The Magazine

The Second Lebanon War

It probably won't be the last.

Sep 4, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 47 • By MAX BOOT
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But divorcing themselves from their neighbors has proven difficult. The withdrawal from the Gaza Strip was followed by the rise of Hamas, which continues to fire homemade Qassam rockets into southern Israel and to stage occasional raids, such as the one on June 25 that sparked the current crisis. Hezbollah, which has close links to Hamas even though the former is a Shiite group and the latter is composed of Sunnis, joined in the Hamas offensive by kidnapping more Israeli soldiers in the north. Israel had no choice but to send its armed forces back into the Gaza Strip and southern Lebanon. But even when forced into war, the government has tried to fight in the manner least costly to its own people and (a less appreciated fact) to the enemy populace.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a former mayor of Jerusalem, and his defense minister, Amir Peretz, a former trade union leader--both national security neophytes--approved a war plan presented by Halutz, the first air force general to lead the IDF. The plan initially called for fighting Hezbollah only from the air. This was reminiscent of the small wars the United States waged in the 1990s (Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Sudan), when it relied on bombs and missiles fired from afar and ran away as soon as it suffered any casualties (Somalia). The Israelis quickly discovered what the United States had learned: Airpower divorced from ground action seldom produces decisive results.

Yet Olmert was so eager to avoid a ground war at first that he ordered only limited raids into Lebanon. These met strong resistance from Hezbollah fighters, who proved better armed and more motivated than the Arab foes that Israel had gotten used to defeating handily. Olmert was forced to call up the reserves, but it soon became apparent that their training and equipment were not up to snuff. Complaints about inadequate logistics were rampant, with many soldiers grousing that they weren't even given enough to eat while in Lebanon.

Partly because of delays in mobilizing reservists, but mainly because of his own caution, the prime minister did not order an all-out assault to secure all of Lebanon south of the Litani River until just 48 hours before a U.N.-brokered cease-fire took effect on August 14. The premature end of hostilities kept the IDF from wiping out Hezbollah's terrorist army. Hundreds of rockets continued falling on northern Israel every day right up until the end.

Israel's hesitation is not terribly surprising given the trauma of its 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon, which finally ended in 2000 amid protests by soldiers' mothers. It's as if the United States were asked to send its army back to Vietnam. Indeed, Israel's "Lebanon Syndrome" has often been compared to America's "Vietnam Syndrome." Both have their roots in the humiliations suffered by a potent military at the hands of less advanced but more determined guerrilla foes, and in the deep reluctance of rich societies to risk their sons in open-ended, low-intensity conflicts.

Many Israeli combat veterans I spoke with expressed amazement and disgust with the casualty-preoccupation of the Israeli news media, whose coverage of the recent war was notable for its lengthy profiles of fallen soldiers and wrenching descriptions of their funerals. So much emphasis on the cost of war was startling for those who remembered much costlier Israeli conflicts. During the first week of the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Israel lost 170 soldiers--more than the 118 who fell in five weeks of fighting this summer. (Thirty-nine civilians also died in Hezbollah attacks.) And, at the time, the 1982 losses were considered remarkably light by the standards of 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973.

"Something has happened to our society when we think losing eight soldiers is a tough day," said Kobi Marom, a retired Israeli army colonel who guided a group of security analysts, organized by the American Jewish Committee, around the battlefront near the Lebanese border. "Well, I'm sorry, it's not."