World leaders like Kofi Annan and Jacques Chirac have condemned the kidnappings of Israeli soldiers by Hamas and Hezbollah. In the same breath, however, they have reproached Israel for its allegedly "disproportionate" response to these kidnappings and urged the Jewish state to act with "restraint." Beyond falsely equating the unprovoked kidnapping of three soldiers with Israel's retaliatory aerial attacks on Hamas and Lebanon's infrastructure, this line of criticism fails to acknowledge the historical reasons for the current conflict.
Far from an isolated event, the kidnappings were merely the tipping points of a sequence of events that began six years ago in Lebanon and six months ago in the Gaza strip. Six years ago, Israel withdrew its forces from Lebanon and fully complied with the U.N. Resolution 425. The intention was to defuse tensions on Israel's northern border with Lebanon by agreeing to Lebanon's demands and ceding control of this territory. In return, Israel expected to live in peace with its neighbor. After all, this model of land for peace had been successfully implemented with Egypt in 1978, and ever since, Israel has proven to be a reliable partner for peace.
It was not to be. In October of 2000, five months after Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon, Hezbollah kidnapped three Israeli soldiers after crossing the border. All three soldiers were murdered, and their corpses were exchanged for hundreds of prisoners from Israeli jails. Since then, there have been numerous attacks by Hezbollah, whose members have not only kidnapped soldiers but also launched Katyusha rockets and carried out armed assaults. Prior to the current conflict, there were over 40 anti-tank missile attacks and over a dozen cross-border infiltrations. Now, as Israel fights back, Hezbollah hides behind civilians and encourages them to stay in conflict areas when Israel drops leaflets asking them to leave and warning them of an impeding attack.
This vastly complicates the Israeli army’s mission--something I learned from firsthand experience. I was a paratrooper in the Israeli Defense Forces during the second intifada, which erupted in September 2000. The first three months, when the incursion "Defensive Shield" into Jenin and all other major Palestinian cities took place, were the most intense. It took the IDF about three months after the outbreak of the intifada and several incursions to gain the upper hand on Hamas and other Palestinian terrorists. Before every mission, we discussed how best to avoid civilian casualties. No Israeli soldier takes pleasure in shooting at civilians.
On the contrary, whenever collateral damage occurred, it had a lasting negative impact on the psyche of my fellow soldiers. The IDF did, and still does, its utmost every day to avoid civilian casualties. In Jenin, for instance, the IDF chose infantry soldiers, instead of tanks or helicopters, to conduct house-to-house searches with the aim of avoiding civilian casualties. On one such mission, 13 reserve soldiers died in a Palestinian ambush.
From my experience, I know that it will take time, probably more than three months, to significantly hurt Hezbollah. It is of the greatest importance that Israel fights Hezbollah, without a timetable, until the following goals have been achieved:
- Hezbollah's weapons arsenal is significantly reduced.
- Hezbollah's leadership is killed or captured.
- Hezbollah is sufficiently weakened in southern Lebanon, so that the Lebanese army can take over.
- Hezbollah's supply routes are cut off on the border of Syria and Lebanon and the border region is closely monitored.
Only when these goals have been achieved can Israel claim victory and end its military offensive. But it remains unclear whether Israel’s leadership is seriously committed to victory. The recent decision by Israel's cabinet not to expand its ground offensive demonstrates how indecisive Israel's government is. This is especially worrying because Israel cannot count on the support of the international community. Indeed, the recent meeting of world leaders in Rome showed that only the US has the courage to stand behind Israel's war on terror.
In this war the stakes could not be higher. If Israel does not see the campaign through to the end, either because of international pressure or because Israel's current leadership is not committed to victory, Hezbollah, Iran and Syria will have won. Hezbollah will have proved that Israel lacks the will to fight terrorism in the north. Iran and Syria will have successfully split Western opinion, by the use of proxies, and reestablished themselves as power centers in the region. The consequences of such a power realignment would be far-reaching and dire. At the very least, Iran would be unafraid to continue its nuclear program.
Yet, by condemning Israeli strikes on Hezbollah, and ignoring the historical factors that made them necessary, prominent leaders who should know better are advancing precisely this disastrous outcome.
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