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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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).