Lebanese refugees returning to their homes after the ceasefire displaying a poster of Nasrallah, Hezbollah leader, Aug. 15.
Photo: Frederic Lafargue/Gamma
Ten days into Israel’s massive assault on Lebanon, when hundreds of Lebanese civilians had already been killed and hundreds of thousands were refugees, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice blithely dismissed all the death and destruction as “the birth pangs of a new Middle East.”
The outcome of the struggle may indeed be a transformed region, but not along the lines that Rice and her fellow war makers in Washington had in mind.
Rice’s now infamous July 22 remark was another way of saying “no” to international calls for a ceasefire in the conflict. It came in response to worldwide outrage over the wanton Israeli destruction of Lebanon, supposedly unleashed because two Israeli soldiers had been captured by Hezbollah’s military wing in a clash along the Israel-Lebanon border.
U.S. and Israeli leaders, confident that Israel’s much-vaunted army would soon achieve the kind of smashing victory it had in previous wars, were opposed to any halt in the fighting.
Three weeks later, however, with Hezbollah undefeated, Israeli casualties rising and anti-U.S. anger spreading across the Middle East, Rice took the lead in speeding a ceasefire resolution through the U.N. Security Council. Resolution 1701 was passed on Aug. 11 and went into effect on Aug. 14.
What are the implications of this stunning turnabout that has altered profoundly the political landscape of the region?
Conflicts immediately surfaced within ruling class circles in both Israel and the United States after the U.N. resolution passed—proof that the outcome is viewed as a defeat for Israel and a severe setback for U.S. policy in the Middle East. Another sign of the victory for liberation forces was the huge and prolonged celebrations that broke out across the Middle East in support of Hezbollah and its leader, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah.
Speaking shortly after the ceasefire took effect, Nasrallah was exultant. “We are before a strategic and historic victory, without any exaggeration, for all of Lebanon, the resistance and the whole of the Arab nation,” he said. “We came out victorious in a war in which big Arab armies were defeated [before].”
The same day, Bush tried to spin the settlement. “Hezbollah attacked Israel,” he claimed. “Hezbollah started the crisis. And Hezbollah suffered a defeat.” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made a similarly wishful statement.
But had they truly achieved “victory,” intense backbiting and infighting would not have surfaced in Washington and Tel Aviv. Instead, the leaders would have been toasting each other, even if through gritted teeth.
Defeats and internal struggles within the ruling class can lead to the leaking of secret information to the media, as one faction seeks to indict another for its failures. The setback in Lebanon was no exception.
Capture of Israeli soldiers a pretext for mass destruction
Just after the Security Council resolution was signed, articles began to appear in various world media outlets revealing the truth behind the U.S.-Israeli aggression: The assault on Lebanon had long been in the works. The capture of the two Israeli soldiers was a convenient pretext for an all-out war that Israel and the United States were determined to carry out. According to Hezbollah, the soldiers were captured in order to free Lebanese long held in Israeli prisons.
The action also came at a critical time for the Palestinian struggle. Israel had been relentlessly pounding Gaza for three weeks, killing dozens of people and destroying much of the infrastructure in the already impoverished area. The July 11 Hezbollah operation was widely perceived as opening a “second front.” Thousands of Israeli soldiers were redeployed from the West Bank and Gaza to Lebanon.
The news reports confirmed what activists in the ANSWER Coalition —Act Now to Stop War and End Racism and other anti-imperialist organizations had been saying since the war’s beginning.
Within hours of the July 11 border incident, Israel launched a “shock and awe”-style air attack, imposed a naval blockade and began non-stop shelling of southern Lebanon. The artillery shelling was cover for a new invasion of Lebanon by Israeli armor and infantry. Beirut’s airport was bombed, as were most of the country’s power plants and 90 percent of its bridges.
An oil spill from a bombed coastal power plant resulted in the biggest ecological disaster in Lebanon’s history, polluting Mediterranean beaches and waters and catastrophically impacting wildlife, fishing and tourism. Thousands of homes, apartments and buildings were completely destroyed. Israeli pilots flying U.S.-made warplanes conducted thousands of uncontested bombing raids against a very small country.
In retaliation, Hezbollah launched an average of 100 rockets per day into northern Israel.
At least 1,100 Lebanese were killed—more than 80 percent of them non-combatants—and thousands more were wounded. Twenty-five percent of the country’s population, nearly one million people, was forced to flee their homes and communities. On the Israeli side, 156 were reported killed, 118 of them soldiers.
On the war’s other front in Gaza, more than 170 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli bombs, shells and bullets since June 28, with one Israeli soldier fatally wounded.
Without question, a war of such magnitude and sweep as Israel’s campaign against Lebanon had to have been planned long in advance.
A U.S. initiative, not just a ‘green light’
At a White House meeting on May 23, Bush “conveyed to Olmert his strong personal support” for a military offensive against Lebanon, according to Israeli government sources. Bush also urged Israel to attack Syria in the same operation. (Consortium News, Aug. 13)
A July 30 article in the right-wing Jerusalem Post reported that Israeli defense officials “were receiving indications from the U.S. that America would be interested in seeing Israel attack Syria.” The Israeli leaders reportedly were hesitant about an unprovoked attack on Syria and how it might further deepen their global isolation.
