For Israelis, truce with Hizbullah is unrealistic
Israel's army chief says it scored 'points' in the war against Hizbullah but not a 'knockout blow.'
JERUSALEM — Israel's weekend raid on a Hizbullah base in eastern Lebanon, rattling the week-old cease-fire, raises serious questions over whether the two sides will exercise the restraint needed for the truce to last.
There is widespread concern here that the UN resolution that quieted the heavy guns last Monday, after 34 days of fighting, is an agreement that's good on paper but unrealistic in the field. Many say the cease-fire does not represent an end – only an end to "Round 1."
As if to drive home the point, Israeli army Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz, under fire for his management of the war, told government ministers here Sunday that it didn't end in a "knockout," but had achieved a victory "by points."
For many Israelis, it is as if the war continues but in a lower gear – at least for now.
"I don't consider the cease-fire truly active," says Unit Commander Roy Timor Rousso, a reserve officer who spoke near the Israeli-Lebanese border last week after returning from the front. "I mean, the orders are clear – we can't open fire. But in our mind-set, this is the most dangerous time, because this is the time when they'll try to take advantage of the calm and rearm."
Lebanese officials, as well as the United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, say that an Israeli commando raid that began late Friday was a violation of the tenuous truce initiated a week ago.
"The secretary-general is deeply concerned about a violation by the Israeli side of the cessation of hostilities as laid out in Security Council Resolution 1701," a spokesman for Mr. Annan said in a statement.
But Terje Roed-Larsen, a senior UN envoy in Beirut, said that if Hizbullah was found to have smuggled weapons, it would be a violation of the deal, Reuters reported.
Israel argues that it was explicitly acting to stop Hizbullah from replenishing its diminished weapons supply by smuggling arms from Syria into Lebanon.
"We need to thwart any attempt to pass weapons from Syria to Hizbullah. Any such activity needs a counter measure," Trade and Industry Minister Eli Yishai told reporters before a weekly cabinet meeting here Sunday.
"There is no violation of the agreement," he said. "It is the Lebanese who are to be blamed for allowing the weapons transfer. We must not turn a blind eye when ammunition from Iran and Syria is being transferred. The one responsible is [Prime Minister Fouad] Siniora. We should give him an ultimatum – either he stops the weapons transfer or we target his infrastructure."
Part of the difficulty with transforming the cease-fire into something more substantial is the scarcity of specifics on how to implement the deal, and the relative sluggishness of putting a buffer force into play.
As part of the deal, 15,000 international peacekeeping troops are supposed to be deployed in south Lebanon. Along with the Lebanese Army troops, being sent throughout what has essentially become the Hizbullah heartland, these are supposed to amount to 30,000 troops. But so far, only some 50 French Army engineers have arrived and another 150 are on their way. It now looks unlikely that France will take the lead on the buffer force as Israel and US officials had hoped.
Mark Heller, an expert in strategic studies at Tel Aviv University, says that Israel is skeptical of the agreement because it doesn't see any international moves to bring its promises to fruition.
"Nobody takes this deal seriously. If [Security Council Resolution] 1701 were to be implemented, there wouldn't be a problem with Hizbullah anymore. Most people assume it's just lip service, designed to get Israel to stop fighting, or to let the Israeli government save face, so they can say they've achieved something from the war," says Dr. Heller.
He outlined the shortcomings that Israel sees in the cease-fire deal, representing the minimum Israelis would have expected as a sign of a meaningful end to the war.
"There's no closure to arms trade over the Syrian-Lebanese border. There's no disarmament south of the Litani River. There's no sign of the kidnapped soldiers coming back," he says. "The Europeans talk about wanting to restore peace and stability and security, but everyone is fooling themselves: There is no peacekeeping to be done here because there is no peace to keep."
Israel went to war in Lebanon shortly after a Hizbullah raid in Israeli territory on July 12, when the Iranian-backed militia captured two Israeli soldiers and killed eight. Reuters reports that Israeli commanders say nearly 500 Hizbullah fighters were killed in the fighting, but the guerrilla group's leadership remains intact and its support in Lebanon and beyond appears undiminished. In all, at least 1,183 Lebanese and 157 Israelis have been killed in the conflict, which came to a halt last week after intense international efforts to secure a cease-fire.
As part of the agreement, Israel maintains the right of self-defense. But its own definition of what encompasses self-defense differs from how Lebanese and international officials see it.
Military officials say they have been presented with two somewhat contradictory goals: preserve the cease-fire, but keep Hizbullah from receiving fresh arms from abroad.
UN Resolution 1701 says there should be "no sales or supply of arms and related materiel to Lebanon except as authorized by its government," but it does not provide for enforcement of that tenet.
"Resolutions themselves don't have teeth," Heller says. "Teeth are in the expection that someone will abide by or enforce the agreement."
Israelis also say they don't believe that other countries' troops will engage in the perilous task of either disarming Hizbullah or preventing its operatives from attacking Israel.
Israel also says it does not want the force to include soldiers from Muslim countries that don't have relations with the Jewish state. The multinational makeup of the force-to-be is still being negotiated in New York.
"It's not surprising that countries are not willing to put their soldiers' lives on the line if their own vital interests are not at stake," Heller says. "If they send someone, whoever they are, Hizbullah is almost certain to resist."