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    Middle East
     Jul 26, 2006
Hezbollah banks on home-ground advantage
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - After two weeks, neither Hezbollah nor Israel has been able to achieve its objectives. Israel entered the current war to crush Hezbollah. To date, it has lost 37 of its citizens in battle, including 18 soldiers and an air force officer killed on Friday when two helicopters collided.

Bombs have landed on the Israel cities of Haifa, Acre, Tiberias, Safad and Nazareth. Hezbollah, on Day 14, to Israel's dismay, is as strong as it was on Day 1. Hezbollah has not been destroyed, disarmed or pushed back into the Lebanese heartland.

A review of the Israeli press shows that many observers, analysts and Israeli officials are no longer calling for the complete and

immediate disarming of Hezbollah - realizing that this is very difficult, but saying that this military operation aimed at degrading, rather than crushing, the Lebanese resistance group.

On the other side, more than 377 Lebanese have been killed - many in their homes. The Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails have not been released, and Lebanon has been savaged by ongoing Israeli air raids since July 12.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Beirut on Monday in an attempt to find a political solution to the crisis. There is already talk in Beirut about a solution put forward by Saudi Arabia, which calls for a complete ceasefire and prisoner exchange between Hezbollah and Israel. It demands "a firm solution" to the occupied Sheba Farms, and Hezbollah's withdrawal into the Lebanese heartland, away from the border with Israel, and adds that disarming the Shi'ite group will not be discussed "at this stage".

Rice's diplomacy, however, perhaps supported by the Saudi plan, comes as "too little, to late". The Americans are uninterested in a ceasefire and this has been publicly repeated by President George W Bush. They waited for two weeks to intervene, hoping that in the meantime Israel would be able to destroy Lebanon, and get the Lebanese to turn against Hezbollah.

Bush does not see the new conflict as another Arab-Israeli war, but rather as an Israeli-Islamic/jihadi war, similar to his own adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001-03. Bush appears to believe that because Hezbollah calls for jihad, it is no different from al-Qaeda.

In fact Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has repeatedly criticized al-Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden, but the US president refuses to listen. The Americans, very easily, have demonized Nasrallah, portraying him as right up there with bin Laden and the now-slain Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

This has not been too difficult for the US media, since Nasrallah does look and talk like a jihadi. He is bearded, turbaned and armed, speaks military Islam and is backed by Iran. Completely misinformed at how popular Nasrallah and Hezbollah are in Lebanon, the Americans felt that if it did not attempt to censure Israel over the bombing of Lebanon, the Lebanese would rise against Hezbollah, the way they did against the Syrians in February-March 2005.

Realizing now how foolish such an assumption really was, the Bush team dispatched Rice to Beirut to meet with Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and discuss more realistic approaches to the crisis. Rice told the premier, "Thank you for your courage and steadfastness." This single remark was enough to add more fire to the anti-Americanism boiling in Lebanon.

What steadfastness was Rice talking about? It was rather ironic for Rice to thank Siniora for showing steadfastness against an assault that she had condoned and tolerated for two weeks. And Siniora's cabinet is held together by a coalition that includes Hezbollah and members of the military. Further, a number of Hezbollah members are deputies in the Lebanese parliament.

Nabih Berri, the Shi'ite Speaker of parliament who is closely allied with Nasrallah, and with whom Rice met in Beirut, has said that any prisoner exchange by Hezbollah will be administered by the Lebanese government - Siniora's cabinet. Meaning, Hezbollah captures and fights and the cabinet negotiates a prisoner swap on its behalf.

Yet Rice insisted on acting as if Hezbollah were an illegal movement that did not officially exist in Lebanon, ignoring that in Siniora's cabinet agenda he echoes what Hezbollah says - such as demanding the release of Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails and the return of the Sheba Farms occupied by Israel.

Rice should understand that any public patronization of Nasrallah, or verbal assault on him by Siniora, would bring down the Lebanese government. A comedy show mocking Nasrallah on Lebanese TV this summer nearly caused a Shi'ite revolution in Beirut.

Nobody can come out and call Nasrallah a terrorist in Lebanon - even if Rice and Bush ordered them to do so - at least, not when he is fighting a war against Israel. By insisting on such an attitude, Rice demonstrates just how misinformed she is on Middle East affairs. She conditioned that Hezbollah retreat 20 kilometers from the border with Israel, saying that there would be no ceasefire unless Hezbollah released the two Israeli soldiers captured on July 12 - something that Nasrallah has repeatedly refused to do.

First a ceasefire, he says, and then a prisoner exchange - not release - where he expects Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to release Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails in return for the two abducted soldiers.