Other articles, including one by Seymour Hersh in the Aug. 21 New Yorker magazine, indicate that planning of the offensive had been in the works for at least a year in both Washington and Tel Aviv.
Unable to suppress Iraqi resistance, the Bush administration had decided to widen its regional war. A U.S.-supported Israeli attack on Lebanon and Syria would aim to crush Hezbollah, isolate the Palestinian resistance, overturn or severely weaken the Syrian government and prepare the way for attacking Iran. The administration thought that accomplishing those objectives would weaken and isolate the Iraqi resistance.
The U.S.-hatched plan did not work. “Shock and awe”-style strikes by the Israeli air force, like the U.S. air assault on Iraq, did inflict massive destruction on Lebanon and incalculable suffering on its people. But, as in Iraq, it utterly failed to subdue the population. In fact, the effect was just the opposite.
Despite being an extremely diverse and often divided society, a remarkable degree of national unity soon emerged in support of the resistance and against Israel and the U.S. imperialists. Even Maronite Catholics—historically the most conservative and pro-western sector of the population—overwhelmingly supported Hezbollah and the resistance.
The struggle against imperialism, Zionism and Arab reaction
Despite its vast military superiority, Israel’s expected victory never materialized. This failure sent shock waves through Tel Aviv and Washington, and also through the capitals of the Arab countries aligned with the United States—particularly Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Early in the war, as bombs rained down on Lebanon, the governments of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia publicly blamed Hezbollah for the confrontation. By doing so, they drew the wrath of their own people. As the war raged on, and the Lebanese resistance fighters became heroes in the eyes of tens of millions throughout the Middle East, all three governments quickly retreated from their original positions, refocusing their public criticisms on Israel.
The cosmetic change of tone could not hide the fact that all the pro-imperialist governments in the region hoped for the defeat and dismantling of Hezbollah, as well as the Palestinian resistance. While depicted as “friendly governments” and even “democratic” by U.S. officials and the capitalist media, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are highly repressive regimes that serve the interests of imperialism and their own elites.
In each country, the Lebanon war spurred popular anger not only against the United States and Israel but also against their own rulers. President Mubarak, King Abdullah and the Saudi royal family hoped that defeat of the Lebanese and Palestinian resistance would set back the anti-government movements inside their own countries.
The war illustrated again in dramatic fashion what the revolutionary forces in the region have long maintained: In the struggle for genuine liberation, the Arab masses confront not only imperialism (particularly U.S. imperialism) and the militarized Zionist state of Israel, but also the reactionary, imperialist-aligned Arab regimes. These three forces have worked together to suppress the Arab national liberation movement for more than half a century.
Technological superiority does not bring victory
Beirut, Lebanon, Aug. 15.
Photo: Reuters/Eric Gaillard
Despite a population of some six million people, Israel is rated the fourth or fifth most powerful military in the world. Its air force is ranked even higher. Compliments of the Pentagon, the Israeli “Defense” Forces possess a vast array of high-tech weaponry, including nuclear bombs. Israel can mobilize more than 600,000 troops.
On the other side, Hezbollah has no air force, no navy, no tanks and no helicopters. Its main force is made up of several thousand highly trained and motivated fighters, who have developed very sophisticated guerrilla tactics. They also have acquired advanced anti-tank weapons systems, most likely from Syria and Iran.
At the start of the war on July 12, Olmert and the Israeli chief of staff, Air Force General Dan Halutz, promised quick victory and the swift suppression of Hezbollah’s ability to launch retaliatory rocket attacks through air power. On paper it seemed inevitable that Israel, particularly with full backing from the U.S. government, would win. But wars are not fought on paper.
While causing damage that one Associated Press reporter described as “unimaginable” after the fighting had stopped, the Israeli air blitz ultimately failed to achieve its minimal objectives. The Lebanese resistance was not dislodged and remained deeply entrenched right on the border. Despite Israeli claims that it had knocked out most of Hezbollah’s rockets and missiles, the rockets and missiles never stopped.
The failure of the “shock and awe” operation meant that ground forces had to be sent into Lebanon—something the Israeli military did not want to do. Israel had just withdrawn from southern Lebanon in 2000, after a 22-year occupation, because of the losses it suffered at the hands of the Hezbollah-led resistance. The resistance had only grown stronger in the intervening six years.
Fierce resistance on the ground
The Israeli and U.S. governments knew this, but nothing prepared them for the fierce resistance that they encountered on the ground in Lebanon. In an early ground battle at Bint Jbail, just two miles across the border, the Israeli army was forced to pull back after suffering heavy casualties and equipment losses. The same scenario played out for the duration of the Israeli ground war in southern Lebanon.
Particularly shocking was the loss of so many of Israel’s giant tanks, the Merkava-3, which had been considered nearly invincible. The number of tanks destroyed by the Lebanese resistance is not yet known, but reports mention dozens. Many of the Israeli casualties were tank crewmembers killed or wounded inside their Merkavas. Countless photos and videos showed disoriented, exhausted and sometimes weeping Israeli soldiers returning from the battlefront in Lebanon.
