The uneven calculus of Mideast victory

Hizbullah may 'win' this war, now in its fourth week, by merely surviving.

As fighting between Israel and Lebanese guerrillas intensified Thursday, Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah warned that his forces would fire rockets at Tel Aviv, if Israel again attacked Beirut.

"If you strike Beirut, the Islamic resistance will strike Tel Aviv and it is able to do so," Mr. Nasrallah said in a taped television statement after Israeli planes dropped leaflets on the southern suburbs of Beirut, telling residents to expect more bombing of the devastated Hizbullah stronghold.

"[If] at any time you decide to stop your campaigns on our cities, suburbs, civilians, and infrastructure, we won't strike with rockets any settlement or Israeli city," Nasrallah said, on a day in which Hizbullah fired at least 150 rockets, killing eight Israeli civilians.

Since Israeli forces withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000, after an 18-year occupation, Hizbullah has been seen as the only Arab force to ever "defeat" Israel's sophisticated, US-supplied and funded military machine.

Six years on, Hizbullah has enhanced its status, stockpiled an estimated 13,000 to 15,000 rockets, and honed its propaganda prowess. After three weeks of conflict, Lebanese sources say 80 Hizbullah fighters have been killed, and Israel says 300 to 400.

In the battle of perceptions, Hizbullah is riding a wave of popular regional support, especially after an Israeli strike in Qana left at least 28 civilians dead. That even quieted critics in Lebanon who have long wanted the group disarmed. Lebanese Christian and Muslim religious leaders accused Israel of "war crimes" and "hailed the [Hizbullah] resistance" in a joint statement Tuesday.

"Hizbullah can't afford to stand and fight.... They don't even need to," says British defense analyst Charles Heyman. "All they need to do is inflict casualties and disappear.

"[Israeli forces] will be subject to ongoing Hizbullah attacks that will just go on and on until the Israelis withdraw," says Mr. Heyman, a former editor of Jane's World Armies.

Israel's war against Hizbullah is widening in its fourth week, with Israeli troops pushing north into Lebanon, between one to four miles deep. Israeli jet fighters carried out 70 strikes overnight Wednesday, adding to a tally of 7,000.

But Hizbullah resistance has been fierce and costly to the Jewish state, with 39 soldiers killed in Lebanon and at least 26 civilians lost to rocket fire.

"I'm not sure that Israel can actually prevail, in the way Israel wants to this time around," says Heyman. "Hizbullah wins by surviving, because Israel said they are going to destroy Hizbullah."

But such bold ambitions stated by Israeli officials in the first days of conflict are being scaled back. And Hizbullah admits it underestimated the ferocity of Israel's response. Israel has also been shocked by how little progress it has made, despite expending so much ordnance in Lebanon.

"The Israeli tactic of using the air force as a counter-guerrilla strike force – it's called the 'vulture and snake' – has almost certainly failed," says Heyman. Newly reported Israeli plans for a ground assault to the carve out 20 villages north of the border, to stop short-range Katyusha rockets and pave the way for a yet-to-be-agreed-upon international force deployment, he says, indicate a degree of Israeli "desperation."

Hizbullah experts say the military command is divided into 75 sectors across Lebanon, with local commanders under the leadership of Nabil Qawook.

"A trademark of Hizbullah ... is their endurance and patience, waiting for the Israelis to come to them when they engage in close-quarters combat," says Magnus Ranstorp, head of the Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defence College in Stockholm.

But as fighting continues, the guerrillas also have strategic concerns.

"Hizbullah has to worry about the survival of the political leadership," says Mr. Ranstorp, who has studied Hizbullah for 16 years. "If Israel really wants to clip the wings of Hizbullah, they would have to go after 35 to 50 top leaders almost simultaneously, to create a vacuum."

Another Hizbullah worry is "maintaining the supply lines of weaponry along the Syria-Lebanese border," says Ranstorp. A stated aim of Israel is to disrupt that flow.

Perhaps more important, says Ranstorp, is how Hizbullah will deal with the question of disarmament, as required by UN Security Council Resolution 1559, and which is likely be part of any comprehensive solution.

"How will they sabotage it? How can they wriggle or maneuver out of it?" asks Ranstorp. "It is not about eliminating Hizbullah, but rather to undermine the legitimacy as to why they have a right to be the [armed] resistance."

But questions about disarming Hizbullah – raised widely during the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon last year when troops of Syria, one of the group's strongest backers, withdrew from Lebanon – are not being asked today, in the heat of conflict.

"We're hoping this is the last war in Lebanon.... The final outcome should be where the Lebanese government is in control," says Farid el-Khazen, a Lebanese parliamentarian and political science professor at the American University of Beirut.

"[But] At this stage of the war, we are all dependent on the outcome of military operations," says Mr. Khazen. "A large-scale Israeli ground offensive ... will be difficult for Hizbullah to deal with," because the guerrillas have "limited capability in the end, and Israel has a huge army."

"It's not a matter of victory or defeat; Hizbullah will continue to be," says Khazen. He hopes for a peace deal that will "reach a new equilibrium [of] not war, not peace," but does not think "Israel will stop short of impairing Hizbullah, somehow."

In a report Thursday, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused Israel of war crimes, by noting a "systematic failure" to distinguish between civilians and combatants during attacks, and instances in which Israeli forces "appear to have deliberately targeted civilians."

"Researchers found numerous cases in which the [Israeli Defense Forces] launched artillery and air attacks with limited or dubious military objectives but excessive civilian cost," HRW said in a statement.

"Hizbullah fighters must not hide behind civilians – that's an absolute – but the image that Israel has promoted of such shielding as the cause of so high a civilian death toll is wrong," HRW executive director Kenneth Roth said in the statement.

Israel accuses Hizbullah of using civilians as a "human shield," and operating amongst the population to raise the civilian death toll and win international sympathy. After Qana, Israel released footage from drones that appeared to show examples of rocket launchers firing from behind buildings.

"They say, 'You use civilians as a shield,' but the civilians themselves are Hizbullah – your son, your brother, your father are fighters," says Ibrahim Mussawi, the foreign news editor of the Hizbullah's Al-Manar television.

"In the south, there are orchards and valleys," says Mr. Mussawi. "You do not need to use buildings for cover. To kill more people.... To kill your sister, your brother ... This is not acceptable."

He says the secretive and small Hizbullah, with just a few thousand fighters, operate in such a way that it will be "impossible" for Israel to crush them.

"[Israeli forces] spent 18 years in Lebanon trying to do what they now want to do in a month," says Mussawi. "The military operations management of Hizbullah is still intact ... [their] rocket capability means they are prepared to go into a lengthy war."

Zeinab Jaber exemplifies why analysts say Israel's deepening offensive in Lebanon will not dislodge Hizbullah.

In the ruins of her destroyed apartment block of Haret Hreik, Hizbullah's stronghold in Beirut's crowded southern suburbs, she digs with grimy hands for any evidence of her family's daily life.

Empty-handed, and with gritty dust clinging to her shoes and pant legs, Ms. Jaber climbs a mountain of pulverized concrete and twisted girders.

"Hizbullah are not terrorists!" Jaber shouts, holding out her arm like a fiery preacher. "Israel and America are terrorists! We take our children to Hizbullah, and God save Nasrallah!"

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