On March 21, 1968, the Israeli army launched a raid on the town of al-Karameh. Four miles inside Jordanian territory, it was being used by Yasir Arafat's Fatah as a command center for attacks against Israel, the most recent of which had killed a doctor and a schoolboy three days before.
Although the Palestinians suffered 70% casualties and the complete devastation of their base, the fact that they managed, due to the spirited assistance of the Jordanian army, to hold out for almost a day and kill 28 Israelis in the process, allowed Arafat to declare the battle “the first victory of the Arabs against the state of Israel” and present it as an heroic Stalingrad-style success. In the words of PLO historian Abdallah Frangi, the fighting "restored the dignity and self-esteem of the Palestinians and the entire Arab world."
Al-Karameh represents the archetypal Arab “victory” in which success is determined not by conventional military criteria, but by the mere ability to survive. In 1973, for example, Egypt proclaimed a “most remarkable epic of victory” in the Yom Kippur War despite the fact that the IDF was within 60 miles of Cairo and the Egyptian Third Army hours from annihilation when the UN ceasefire was imposed. Eighteen years later, Saddam declared a “glorious victory” over the American-led “allies of Satan” that had driven him from Kuwait and decimated his army during Operation Desert Storm.
Hezbollah’s self-declared “strategic, historic victory, without exaggeration” in last summer’s Second Lebanon War was also cast from the al-Karameh mold. One week into the fighting, the Lebanese Daily Star’s Michael Young warned that Sheikh Nasrallah “needs only to survive with his militia intact and Israel sufficiently bloodied” in order to claim a success. And, by exploiting Israeli shortcomings, this he undoubtedly achieved.
Israel’s government-appointed Winograd commission of inquiry has documented the reasons for Hezbollah's "victory." One problem was the IDF’s over-confidence in its air force’s capabilities and the ill-readiness of its reserves for a large-scale campaign. In addition, having effectively ignored the threat of katyusha rockets since the May 2000 pullback from Lebanon -- “a matter of serious and long-term system-wide negligence," according to one Israeli defense source quoted in Ha’aretz -- Israel failed to counter their inaccuracy and small payloads. Not least, confused and uncoordinated Israeli decision-making throughout the 34-day conflict enabled Hezbollah to land punishing blows.
But the unremitting Israeli hand-wringing over the war’s “errors, mistakes and failures” cannot obscure the fact that Hezbollah suffered a significant military defeat at the IDF’s hands. Firstly, it lost between 600 and 700 of its most experienced fighters, more than were killed in the previous 20 years. Israeli losses were low by comparison, especially given Hezbollah’s preparedness; just over 100 IDF soldiers were killed in battle, one-quarter of these in a senseless last-minute surge that should never have happened. Hezbollah’s military infrastructure was also hit hard; its Beirut headquarters was reduced to heaps of rubble, its Viet Cong-type bunker and tunnel base system in south Lebanon suffered serious damage, while its extensive fortifications along Israel’s northern border were completely destroyed.
Secondly, Hezbollah’s Iranian/Syrian-supplied arsenal was severely depleted to relatively little advantage. Publicly, the Ayatollahs congratulated Nasrallah on the “wise and far-sighted leadership… that produced the great victory in Lebanon.” But there was behind-the-scenes anger that all Tehran had to show for its billion-dollar investment in its front line with Israel was two kidnapped soldiers and an Israeli bloodied nose. Of 1,000 anti-tank rockets fired by Hezbollah, only 50 hit their targets. And of these, just half caused serious damage.
Virtually all of Hezbollah's medium-range rocket launchers were destroyed after a single use. Moreover, in what Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert described as “an impressive, perhaps unprecedented achievement,” 95% of its long-range missile capability was eliminated on the war’s second night, neutralizing its threat to “strike Tel Aviv.” Meanwhile, 90% of the 4,000 katyushas deployed failed to strike anything of significance, and while the other 10% did cause damage and deaths (almost half of them Israeli Arabs), they failed to turn northern Israel into the wilderness long promised by Nasrallah.
Indeed, the war exploded his much-trumpeted theory that Israeli society’s horror of death would make it “weaker than a spider’s web” in time of war. While sensitivity to casualties did hamper operations in the field, the home front fully supported the expanding IDF effort even as one million moved into shelters and 300,000 headed south.
The war was a setback for Hezbollah on the strategic level, too. Having launched the kidnapping operation to force the release of three Israeli-held Lebanese prisoners, it ended the war with thirteen more members behind IDF bars. The Israeli retaliation also subverted Hezbollah’s justification for its refusal to disarm in accordance with UN resolutions, namely that, through its creation of “balance of fear and terror with the Zionists,” it constituted an essential element of Lebanon’s national defense. Israel would rather let Lebanon be, Nasrallah had assured Lebanese leaders two weeks before the war, than risk a missile attack on the northern third of its territory that contained, not only its petrochemical industry, but some of its most populous regions as well. Given the rather weak-willed responses of an Israel preoccupied with the second intifada to incidents such as Hezbollah’s October 2000 kidnapping of three Israeli soldiers and its killing of six civilians at Kibbutz Matzuva in March 2002, this was not an unreasonable assumption.
