Israeli rescue workers investigate a train depot after a Katyusha rocket fired by Hezbollah in southern Lebanon strike killing 8 Israelis in the northern town of Haifa July 16, 2006. (MaanImages/Moti Milrod)
Just two weeks after the tragedy of an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas and taken into Gaza, history repeated itself on the Lebanese border, this time as farce. Hezbollah, the Middle East’s most sophisticated guerillas, managed to capture two Israeli soldiers and take them into Lebanon. Once again it took the Israeli army almost an hour to figure out that two of its troops were missing. The soldiers must have been already “far, far away,” as the charismatic Hassan Nasrallah said contemptuously, when the army took the odd decision to send a tank into Lebanon to get them. Just 70 meters north of the border fence, the Merkava - “one of the most protected tanks in the world” - drove over a powerful bomb and was completely destroyed. All four crew members were killed instantly. It then took the army more than 12 hours to extricate the wreck and recover the bodies, under heavy fire in which yet another soldier was killed, bringing the total number of Israeli casualties in the incident to eight. The strongest army in the Middle East seems unable to protect its own soldiers, let alone Israel’s citizens. A sane state would send its talented chief of staff home; Israel, instead, sent him to wreak havoc in Lebanon.
From Lebanon to the Wall
This was just one in a long series of humiliations for Israel’s military. In summer 2000 it had to admit its defeat in Lebanon and withdraw from its southern part, which even Ben Gurion had considered a desirable “natural border”of the Jewish state. The Second Intifada, initiated by PM Ehud Barak just a few months after that withdrawal, was intended, among other things, to reconcile the army by giving it a fresh playground. The reoccupation of the entire West Bank in the bloody days of 2002 - “Operation Defensive Shield” - looked like a happy return to the good old days of the military as the nation’s pride. With former generals Barak, Sharon, Ben Eliezer, and Mofaz playing musical chairs with the seats of prime minister and/or minister of defense, the military enjoyed unlimited resources and political power.
But once again, just like in Lebanon, the army failed. Terrorizing the Palestinians and the total destruction of their physical, social, and political infrastructure were carried out very efficiently, but failed to provide security to Israel’s citizens; and presumably that’s what armies are for. Yielding to popular pressure, PM Sharon was forced to endorse the construction of a fence to stop suicide bombers from entering Israel. In his strategic ingenuity, Sharon came up with the brilliant idea of erecting the Wall as deep as possible in Palestinian territory, ensuring that the barrier would not be the beginning of the end of Israel’s colonialist project, but rather perpetuate and entrench it even further.
Unlike its illegality, the effectiveness of the Wall is controversial: on the one hand it makes access of suicide-bombers into Israel more difficult. On the other hand, the enormous land confiscations, dispossession, strangulation, and pauperization that go hand-in-hand with its construction ensure an unlimited supply of desperate Palestinians with very little to lose. At any rate, for the Israeli army the Wall is bad news. It reduces the brave fighters into bored jailers and gatekeepers, whose most glorious mission is the daily - or rather nightly - incursions into Palestinian bedrooms. What will the aging generals tell their grandchildren? That their greatest achievement was to deceive the Supreme Court in order to rob a few more acres of Palestinian land? As Amira Hass shows, the spearhead of the occupation has now been relegated to clerks and bureaucrats, responsible for Israel’s demographic policy of ethnic cleansing. Generals love the color red - as in blood, not as in red tape.
Back to Gaza
The military defeat in Gaza was yet another blow to the army. Again, it failed to protect the citizens and stop the homemade Qassam missiles. Not only did it have to pull out of the Strip last summer, it was also forced to evict settlers - the soldiers’ brethren-in-arms for 40 years, the civilian corps of the army.
The Palestinian elections and the victory of Hamas sounded like excellent news for the army, but the Israeli elections were probably too much to take. During the campaign, all political parties pledged to cut Israel’s enormous defense budget; and what is worse, in the new government both Prime Minister Olmert and Minister of Defense Peretz are not army veterans, an almost unprecedented state of affairs in the past one-and-a-half decades.
