Syria. They're essentially not a player in this."

That's a dramatically different view than the one expressed by the US; senior US officials say Syria has it in its power to order Hizbullah to give up.

Steinberg says that "talking about the complete destruction of Hizbullah is probably not realistic" and that he doesn't expect Israel's offensive will last beyond another month, let alone a full-scale invasion. He says the goals of the current fighting are to degrade Hizbullah's offensive capabilities while reminding all of Lebanon of Israel's overwhelming military superiority.

"We will end up most likely with a much weakened Hizbullah and a much strengthened Lebanon," Steinberg says. "The Lebanese don't want to pay this price again ... so we'll have increased ability of Israeli deterrence." In the coming years, he argues: "Israel is likely to adopt the same policies it's using in Gaza. Once they see bunkers or other military abilities being built, Israel will go in with short commando raids to destroy them."

To be sure, not all are convinced that a limited offensive that fails to destroy Hizbullah will make the region more peaceful, or reestablish Israeli deterrence. "All that Hizbullah has to do to 'win' is survive," argues Marc Lynch, a political scientist and expert on the Middle East at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. "A big part of Israel's power in the region is its cultivated air of absolute supremacy [and] the only people who didn't buy into this was Hizbullah. I think this is seriously degrading this cult of omnipotence."

Of course, Israeli officials continue to insist that the objective is nothing short of completely destroying Hizbullah. A failure of world powers to call for an immediate cease-fire at a conference on the crisis in Rome Wednesday was interpreted by Israeli Justice Minister Haim Ramon in an interview with Israel's Army Radio as "permission from the world ... to continue the operation – this war – until Hizbullah won't be located in Lebanon."

Buffer zone returns

But if Steinberg is right, Israel's current strategy is dramatically different then the one employed in the last war. In 1978, with Lebanon already mired in civil war, Israel cultivated local proxies – in particular the South Lebanese Army (SLA) – to fight its enemies inside Lebanon. Then, the SLA was used to patrol the 12-mile buffer zone Israel sought to create along the border, backed by Israeli munitions and military advisers.

Later, Christian Phalangist militias were also armed and supported by Israel to strike at Palestinian refugee camps – which led to the massacre of up to 3,000 Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut in 1982 and further radicalization of Israel's opponents.

This time, Israel has no local allies, and there are no signs it is trying to cultivate them. It has repeatedly bombed Lebanese military posts and civilian infrastructure in and around Beirut. While Israel wants a buffer zone to push Hizbullah's rockets out of range of Israeli cities, Steinbergsays it's unlikely the army will occupy ground in depth to try to achieve that objective.

Steinberg also says the belief of some historians that Israel's presence led to the creation of Hizbullah, and that it will now contribute to further radicalization, is incorrect.

"The main similarity is Lebanon was then, and is now, a very weak state, so it provides an arena for terrorist groups to operate against Israel ... My view is that if Israel hadn't invaded, we probably would have seen a group like Hizbullah emerge because all of the other factors were there."

Mr. White disagrees, and says he's concerned that open-ended conflict will not only win Hizbullah more support, but runs the risk of energizing Sunni as well as Shiite radicals inside the country. The sprawling Ein Helwah Palestinian refugee camp near Beirut, for instance, has become a breeding ground for Sunni jihadis seeking to fight the US in Iraq, and there are also disgruntled Sunni communities in the north of the country, and in southern cities like Tyre.

White says the logic of Israel's incursion is likely to pull them ever deeper into the country, as in 1982, and that in doing so, they're likely to create new recruits to radical causes.

"In north Lebanon for 30 to 40 years, there has been a Sunni militant tendency centered in Tripoli. This militancy has grown significantly and it has been fueled by guys who have gone and participated in the jihad in Iraq," he says. "This move could also reenergize those huge Palestinian communities in Tyre and Sidon to become jihadis and join the fight."

He also argues that the relative weakness of Syria this time around ironically works against Israel's interests since Syria, a secular Baathist regime, has reasons of its own to fear Islamist militants.

"When Syria was there it was possible to do stuff if it chose to play ball," he says."In the late 1980s Amal and Hizbullah were duking it out and the Syrians were backing Amal, a more secular Shiite option than the Iranian-backed Hizbullah. So the Syrians sent an infantry company out to a neighborhood where they knew a house was being held by Hizbullah, woke up some sleepy militiamen and then machine-gunned them up against the wall. That got people's attention. They can't do that anymore."

The enemy of my enemy

The religious differences between Sunnis and Shiites had kept Sunni radicals largely quiet about the current conflict. But on Thursday, Al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri released a video tape to Al Jazeera in which he vowed his organization would fight alongside Hizbullah and Hamas.

Mouin Rabbani, a senior Middle East analyst for the International Crisis Group, says he's alarmed by the prospect that Israel may pursue the same strategy it has deployed in Gaza to box in Hamas, the militant party elected to power there early this year, and says the best course in Lebanon now would be a cease-fire. He argues that an open-ended assault on Hizbullah could destabilize Lebanon further and perhaps drive it back into civil war.

While Israel's conflict with Hizbullah needs to be treated separately from its fight with Hamas, the ongoing strategy has been far from a recipe for peace and security, he says. Instead, Hamas, which has been internationally isolated since it won power, he says, is being made more committed to violent confrontation.

After continued shelling of Gaza by Israel this summer, Hamas renounced its unilateral cease-fire on June 9, and kidnapped an Israeli soldier last month, beginning this two-front confrontation.

"Political integration and democratic politics were and remain for Hamas an experiment," Mr. Rabbani says. "It was based on the premise that they could achieve more of their objectives through pursuit of political power than through militant opposition ... now their message is let us govern or watch us fight."

The lesson of Israel's approach in both cases is not a positive one, he argues. "Both of these crises demonstrate that unilateralism based on superior power and based on seeking to resolve problems by refusing to acknowledge even the existence of a partner [but] based rather on the concept that Israel has sufficiently overwhelming superior force to produce the outcome that it wants ... fails."

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