Certainly, it was widely shared within the terrorist organization. Thus, Hussein Khalil, an aide to Nasrallah, assured the Lebanese Prime Minister on the first day of fighting that “things will calm down in 24 to 48 hours." Hezbollah MP Nawwar Sahil told Lebanese TV that "Israel will just retaliate a bit, bomb a couple of targets and that would be the end of it." Nasrallah himself later admitted that he “did not assess, not even by one percent that the kidnapping operation would result in such a wide scale war” and that, had he known, he “would not have carried it out at all.” This in itself was an admission of defeat, as Charles Krauthammer noted: “what real victor declares that, had he known, he would not have started the war that ended in triumph?”
Hezbollah’s defeat was compounded by UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which essentially ended the war on Israel’s terms. UN demands for Hezbollah’s disarmament and an embargo on its re-supply with weapons; its expulsion from the area south of the Litani river; and the deployment of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and a 15,000-strong UNIFIL force in its place, seemed to vindicate Tehran’s claim that 1701 was a “Zionist document.” Confident of the UN’s commitment to implement its provisions, Israel withdrew from Lebanese territory and placed responsibility for its national security in international hands.
But this proved gravely imprudent. For, one year after Israel won the war, it is clear that the UN has lost it the peace.
Notwithstanding UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s recent assertion that UNIFIL “has helped to establish a new strategic military and security environment in southern Lebanon,” Hezbollah has largely rebuilt its military base. UNIFIL’s commander, Maj-Gen Claudio Graziano, recently assured the Jerusalem Post that he is “applying 1701 to the maximum” and that there is “no open hostile activity… no evidence of any rearmament… no one going around southern Lebanon with weapons." Any armed person -- “even a hunter," he insisted -- would be arrested by one of UNIFIL’s 400 daily patrols.
Yet, as early as November 2006, the IDF reported that Hezbollah was back on the border collecting intelligence. By January 2007, Israeli Military Intelligence was warning that Hezbollah had rebuilt much of what it lost in the war and, despite an increase in UNIFIL pro-activeness, it confirmed this assessment on June 4th. Two days later, ex-Chief of Staff and former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said that Hezbollah had created a “double grip” on both sides of the Litani, rebuilding its military infrastructure not only in the south but in Beirut and the Beqa’a Valley as well. The fact that its operatives “don't walk around southern Lebanon in the open with the weapons, but rather are limited to ... urban areas that the LAF and UNIFIL do not enter” accounted, he said, for UN claims to the contrary.
The IDF shares his assessment, announcing in late July that Hezbollah was moving its rockets into Shi’ite villages in an effort to avoid detection. And just this week the British Sunday Telegraph reported that Hezbollah was buying up large tracts of non-Shiite owned lands in south Lebanon to further shield its activities from view.
Furthermore, while Hezbollah's focus on rehabilitation is keeping it quiet in south Lebanon, there is evidence that it is allowing al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists to act as its proxies. The June 18 katyusha attack on Kiryat Shmona and the killing of six Spanish UNIFIL personnel one week later could not have been carried out without its knowledge. The UNIFIL killings, although publicly condemned by Hezbollah, worked to further its ends, especially given the Spanish contingent’s reputation for forcefully implementing its mandate. The fact that some of UNIFIL’s national contingents have begun liaising with Hezbollah in an effort to guarantee their security demonstrates its ultimate control.
The UN has been equally ineffective in enforcing 1701’s demand for an embargo on Hezbollah's rearmament. Within three months of the ceasefire, Lebanese civilians living near the border with Syria were claiming that consignments of arms were being smuggled across at night. As much was confirmed by Nasrallah himself last February when, apropos the LAF’s seizure of a truckload near Beirut, he told a rally that Hezbollah was “secretly transporting weapons and Israel doesn’t know about it” (in fact, Israel’s Squadron 100 aerial reconnaissance unit had been closely monitoring their flow and storage for months).
Despite repeated Israeli requests for action such as UNIFIL’s deployment along the Syrian frontier, it took the UN until May to officially acknowledge the problem and establish the Lebanon Independent Border Assessment Team (LIBAT) to investigate. LIBAT reported back in late June that while the Lebanese security agencies “demonstrate a good level of understanding of the nature of their duties in relation to the provisions of Resolution 1701,” their lack of skills, resources and experience in patrolling a border that didn’t really exist during the decades-long Syrian occupation meant that current security measures are “insufficient” to prevent arms trafficking. (The fact that some LAF members are, due to blood or ideological kinship, actually assisting Hezbollah’s efforts is further complicating the situation).
Indeed, although Ban Ki-Moon reported on June 29th that Iran and Syria were transferring arms to Hezbollah “on a scale [which] would allow it to reach a level of armament equal to that of last year or beyond,” LIBAT was unable to document a single seizure during its three-week visit. On July 22nd, the IDF confirmed that Hezbollah had restored its pre-war military capabilities, including long-range missiles.
The UN Security Council is scheduled to meet this week to discuss the renewal of UNIFIL’s mandate, which expires at the end of the month. But having given Hezbollah a year to overcome the consequences of last summer’s defeat, there is now nothing the UN can do prevent a Third Lebanon War.