Over the weekend, Major-General Beni Gantz, the commander of ground forces in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), said his troops had won control of the village of Maroun al-Ras in south Lebanon. That is, the ground offensive into Lebanon was under way, and with Maroun al-Ras under Israeli control, the IDF now can monitor - and bomb - Hezbollah command posts in the south.

Nasrallah played down the capture in an interview with the Beirut daily newspaper Al-Safir, saying that the Israelis were acting as if by taking Maroun al-Ras they had conquered Stalingrad (in reference to the occupation of the Russian city - now called Volgograd - during the Russian Civil War in 1919).

Military command's Lieutenant-General Dan Halutz, however, along with Olmert, is still afraid to launch a full ground invasion into Lebanon, although Israeli jets have dropped leaflets into south Lebanon warning civilian residents to evacuate, an act that was seen as solid preparation for a ground invasion.

The Israelis claim that they do not intend to secure permanent positions in Lebanon, just swift operations to search for arms and Hezbollah fighters. Some Israelis, however, fear that the fall of Maroun al-Ras is just a trick by Nasrallah to build up Israeli confidence so that the IDF launches a ground invasion of Lebanon.

Once this happened, Hezbollah guerrillas would be ready to fight them on their own territory. Hezbollah wants Israel to attack by ground - that is now certain. A ground battle with Hezbollah in Hezbollah's court - the south of Lebanon - would spell, if nothing else, huge losses for the IDF.

The IDF announced that it was undecided on whether it wanted to pursue that kind of warfare, as Syrian Information Minister Muhsen Bilal announced that if the IDF entered Lebanon, Syria would be drawn into war with Lebanon. He said that if Israel entered Lebanon "they can get to within 20km of Damascus". He asked: "What will we do? Stand by with our arms folded? Absolutely not. With any doubt Syria will intervene in the conflict."
Also threatening to intervene if ground warfare breaks out is the Lebanese army. Defense Minister Elias al-Murr said this clearly over the weekend, "Our constitutional duty is to defend Lebanon as a Lebanese Army. This is our role."

The IDF has gotten accustomed to combating Palestinian militants in Gaza who carry nothing but Kalashnikovs and who are poorly equipped and poorly trained in guerrilla warfare. This is what the IDF expected when its units crossed the border into Lebanon. Instead, the Israeli troops found men who were armed to the teeth waiting for them.

Hezbollah has anywhere from 2,000-5,000 highly trained soldiers who have mortars, artillery, anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons. They have been doing nothing but training for combat since 2000. Many do not have another life - they live to fight the Israelis.

Nasrallah learned from the mistakes of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in Lebanon in 1982. At the time, the late Yasser Arafat was obsessed with the symbols of the "state" he had created for himself and his Fatah guerrillas in Lebanon. The country was riddled with PLO military bases, training camps and political offices, guarded by tanks and armed men and identified by pictures of Arafat and the Palestinian flag fluttering in the breeze.

It was not difficult for the Israelis to find these PLO bases and hit them with rockets, one by one, during its war on Lebanon to drive out the PLO. Arafat killed the essence of a guerrilla movement by making it so visible to the Israelis.

Guerrilla warfare, by definition, operates with small, mobile and flexible combat groups that do not wear uniforms and can blend with society, hide in forests, mountains and bunkers, and avoid being spotted as "the enemy target". They do not have a front line. Today, one cannot find similar Hezbollah military bases and training camps in Lebanon. As a Western observer put it, when walking through south Lebanon, one can feel Hezbollah but one cannot see Hezbollah. There are no military bases or training camps with signs saying that this building belongs to Hezbollah.

Israel must by now realize that Hezbollah is not the PLO. While the PLO were all Palestinian, Hezbollah fighters are Lebanese. The PLO was a foreign group that could be driven out by force from Lebanon. Hezbollah is a Lebanese group, recognized with deputies in parliament and ministers in the cabinet.

It runs schools, hospitals and charity organizations, and millions of Shi'ites rely on welfare, jobs or services administered by Hezbollah. Thousands of widows, orphans, the elderly and the handicapped in the Shi'ite community receive monthly stipends from Nasrallah's group, which represents the Shi'ites who make up 40% of the country's 3.7 million.

Politically they are currently allied to General Michel Aoun, the non-sectarian yet Christian heavyweight of Lebanese politics who has stood by his Shi'ite allies during their latest confrontation with Israel. Aoun's alliance has prevented the Christian street from turning against Hezbollah. The Israelis wanted everybody in Lebanon, the Christians included, to suffer great loss in human life and property so that they would come out and blame Nasrallah for their misery.

Because of Aoun that has not happened. Rather, the Christians are offering shelter to the Shi'ites whose homes have been destroyed, and Christian charity organizations, as well as churches and monasteries, are doing their share of humanitarian work to decrease the suffering of the Shi'ites.

