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A Hizbullah Trap For Israelis.

Israel's decision to launch a broader ground offensive in Lebanon may succeed in driving Hizbullah back and may destroy more of its capability, but it also risks drawing Israel into a costly guerrilla war. With relatively little to show from the fighting since July 12, it is also unclear how much Israel will be able to achieve in the weekly windows it says are needed to drive Hizbullah from its mountain strongholds in southern Lebanon.

Israel called up three reserve divisions ahead of the July 31 move to broaden the offensive; up to 20,000 troops could take part in the expanded operation. They are confronting about 2,000-3,000 well-armed and trained Hizbullah fighters who have shown themselves to be an organised force capable of springing surprises and inflicting casualties on Israel's forces.

Rosemary Hollis, a Middle East expert at Chatham House, a British think-tank, last week wrote: "It's beginning to look like a Catch-22 for Israel. They haven't been able to clear Hizbullah out of their foxholes on the border area with fire power alone, so now they are going in on the ground with hand-to-hand combat which will suit guerrilla fighters. Whatever happens Hizbullah will claim victory".

The Israeli operation is intended to secure a 6-7 km swathe of southern Lebanon. The goal, Israeli military experts say, is not only to destroy as much of Hizbullah as possible, driving them north and preventing them from firing rockets into Israel, but also to create a sense of public success that has been sorely lacking so far. There is also the need for Israel to take and hold Lebanese ground on its terms and in the shortest time possible ahead of any UNSC agreement on a ceasefire which may or may not leave Israel in the dominant position.

Uri Dromi, a former Israeli air force officer who is now head of international outreach for the Israeli Democracy Institute, has said: "The army needs to be able to show Hizbullah that if you mess with Israel, this is what you get. Plus, we need to be in there so that when someone - America - says 'enough is enough', we can say 'well if you want us out, then Hizbullah has to go as well'. It puts Israel in a better bargaining position".

However, such tactical objectives do not come cheap. A village-to-village, town-to-town campaign across the width of the border and up into Lebanon's rugged hills, battling guerrillas all the way, will cost time and lives. While not directly comparable, even the US military with its 135,000 troops in Iraq has found it next to impossible to quell a determined insurgency there.

Hizbullah is as well armed as any Iraqi militant force. That said, analysts believe sentiment in Israel is changing. Whereas once any loss of military lives was insupportable for the public, now there is more readiness to sustain casualties. "This is existential for Israel, they can't lose this one", said Hollis, adding: "Therefore, there isn't a limit to how much loss they can sustain. In terms of Israel's place in the region, its future is on the line in this conflict".

For Dromi, it is also tied to the success of a campaign which began with the capture of two soldiers by Hizbullah. "It's a feeling of total war now, so as long as people see the goals being achieved, they can bear a lot of casualties".

Israel, meanwhile, is persisting with its effort to save face, insisting that it will achieve a tangible military victory before negotiations begin. Much like Hizbullah, which on July 12 captured two Israeli soldiers in an effort to secure the release of Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails, Israel has embraced the faulty and dangerous logic of waging war in order to achieve peace.

In the course of the war, both Hizbullah and Israel have adopted some of the same strategies and methods, endangering the lives of civilians on both sides of the border. And as the war drags on, Hizbullah and Israel run the risk of plunging the entire region into a vortex of violence. All of the forthcoming death and destruction will be for naught.

A comprehensive solution to the long-standing Lebanon-Israel conflict has been put forth by Lebanese PM Siniora. His proposed solution has already been approved unanimously by the Lebanese cabinet, though the Hizbullah ministers remain vague.

The Siniora package includes seven points:
(1) an exchange of prisoners;
(2) an end to Israel's occupation of the Sheb'a Farms and incursions into Lebanese territory;
(3) a deployment of the Lebanese Army to South Lebanon;
(4) a provision by Israel of maps of minefields in South Lebanon;
(5) a disarmament of Hizbullah;
(6) a probe into Israel's indiscriminate bombings in Lebanon; and
(7) the deployment of an international peacekeeping force to assist the Lebanese Army in preserving security along the border.

