Israel Update for July 2006

David Dolan
David Dolan

The long and bitter Arab-Muslim conflict with Israel entered a new phase in mid-July when Lebanese Hizbullah militiamen emulated their Palestinian Hamas allies in launching an audacious cross border raid into sovereign Israeli territory in order to kidnap IDF soldiers. The radical Shiite Muslim group did this knowing full well that Israel would probably respond forcefully to the abductions, which violate international law, as they did in the Gaza Strip when a soldier was taken hostage in late June. In fact, Israeli officials suspect that the two illegal actions were directly ordered by non-Arab Iran-which supplies weapons and financial assistance to both extremist groups-in an attempt to spark a major conflict that would divert world attention from Tehran's ominous nuclear program. This suspicion was reinforced when various security agencies revealed that Iran had signed a secret mutual defense pact with Syria in mid-June.

If deflecting international attention from its nuclear program was the Iranian regime's goal, it worked, at least temporarily. World leaders at the G8 summit in Russia spent most of their time discussing the latest Muslim-Israeli crisis instead of Iran's refusal to heed EU and American calls to immediately halt its uranium enrichment program. With Al Jazeera and other Arab television networks running frequent, highly charged reports maintaining that Israel was deliberately massacring hundreds of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians in response to the twin terrorist kidnappings, worldwide Islamic wrath against the planet's only Jewish state quickly reached a new fever pitch-which Israeli analysts warned could lead to a much wider conflict in the coming weeks. Such a possibility was thought to be behind the Israeli Security Cabinet's July 27th decision to call up three reserve army divisions (which my security sources tell me is well over the 30,000 men reported in the international media), and to deploy Patriot and Arrow anti-missile systems around Tel Aviv.

Within days of the July 12th abductions of two IDF soldiers and the slaying of seven others by Hizbullah fire, government leaders around the globe were already rebuking Israel for its supposedly "disproportionate" military response to the unprovoked cross border raid, even though most also condemned Hizbullah for its sudden incursion that sparked the crisis. The harshest reprimands naturally came from regional Muslim leaders, especially Lebanese Sunni Prime Minister Fuad Seniora who maintained that Israel was "destroying" his country. Israeli leaders denied the hyperbolic contention, noting that Seniora realized that most Air Force strikes were directed at Hizbullah targets in Shiite dominated areas, especially in the southern suburbs of Beirut and in the Hizbullah-controlled Bekaa Valley east of the capital city, along of course with heavy bombing of Hizbullah strongholds in south Lebanon from where the Iranian-Syrian puppet force was blitzing Israeli civilian communities with daily rocket bombardments.

Israeli officials noted that while over 100,000 south Lebanese residents had left their homes after Israel warned them to flee in order to pursue Hizbullah fighters in the area, at least as many Israelis had also evacuated their homes as Katyusha rockets continued to pound the north of the country, where over one million Israelis live. They added that Lebanese residents of mainly Christian East Beirut and mainly Sunni West Beirut were carrying on their daily lives with few noticeable disruptions, although all could certainly hear the disturbing sounds of Israeli bombs hitting suspected Hizbullah targets in the city's mainly Shiite southern suburbs.

Adequate food and other essential supplies were reaching Beirut, said Israeli officials, despite the bombing of the nearby international airport and the partial IDF naval blockade-designed to stop Syria and Iran from shipping more rockets and other weapons to their Hizbullah surrogate force by air, and from the Syrian port of Latikia north of Lebanon. Israeli jets actually left one runway operational for smaller aircraft, to allow aid relief to be flown into the country. The highway to Damascus was heavily bombed, but then again they noted that most Lebanese citizens rarely use that highway, if at all. They admitted that the action disrupted commerce on the road, which runs through the Hizbullah-ruled Bekaa Valley, but also the ground transport of weapons from Syria, not to mention hundreds of Iranian jihadist "volunteers" who were said to be on their way to fight with their Shiite brethren.

Tragedy In Qana

Israeli government and military leaders did acknowledge the sad fact that scores of Lebanese civilians, including women and children, were being unintentionally wounded or killed in the daily Air Force bombings, just as hundreds of Israeli civilians had been killed or wounded by Hizbullah fire which was deliberately directed at them. Officials were horrified to learn that one air strike on July 30th had left a large crater right next to an apartment building in the southern Shiite village of Qana, which later collapsed upon over 50 Lebanese civilians taking shelter in its lower floors, many of them children.