At last, the humiliated, frustrated military took command. It had been demanding a massive attack on Gaza long before the Israeli soldier was captured. The government seemed somewhat reluctant. But the ground was consistently prepared by a calculated escalation: repeated killing of civilians and children, assassination of a top PA official, even making so-called “arrests” in Gaza for the first time since the pullout. Following the capture of the soldier (26 June), the cabinet could not stop the army anymore. The chief of staff revealed the true relations between the army in charge and its obedient cabinet, saying he “supported” the cabinet’s policy not to “surrender to blackmail” and not to negotiate with the soldier’s captors; as Akiva Eldar of Ha’aretz (4 July) correctly wondered, what if the cabinet changed its mind? Would Soldier No. 1 announce he does not “support” it anymore? Using a similar vocabulary, Amir Oren reported in Ha’aretz (3 July) that “The Israel Defense Forces said it will not support a deal that would release terrorists. … The army would be willing to release individuals who are being held under the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance,” etc. Israel’s elected government enjoys a certain amount of freedom, but the army dictates just how much.
Olmert and Peretz by now probably are convinced that the army is doing just what they always wanted. They also hope that a macho image is just what the Israeli voter wants, especially from politicians who lack military experience - precisely the reasoning behind Shimon Peres’ pounding of Lebanon in 1996, leading to his defeat in the general elections soon after.
Back to Lebanon
Israel’s chief of staff, whose analytic capacities are as inspiring as his moral faculties, termed the capture and attack on his soldiers near Gaza “an act of terror.” PM Olmert termed the identical capture by Hezbollah two weeks later “an act of war.” Guerilla attacks on soldiers are never “terror,” but capturing soldiers - or kidnapping civilians - and holding them as bargaining chips is banned by international law. Israel, however, is in no position to complain: this is precisely what it did with a group of Lebanese nationals, detained in Israel for many years as bargaining chips; even the Supreme Court did not dare face the military, and upheld this breach of international law. Despite official denial, the detention of some 60 Hamas members following the capture, including several ministers, serves the same illegal function.
The background of Hezbollah’s illegitimate capture, however, is different: six weeks before (May 26), Israel assassinated a senior Jihad member, Mahmoud al-Majzub, by a booby-trapped car in Sidon. When Syria assassinates a political leader in Lebanon, the whole world is in an uproar; when Israel does the same, the only one daring to react is Hezbollah, by an attack on northern Israel, killing one soldier. There was nothing unusual about that either; the skirmish fell well within the quiet understandings. Very unusual was Israel’s disproportional response: “an exceptionally harsh Israeli reaction,” which the military explicitly described as “a change of policy” (Amos Harel in Ha’aretz, 29 May), hitting front-line Hezbollah bases all along the border. The Israeli army later boasted that Hezbollah was “caught by surprise” or had even “fallen into a trap,” and that it would now think twice before acting. Hezbollah, apparently, thought twice and thrice, and decided to make it clear that the rules of the game cannot be changed unilaterally.
What is Israel’s running wild likely to achieve? Not much. As for the captured soldiers, any action other than negotiations is gambling with their lives, as their families now start to say out louder. As for the missiles shot from Gaza, the military could not stop them when it was sitting inside the Strip - obviously, it cannot stop them by casual incursions and air bombing. As for Lebanon, the disproportional Israeli reaction made Hezbollah fire missiles at the whole of northern Israel, both at communities that had enjoyed relative quiet since 2000 and at places that had never experienced any Lebanese missiles before. The army now turns to Israel’s citizens, begging them to show restraint and endurance while they are bombed - as if the citizens are supposed to be there for the army rather than vice versa.
As often in war time, most citizens do flock together behind the army, no matter how much they suffer. What Israel fails to grasp is that this simple logic applies to the other side as well: devastating Gaza will only increase support for the Palestinian militants, just like Hezbollah being the only power that effectively fights Israel is not likely to strengthen the weak Lebanese government, whose vested interest and legal obligation is indeed to disarm Hezbollah. So in a final analysis, the main achievements of the Israeli brutality will be more and more bloodshed and devastation on both sides, and a lot of entertainment for the bored Israeli military. When they get tired of playing (and/or losing), Israel will negotiate a prisoner swap and return to the status quo ante, in Gaza as well as in Lebanon, till next time. For many families on both sides, this will be too late.
Dr. Ran HaCohen was born in the Netherlands in 1964 and grew up in Israel. He has a B.A. in Computer Science, an M.A. in Comparative Literature, and his PhD is in Jewish Studies. He is a university teacher in Israel. He also works as a literary translator (from German, English and Dutch), and as a literary critic for the Israeli daily Yedioth Achronoth. Mr. HaCohen’s work has been published widely in Israel. “Letter from Israel” appears occasionally at Antiwar.com. This article, which first appeared on Antiwar.com on 15 July, is published with the author’s permission