The recent exchange of fire between the IDF and Lebanese Armed Forces troops is a reminder that Israel’s northern border has been relatively quiet these last five years, or ever since the 2006 war that Israel fought with Hezbollah. Five years ago, on July 12, a Hezbollah ambush set off the 34-day conflict that has loomed large over the region ever since. In the war’s immediate aftermath, many outside observers hailed Hezbollah as the winner.
However, five years later our understanding of the war is different. Israel, despite its many blunders—political, diplomatic, and military—and despite the sacrifice of 121 soldiers and the loss of 44 civilians, comes out looking much better than it did back then. Deterrence has been re-established and in spite of operations against Hezbollah targets, like the 2008 assassination of Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus, attributed to Israel, the border is quieter than ever. The five-year anniversary provides an opportunity to reexamine the conflict, and what others may learn from it, including American officials.
Reservists from the 91st Division’s C Company were feeling good that July morning. It was the last day of their deployment, and the infantrymen—students and professionals, fathers and husbands in civilian life—were looking forward to getting home. Though there had been warnings of infiltration attempts in the area, the routine morning patrol left the company base without the standard briefing; after all, they were only hours away from swapping their olive green uniforms for jeans and shorts. Their relaxed attitude had deadly consequences. As the patrol’s two Humvees rounded a bend on the Israel-Lebanon border road near Moshav Zar’it, Hezbollah fighters waiting in a prepared position opened fire at the vehicles with RPGs, killing five and capturing two, Udi Goldwasser and Eldad Regev.
Already engaged in Operation Summer Rains in Gaza after the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit two weeks before, Israel decided to respond with force. Though able to achieve some initial successes, including knocking out most of Hezbollah’s medium- and long-range rockets, the IDF proved unable to slow the rain of short-range rockets on northern Israel. For most of the war, Israeli chief of staff Dan Halutz introduced ground forces reluctantly, sending them to fight urban battles only kilometers from the border, only to repeatedly relinquish captured territory by withdrawing immediately. Though Israel managed to kill hundreds of Hezbollah fighters, it captured very few prisoners. In short, the IDF underperformed.
The political leadership did considerably worse. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared unrealistic war aims—return of the kidnapped soldiers, expulsion of Hezbollah from the area, and fulfillment of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559 calling for the disbanding of all militias in Lebanon and calling for the deployment of the Lebanese army in all of southern Lebanon. But by leaving fulfillment of so many of the war’s aims in enemy hands, Olmert gave Hezbollah leverage over Israel’s ability to claim victory. It was hardly a surprise, then, when after the ceasefire was declared, Hezbollah’s general secretary Hassan Nasrallah declared that it was Hezbollah who won the war.
Despite the initial backing Israel received from America, Europe, and many Arab states, the lack of progress in the war and mounting civilian casualties in Lebanon caused this rare international support to dissipate. Israel’s failure to slow the katyusha fire or present a coherent plan for victory caused the U.S. to push for a negotiated settlement.
The perception of failure reverberated at home as much as it did in foreign capitals. By failing to defeat Hezbollah decisively on the ground or to achieve the stated war aims, the IDF let the Israeli public decide it was defeated. Israeli media promoted this narrative after the war effort began to sputter. For instance, there was the story of Paratrooper Battalion 890. On its way out of Bint Jbeil, the battalion received intelligence on an elite Hezbollah force on the attack, and prepared an ambush that killed 26 Hezbollah guerrillas without losing a single soldier. The Ma’ariv headline the next day read simply, “The Ground Forces left Bint Jbeil”.