The IDF said it had no idea that the building contained any civilians, adding that they were targeting Hizbullah fighters that had been launching dozens of Katyusha rockets from the village at Israeli Galilee civilian centers (rockets that had killed 19 Israeli civilians and left hundreds more injured, many critically, by that date). Photographic evidence of this fact was later shown on Israel television, with the army noting that Hizbullah militia forces often store their rockets in civilian homes, and then rush to the same homes for cover after firing them off toward Israeli civilian centers. They noted that nearly all of the 2,000 plus rockets shot into northern Israel since mid July had been cynically fired from built up Lebanese civilian areas.

Despite the tragic news, Israeli officials noted that Hizbullah leaders seemed to be deliberately trying to increase the number of Lebanese civilian casualties to spur regional Arab anger at Israel, as the PLO did when it occupied south Lebanon in the early 1980s. They pointed out that the United Nation's chief humanitarian watchdog, Jan Egeland, had rebuked Hizbullah militiamen on July 24th for "cowardly blending in among women and children" in a deliberate attempt to discourage Israeli strikes upon themselves. In other words, the Shiite fighters understand that Israel is extremely reluctant to hit known civilian positions even if it has hard intelligence that Hizbullah fighters are operating from them. Egeland, who had earlier rebuked Israel for using "excessive force" in its campaign to weaken the Lebanese militia and push it back from the border area, added with disgust that he had heard that Hizbullah leaders "are proud because they have lost very few fighters, and that it was the civilians bearing the brunt of this. I don't think anyone should be proud of having many more children and women dead than armed men."

Yielding to pressure from visiting US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for a quick pause in Air Force bombings, Israeli leaders announced a 48 hour suspension of their air activity over Lebanon the evening of the Qana tragedy, but added they would strike any rocket launching sites that continued to bombard Israelis towns. Less than 12 hours after the suspension began, Hizbullah opened fire again at the besieged town of Kiryat Shmona, largely empty of its 18,000 Jewish citizens for over two weeks. Analysts said the move signaled that the radical group and its Syrian and Iranian paymasters were not yet ready for a final end of hostilities. Israeli officials also made clear that the two day time out-partially designed to allow any remaining Lebanese civilians to evacuate the border area-did not spell an end to their campaign to neutralize Hizbullah's grave rocket threat.

Excessive Force?

Many of Israel's closest allies joined the international protest chorus over the scale of Israel's response to Hizbullah's mid-July cross-border provocation. Yet Israeli officials did not even attempt to hide the fact that the latest kidnappings and rockets barrages were simply the final straw after a series of such illegal actions by the extremist militia that is backed by two large regional countries with combined populations nearly 15 times the size of Israel's. They well recall that Hizbullah expressed its immediate support for the new Palestinian attrition war launched in September 2000 by kidnapping and killing IDF soldiers and an Israeli businessman in early October of that year-a mere five months after then Prime Minister Ehud Barak fulfilled UN demands for a complete military pullout from Lebanon. Subsequent periodic Hizbullah rocket strikes upon Israeli communities and military positions left more soldiers and civilians dead, including a teenage boy slain in a rocket strike east of Nahariya two years ago.

Growing concern over Hizbullah's constant acquisition of Iranian and Syrian-supplied Katyusha rockets, not to mention various longer-range missiles and untold quantities of anti-tank, anti-aircraft and anti-ship rockets and other potent weapons, has been documented in these monthly updates ever since the May 2000 IDF evacuation of positions that were first captured in the 1978 Israeli "Litani" operation to push PLO fighters from south Lebanon. Military analysts say that Hizbullah had actually become one of the largest military forces in the region, with an arsenal larger than that of many area countries.

I had the privilege to lead a CFI tour to the Galilee region in May 2001-exactly one year after Israel evacuated its security buffer zone. While visiting a small military base next to the international border, the local IDF commander quietly warned me to be careful what I said since Hizbullah fighters within eyesight of the base monitored outdoor conversations with sophisticated long-range microphones. Then he whispered to me to casually gaze into a nearby grove of pine trees, where he said I would be able to see the tips of Katyusha rockets pointing ominously toward an Israeli kibbutz located down the hill from the base. Indeed, I could clearly see the weapons he mentioned, but I diplomatically did not point this out to my tour group.