From the perspective of Siniora and allied ministers, this proposal "meets the conditions of both sides and "ensures the long-term closure of the Lebanon-Israel file". It simultaneous resolves the long-standing grievances of the Lebanese people and ensures that Israel will secure peace along its northern border.

However, Siniora's seven-point proposal was not accepted at the Rome conference last month (see news5-LebIranUSJuly31-06). While it may not gain broad international backing, it is firmly anchored in international law and is built on all relevant UNSC resolutions. But it remains to be seen whether the proposal is a win-win scenario which can achieve the goals of Lebanon and Israel without shedding another drop of blood.

The Lebanese government has shown extraordinary initiative in presenting a proposal for an agreement to create peaceful conditions along the Lebanese-Israeli border. But unfortunately, the Lebanese government does not seem to have a partner for peace. The Israelis have not responded positively to the Lebanese proposal, nor have they publicly produced any of their own.

Rather, Israel seems to be intent on prolonging a costly war until it has imposed a peace on its own terms. But a forced peace will never be sustainable, and will only ensure the prolongation of the current conflict.

Moderates have argued that, with more than 1.5m people displaced from their homes in both Lebanon and Israel, there is a humanitarian obligation to resolve this conflict quickly. By this logic the urgent focus should be saving lives, not saving face.

Iran's Potential Role: The meeting in Beirut between French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy and his Iranian counterpart, Manouchehr Mottaki, on July 31 opened a diplomatic channel which will be needed eventually to pave the way for a broader political resolution. But PM Seniora was upset by Mottaki's rejection of a multinational force (MNF) to keep the peace on the border between Lebanon and Israel, describing the Iranian minister's words as "crossing the lines" of diplomacy acceptable to the Lebanese government, as this clearly showed how far Iran was willing to go by its intervention in Lebanon's affairs.

So far, nothing has suggests that the Bush administration will welcome the opening made by the French-Iranian meeting, or that Tehran will deal with Beirut's predicament responsibly. As the Daily Star noted last week, the "Israeli onslaught in Lebanon is an American effort to clip Iran's wings, while Mottaki's 'reservations' about...Siniora's peace plan suggest the Iranians are willing to cause trouble (and won't hesitate to shape Hizbullah's response to the government's proposal, grudgingly endorsed by the party's ministers).

The situation recalls what happened in April 1996, when Israel launched its "Grapes of Wrath" operation in Lebanon. Then as now, American diplomacy was in a rut, and since the Qana killings on July 30, Secretary Rice has seemed bewildered in offering a way out of the mess.

In April 1996, both the Clinton administration and the French government had proposed separate resolution plans. After the then-Qana massacre, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad embraced the French plan - which became the April Understanding - proposed by Foreign Minister Herve de Charette, leaving US Secretary of State Warren Christopher out in the cold. (The Americans had wanted to enforce harsher conditions, but they entered the negotiation process too late, openly on Israel's side, and this allowed France to fill the breach through more timely, more even-handed intervention}.

The Daily Star concluded: "That's why, whatever Washington's anxieties today, it would be a mistake to ignore contacts with Tehran. The French are providing a useful service, and if they are doing so mainly for their own purposes, it also makes sense for the Bush administration to use this to explore ways to open a channel of its own". The paper said the US dealt with Iran in Afghanistan, and announced it would do so in Iraq; "it makes no sense to disregard such a process in Lebanon, where Iran's writ is far more significant than that of Syria, which, quite alarmingly, has been regarded by a growing number of American commentators, former officials, and hired pens as the key to resolving the Hizbullah impasse".

Iran's interests are complex enough that there might be something to discuss with the US. Both countries are in competition in Iraq, but also have a vested interest in averting a civil war there.

The nuclear issue is rapidly escalating into a confrontation between Iran and the rest of the international community, and while the US and its partners may be unsure of what to do next, it is not Tehran's intention to become a global pariah. And for all its bluster, Iran is not keen to preside over a growing clash between the Middle East's Sunnis and Shi'ites - with a Hizbullah victory or defeat in Lebanon certain to exacerbate communal tensions.
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Publication:APS Diplomat News Service
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Aug 7, 2006
Previous Article:The Use Of Civilians In The War.
Next Article:Lebanon-Israel Propaganda War - Hizbullah Gains The Upper Hand.

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