TEL AVIV (Jul. 23)
Just a few hundred fighters make up the hard core of Hezbollah, but thanks to its powerful patrons and Shi’ite fanaticism, the Lebanese militia is a force to be reckoned with. And reckoning is exactly what Israel, Western mediators and moderate Arab nations are doing as they try to come up with ways of taming Hezbollah and calming the Israeli-Lebanese crisis.
“One thing is clear to all, and that is that there cannot be a return to the status quo,” said U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen in what appeared to be a reference to Hezbollah’s years of straddling Lebanon’s southern border and menacing Israel.
For now, thanks to the offensive Israel launched after Hezbollah killed eight of its soldiers and abducted another two in a July 12 border ambush, the militia seems to be on the run.
Israel says its forces have at least halved Hezbollah’s fighting strength. More than 100 gunmen are dead, Israel says, and dozens of its rocket launchers have been destroyed.
But then there are holdouts — chief among them Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, who appears to have survived two assassination attempts by the Israeli air force and vows that his group has “surprises” in store for the Jewish state should it maintain its devastating assault on Lebanon.
Hezbollah has only around 600 full-time fighters, but it can quickly mobilize as many as 30,000 “reservists” from among Shi’ite loyalists. Funding is no problem: According to Israel’s Military Intelligence, Iran is investing some $100 million in this round of fighting, with Syria providing logistical support.
There is also evidence Hezbollah has held back on using its most dangerous weapons — Zelzal missiles supplied by Iran and capable of reaching Tel Aviv and beyond, perhaps with biological and chemical warheads — and maintains a network of tunnels and trenches in southern Lebanon where its toughest gunmen lie in wait.
“We are talking about utterly hardened and dedicated fighters, operating largely independent of Hezbollah’s high command,” said Alon Ben-David, Israel analyst for Jane’s Defence Weekly. “Israel should not make the mistake of assuming they are the same sort of ragtag adversaries as Palestinian terrorists.”
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has refused to give a timetable for Israel’s military operations, saying only they would end when the two hostages held in Lebanon are retrieved and Hezbollah is “cleared out of the region” — ambiguous phrasing that could be interpreted as requiring either the militia’s total elimination or merely its removal from the frontier.
Israel, like the rest of the West, has made much of the need to implement U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, which requires that Hezbollah be disarmed by the Lebanese authorities.
But no one quite knows how this could be achieved.
Lebanon’s army is small and weak, made up of many Shi’ite servicemen who would be unlikely to take on their Hezbollah coreligionists. And messages from the government in Beirut have been mixed. Government officials have both proposed deploying regular military forces in the South and threatened to fight Israel should it mount a full invasion — neither with much conviction.
An invasion may be Israel’s only option if it wants to crush Hezbollah and shore up its military deterrence in the face of the militia’s patrons, Iran and Syria, which Washington also would dearly love to see confronted and curbed.
“Everyone realizes that if Hezbollah must be hit, it must be hit hard. Otherwise it will come out stronger in Middle East terms, claiming to have survived an ‘onslaught’ by the superior Israel,” said Jacky Hugi, Arab affairs correspondent for Ma’ariv.
Given Israel’s systematic bombing of roads linking southern Lebanon to the rest of the country, some military experts have speculated that the area is being isolated so that ground forces can be brought to the Litani River, from there to sweep down in a pincer move that would net the bulk of Hezbollah’s fighters.
But such a massive Israeli presence could mean hundreds if not thousands of troop casualties — a steep price that for many will recall the 1982 Lebanon invasion, the Jewish state’s most unpopular and divisive war. On the diplomatic front, it would be perceived as a reoccupation of land Israel quit in 2000, undoing much foreign goodwill and even paradoxically helping Hezbollah.
“When we left southern Lebanon, we robbed Hezbollah of its raison d’etre and much of its domestic support,” said Ami Ayalon, a retired Israeli admiral and senior Labor Party lawmaker. “A reoccupation would allow the terrorists once more to present themselves as the shield for all Lebanese.”
With a flurry of Western contacts under way, the hoped-for solution to the crisis would seem to be stationing an effective international peacekeeper force in southern Lebanon. This would probably be NATO, given Israel’s distrust of the United Nations after years of ineffectiveness by U.N. observers posted in the region as putative buffers between Hezbollah and the border.
“Given the Lebanese army’s weakness, we support an international force that would have powers of enforcement, deploy in the South, and impose its authority,” Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Sunday.