by Nasr Salem (Main Stories, Crescent International Vol. 35, No. 7, Sha'ban, 1427)
With their zeal, courage and discipline, Hizbullah's intrepid fighters stood off Israel's military juggernaut in the hilly, forested landscape of southernLebanon. Ensconced in villages and towns throughout southern Lebanon, Hizbullah's fighters weathered 33 days of intense Israeli air-strikes and a series of tank-led ground incursions, and emerged victorious. Not only did Hizbullah's steadfastness deprive Israel of its declared battlefield objectives; it also pushed the Israeli establishment into a political snakepit and a cacophony of mutual recriminations.
The ostensible trigger for the fighting came on July 12, when Hizbullah fighters carried out a daring cross-border raid which resulted in the capture of two Israeli soldiers and the killing of eight others. The purpose of the operation was to capture Israeli soldiers to use in a prisoner-exchange aimed to free Lebanese (and possibly other Arab) prisoners and captives held in Israeli jails. In a press conference immediately after the operation, Hizbullah secretary-general Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah told reporters: "No military operation will return the two soldiers. The prisoners will not be returned except through one way: indirect negotiations and an exchange." In 2004 Hizbullah won the release of 420 Lebanese and other Arab prisoners in Israeli jails, in exchange for the remains of three dead Israeli soldiers and one reserve Israeli army colonel.
By ordering Israel's largest military operation against Lebanon since the invasion in 1982, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert relied on Israel's overwhelmingly superior airpower to destroy Hizbullah, while at the same time avoid the kind of protracted low-intensity war of attrition that markedIsrael's 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon. However, the air campaign failed to achieve any of its declared objectives, such as wiping out Hizbullah's missile capability, decapitating its leadership and establishing a buffer zone as far north from the border as the Litani River; it succeeded only in exacting a high toll from Lebanese civilians by killing or maiming them, blasting bridges, destroying infrastructure, and shutting down Beirut's international airport.
Hizbullah's resilience on the battlefield stems partly from the fact that it was fighting on its own territory. The strong support it enjoys among the local population fits in well with Mao Tse-tung's classic analogy that likens an effective guerrilla force, fighting amid a civilian population that largely subscribes to its goals, to a fish in the sea. The nature of Hizbullah's fight against Israel as a kind of revolutionary warfare was underlined repeatedly during the fighting in a number of televised speeches by Sayyid Nasrallah, who emphasized again and again that Hizbullah does not fight like a regular army, does not aim to hold on to territory, and engages the enemy using guerrilla tactics.
Guerrilla tactics cannot be successful without painstaking military and operational planning. Since Israel retreated from most of southern Lebanon in May 2000, Hizbullah has worked secretly to construct an extensive network of underground bunkers and tunnels along Lebanon's borders with Occupied Palestine and elsewhere in southern Lebanon. The utility of these fortifications goes beyond providing the fighters with safe shelter. It has also helped them ambush and trap advancing Israeli soldiers. On numerous occasions Israeli officials announced that their forces had seized a certain territory, only to find themselves engaged in more intense fighting in that area. During the many incursions they launched, Israeli forces were surrounded by Hizbullah fighters, armed with rifles, grenades and guided missiles, and lying in ambush in houses, alleys and tunnels.
Moreover, in close-quarter combat, Hizbullah fighters made effective use of wire-guided and laser-guided anti-tank missiles, thus turning the hills and valleys of southern Lebanon into graveyards for Israel's much-touted Mirkava battle tank, with its advanced armour plating. Computerized weapons-systems have also reportedly been used by Hizbullah fighters to feed coordinates of targets to the missiles. The use of short-range anti-aircraft missiles and guns has also limited the battlefield utility of Israeli gunships. Hi-tech listening equipment enabled Hizbullah to eavesdrop on Israeli military communications.