When Israeli bombs start landing in Christian Lebanon, the Christians did not blame Hezbollah. If this was a war on Hezbollah, they reasoned, then why were they being attacked? Attacking them meant that this was a war on Lebanon - all of Lebanon, not only the Shi'ites and Hezbollah.

The PLO didn't have this backing in Christian Lebanon. This made it easy for Israel in 1982 to rally several Christian leaders, such as president-elect Bashir Gemayel, in favor of an Israeli invasion that would expel the PLO. For all of these reasons, Hezbollah today simply cannot be driven out of Lebanon.

One solution would be to incorporate Hezbollah into the Lebanese army once this war is over. This would mean that a political Hezbollah would still exist, but its military branch would come under the authority of the very weak Lebanese army. In other words, the Lebanese army would get incorporated into Hezbollah.

Memories of the ill-fated invasion of Lebanon in 1982 are still strong in Israel. That war cost Israel an estimated 675 soldiers because it was a fierce ground offensive. Many still say that it was a high price paid by the Israelis - supposedly to destroy Arafat and the PLO. Israelis died, but Arafat was not killed. He just sailed to another destination in Tunis, heading back to Palestine in the 1990s as president of the Palestinian Authority.

The ground invasion temporarily disabled Arafat and the PLO, but it did not destroy them. To date, Israel has fought this new war almost exclusively through air strikes on Lebanon. When its troops did cross the border to single out Hezbollah cells, they were ambushed, driven back or killed by Hezbollah fighters. Hezbollah uses its firing bases as bait to the IDF. It fires, awaits an elite unit of the IDF to come in, then ambushes it.

To root out Hezbollah, the IDF will have to invade. Yet if it does, Israel cannot guarantee victory, and if more soldiers are killed in ground combat, the Olmert cabinet might very well be voted out of office by an angry Israeli street.

Olmert wants to clear a 1.5km zone in south Lebanon from Hezbollah. To do that, it needs to station troops a long way into Lebanese territory, up to the Litani River that is 20km in the Lebanese heartland. It has already called an additional 5,000 troops to the border with Lebanon. Hezbollah would also suffer casualties from an Israeli invasion and hand-to-hand combat - no doubt about that - but it can retreat to the "hit-and-run" tactic, using the rocky mountains, the forests and the underground where it is firmly stationed.

Brigadier-General Ido Nehushtan, the Israeli military's planning and policy chief, said Israel had no choice but to confront the threat posed by Hezbollah, pointing out, "We want to change the situation along the border, a situation that we find to be impossible. Our ground forces are prepared and ready for whatever orders are given."

Giora Eiland, however, the former head of Israel's National Security Council, shed doubt on the effectiveness of a ground invasion, saying, "The price of such a move will be high, its effectiveness much lower."

To date, Nasrallah is insisting that Hezbollah has not been severely weakened by the raids, as Israeli military officials are saying. When speaking to Al-Jazeera, Nasrallah said, "I can confirm at this moment - this is not an exaggeration and not part of psychological warfare, but facts - that the command structure of Hezbollah has not been harmed. The entire command structure of Hezbollah, including the political, jihadi, executive and social - so far, the Zionists have not managed to kill any Hezbollah leader at any level."

Nasrallah's deputy, Naim Qassim, appeared on Al-Manar TV hours after Nasrallah gave his interview to Al-Jazeera, showing the world that Hezbollah's political leadership was not harmed by Israel's attack with 23 tons of explosives on the Burj al-Barajneh district of a suburb in Beirut.

To the Arab audiences who are cheering for Nasrallah, the man has a reputation of being true to his word. Unlike most Arab leaders, who lie and conceal the truth from their citizens - in both war and peace - because it reflects corruption and lack of action, Nasrallah has a reputation for honesty.

The Arab masses believe that if Nasrallah says Hezbollah's command structure has not been harmed, then this means - without a shadow of a doubt - that Hezbollah's command structure has not been harmed. Nobody questions Nasrallah.

Israeli General Dan Halutz snapped back, saying, "Hezbollah is not revealing the real extent of its casualties." He claimed that 13 of Nasrallah's men were killed last Thursday by the IDF.

Nasrallah says that since the war started on July 12, only eight of his men have been killed. He added, "I would like to tell you and tell the viewers that when a martyr falls, we inform his family and we then announce this. We do not hide our martyrs until the end of the battle. We have never done this. On the contrary, we always take pride in our martyrs."

Inasmuch as Olmert wants the Lebanese to believe him and his generals, lose faith in Nasrallah and start seeing him as a man who is leading them to disaster, the Lebanese - and the Shi'ite fighters - continue to believe Nasrallah.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst. He is the author of Steel & Silk: Men and Women Who Shaped Syria 1900-2000 (Cune Press 2005).

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