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No Knockout Blow for Israel, but It Still Was a Victory on Points

August 17, 2006
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After a month of fighting, a cease-fire under the auspices of the United Nations has left all of us wondering: Is Israel better off than before the war with Hezbollah began? The answer depends on whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist — but I, for one, am a sworn optimist, and believe that recriminations aside, Israel has come out ahead.

It’s true that the expectations Israeli leaders raised at the outset were exaggerated. Utterly destroying Hezbollah was an unrealistic goal: This is not a regular army with fixed targets that can be hit easily either from air or through ground operations. Rather, Hezbollah is a unique creature — a terrorist organization that uses guerrilla tactics, with a secure territorial base in southern Lebanon and the backing of two states, Iran and Syria.

In the six years since Israel evacuated southern Lebanon, Hezbollah managed to build a well-equipped, elusive army that could launch thousands of rockets from the yards of houses and mosques, using Lebanese civilians as human shields.

By amassing rockets that can be launched with simple timers, Hezbollah managed to outwit Israel’s military superiority and harass northern Israel pretty effectively.

“Israel will not agree to live with rockets fired on its citizens,” Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said when he addressed the nation on July 17 for the first time since the war began. But we must admit that even on the last day of fighting, Hezbollah launched 250 rockets — its single-day record during the war — with thousands more still ready to launch.

Of course, there was a way to put an end to the Katyusha threat: All we had to do was declare that every Lebanese village from which a rocket was launched would be turned into a heap of rubble.

But a democracy — even when fighting against an enemy that takes advantage of that democracy’s sensitivity to human life — shouldn’t aspire to resemble its enemy. Therefore, the Israel Defense Forces had to try to distinguish between Hezbollah militants and simple Lebanese citizens.

Even with these self-imposed restrictions, the results were impressive: Most of Hezbollah’s long-range rocket launchers were destroyed, together with the group’s operational and logistic infrastructure, built up meticulously over the years; armed drones launched against Israel were shot down; and approximately 500 Hezbollah fighters were killed, perhaps a quarter of Hezbollah’s fighting force.

Yet Hezbollah’s immediate losses are only part of the picture. With U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, the situation in Lebanon has changed: Hezbollah was forced to accept the Lebanese army’s deployment in southern Lebanon, augmented by a multi-national force, something the group had resisted for years.

Israeli troops are still deployed in southern Lebanon, ready to act if Hezbollah refuses to disarm — as, indeed, it indicates that it will.

The two Israeli soldiers kidnapped by Hezbollah on July 12, sparking the war, haven’t been returned, but Israel took captive enough Hezbollah fighters to make a swap possible.

Voices in Lebanon now openly blame Hezbollah for the destruction it brought on the country, which had been rebuilding and returning to prosperity after 15 years of civil war.

Last but not least, Hezbollah’s reckless adventure damaged its patron state, Iran: Not only was Iran’s forward outpost weakened, but the world is now much more aware of Iran’s sinister plans in the region.

Israel suffered more than 150 casualties and a lot of physical damage. Yet contrary to Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah’s prediction that Israel would prove as weak as a spider web, it didn’t collapse. Despite 4,000 rockets launched on their cities and towns, Israelis — both on the home front and the battlefield — turned out to be as resilient as ever.

As for Israeli deterrence, Israel has shown it still has the will to strike back. And if Syria or any other enemy should conclude that Israel has lost its military edge, they’re in for a bitter surprise: Chasing little pipes called Katyushas, hidden in garages, is one thing; destroying military formations and infrastructure, shooting down aircraft and hitting tanks is totally different.

We don’t have a Six-Day War here, with Arab armies entirely defeated in a matter of hours, or an Entebbe raid, where a problem is swiftly and neatly solved. Israel didn’t score a knockout, as its leaders rashly promised at the outset of the war, but it definitely won a victory by points.

Of course, that won’t stop Nasrallah from declaring victory himself. But it’s noteworthy that he did it from his hiding place, and only time will tell whether he will ever again be able to address his followers in city squares, or whether he’ll finish like Saddam Hussein or even meet a different fate altogether.

Meanwhile, Olmert declared in the Knesset on Monday that Israel would continue to chase Hezbollah’s leaders, and would make them pay for their aggression. That may be true, but if I were Olmert, I’d subscribe to the memorable line from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”: “When you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk!”

Col. Uri Dromi, a retired Israeli air force pilot, is director of international outreach at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem.

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