By its calculated use of an arsenal composed of thousands of ground-to-ground missiles and rockets, Hizbullah managed to establish a balance of terror with Israel's far more powerful military machine. It is clear that the essence of Hizbullah's missile deterrence strategy is a low-intensity variation of the notion of "mutual assured destruction." Israeli air strikes against roads, bridges and residential areas in Lebanon were met with retaliatory rocket strikes against northern Israeli cities, towns and settlements. Hizbullah's retaliatory rocket attacks were conducted within the framework of a ‘graduated response' strategy which allows varying levels of engagement and requires a highly disciplined operational and organizational structure. Retaliatory attacks struck deeper into Israel in tandem with the intensity of Israel's attacks. At one point, Shaikh Nasrallah warned that if Israel were to expand its bombing campaign against areas in the suburbs of Beirut to include the Lebanese capital itself, then Hizbullah would launch rockets against the capital of the "usurping entity," i.e. Tel Aviv.
By drawing on long-range missiles to strike targets deep inside Occupied Palestine, Hizbullah presented Israel with an unprecedented challenge. The use of missiles not only dented Israel's superiority in the sky, which it owes mainly to the unlimited supply of US-made fighter-jets and attack-helicopters, but also rendered less relevant the notion of large-scale ground operations that the Israeli army resorted to in the past under the rubric of establishing secure strategic depth. During the fighting, Hizbullah's missiles hit as far as Hadera, some 30 miles north of Tel Aviv. So even if Israel's forces were able to capture and hold a 10- or 20-mile deep security zone, Hizbullah would still be able to hit targets deep inside Occupied Palestine. Ballistic warfare, therefore, is poised to have far-reaching tactical and strategic implications that could redefine the military aspect of the fight against Israel. As Palestinian fighters in Ghazzah show increasing improvement in their use of missiles against Israeli settlements and other targets, more areas under Israeli occupation will become vulnerable to rocket strikes.
So Israel finds itself impaled on the horns of a dilemma. Five months ago, Olmert's Kadima party won a general election with a campaign-platform that included a promise to draw Israel's final borders by means of a partial withdrawal from the West Bank and the annexation of major Jewish settlement blocs. Kadima argued that Israel's frontiers would be protected by the recently-constructed concrete-and-steel separation barrier. Short-range missiles render this desire simply a pipe-dream. On the other hand, Hizbullah's recent use of medium-range missiles has punctured the notion of territorial depth that guided zionist expansionism.
Hizbullah's careful preparations went beyond the military domain. One example of this is Hizbullah's television-channel, al-Manar. The station stayed on air, from unidentified locations and hidden studios, throughout the fighting, despite the air-strikes that destroyed its headquarters in the early days of the war, and despite repeated bombardment of its relay towers and masts across the country.
But Hizbullah's staying power on the battlefield has as much to do with the effective use of military science as with the extraordinarily high morale of its fighters. Deep faith among Hizbullah's rank and file helped to nurture an unusual operational and battlefield discipline, instilled a culture of secrecy, and reduced the fear of death during close-combat operations and air-strikes. There were numerous reports of close-combat confrontations where, in the face of Hizbullah's deeply religious, highly-motivated and well-trained fighters, Israeli soldiers found themselves pinned down and unable even to return fire.
Strong faith also protected Hizbullah from penetration by Israel's intelligence services. The war has shown up how little detailed information Israel's famed intelligence services had on Hizbullah's forces, tactics, equipment and weaponry. Israeli military planners had no adequate knowledge of Hizbullah's military resources, of the organisational structure of its fighting force, or of what it was capable of. This reality was underlined repeatedly during the fighting, with such remarkable achievements as when Hizbullah deployed surface-to-sea missiles to cripple two Israeli warships, shot down two Israeli helicopters, and sent up drones on reconnaissance missions over Occupied Palestine.
That combination of faith, discipline, preparedness and tactical skills increased Hizbullah's characteristic advantage as a guerrilla force fighting on its home ground. But Hizbullah's victory has not only humiliated the zionists. The Arab regimes, who have long been convinced that there is no point in going to war with Israel, have been embarrassed by Hizbullah's battlefield success. In the Arab world the main question on most people's minds now is: If Hizbullah's small militia can hold their own against Israeli soldiers on the ground, even with Israeli control of the air, why are the Arab armies incapable of pulling off a similar feat, despite the vast military and other resources at their disposal?