In the last three days before the ceasefire took effect, the Israeli commanders rushed many more troops into the country, trying to take more territory as a bargaining chip and also to make it appear to the Israeli public that they had “accomplished something.” But this move was a disaster for them, too.
In those three days, 48 Israeli soldiers were killed—nearly half of the Israeli fatalities during the war—and many more wounded. As soon as the ceasefire went into effect, the Israeli forces immediately abandoned the areas they had just seized, such as the key town of Marjayoun, because they were over-extended and in danger.
The failure of the Israeli military to achieve rapid victory created a crisis in the ruling circles of both the United States and Israel, and cries of distress from the Jordanian and Egyptian leaders. To continue the war with no prospect of short-term military success would drive the wedge deeper between the Arab people and the rulers throughout the region.
This problem for the imperialists and their allies was perhaps most acutely felt in occupied Iraq, where the largest demonstration, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, was held in support of the Lebanese and Palestinian resistance. That rally, organized by Moqtada al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army, posed a serious challenge to the puppet government of “Prime Minister” al-Maliki. It also demanded an end to the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
The ceasefire agreement produced a firestorm of criticism of the Israeli government. Much of this criticism came from the extreme right, which today represents the viewpoint of a very large section of Israeli society, if not the majority.
The central theme of the criticism is that Israel “achieved nothing” and should have expanded rather than stopped the war. Former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud Party, is calling for a new Israeli offensive.
The defeat in Lebanon has forced the Olmert government to abandon, at least for the time being, its plan to unilaterally withdraw from parts of the West Bank while annexing the Jordan Valley and other large chunks of territory. Israeli political forces opposing the plan now argue that Israel should not withdraw from any more territory.
But Olmert and his Kadima Party’s shelving of their reactionary scheme is no loss to the Palestinians. The plan would have left the Palestinians in charge of administering small, broken-up pieces of land, while Israel would have retained complete control of borders, trade, airspace, water and mineral resources. This is the situation in Gaza after the Israeli “withdrawal.”
This “two-state” plan, which the U.S. and British leaders fully support (along with many U.S. liberals), provides for a totally dominant Israel side-by-side with a weak and subordinated Palestinian entity. It is a plan meant to imprison the Palestinians in a permanent state of colonial subjugation.
At the same time, the defeat inflicted on Israel in Lebanon has strengthened the already strong determination of the Palestinians to continue the struggle. Ghassan Katib, labor minister in the Palestinian Authority, told the Guardian newspaper, “In [Palestinian] public opinion, there is an increase in support for military solutions and resistance as a strategy rather than negotiations.”
There is widespread speculation in the Israeli media that Olmert could launch an all-out offensive against the Palestinians in Gaza in an attempt to gain back some public prestige following his debacle in Lebanon. That such an idea would be contemplated is a clear sign of the shift toward the extreme right in Israeli public opinion.
Countering this dominant reactionary trend, a current in Israeli society condemned the war. Demonstrations of several thousand people against the war took place on a number of occasions.
United States and Israel forced to retreat
International day of protest against the U.S.-Israeli WAR on Palestine and Lebanon in Washington, DC, Aug. 12.
Photo: Bill Hackwell
Thus, the U.S. leaders’ decision to rush a ceasefire resolution through the Security Council on Aug. 11—something they had adamantly opposed a few weeks earlier—must be understood as a retreat. That reality is not changed by the fact that the resolution heavily favors Israel. Nor is it changed by the resolution’s unenforceability.
Hezbollah has rejected disarming its military forces, a position supported by a broad section of the Lebanese population. There is a “tremendous sense of pride and defiance” among the returning population in southern Lebanon. (London Guardian, Aug. 16) The immediate return of hundreds of thousands of Lebanese to their cities, towns and villages in southern Lebanon despite Israeli threats illustrated this defiance. Israel had warned that any Lebanese would be bombed if they came back before the international “peacekeeping” force called for in the U.N. resolution was in place.
While Lebanese prime minister, Fuad Siniora, proclaimed on Aug. 17 that “there could be no mini-states, no dual authority” in Lebanon, a dual power situation exists in the country. Coming off their stunning victory, Hezbollah’s power—military, social and political—has increased dramatically. The foundation of any state’s power is its army. In Lebanon, Hezbollah’s military wing is far stronger than the Lebanese army.
The Lebanese army, like the Lebanese government, is fragmented because of the “confessional system” in place since the end of formal French colonialism in 1943. This reactionary system reserves key positions in the government and state apparatus for particular religious groups.
For instance, only Maronite Catholics are eligible to be president. The prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim, the speaker of the parliament a Shiite Muslim. The system was created to protect the interests of French imperialism and the ruling elites of each community.
A clash between the Lebanese army and Hezbollah would likely result in the immediate splitting of the army, as happened in the Lebanese civil war in the 1970s. A Lebanese sergeant told National Public Radio on Aug. 17 that Hezbollah had cared for and protected his family during the Israeli bombing. “If Hassan Nasrallah asks for fighters in the south to defend the country against Israel, I will take off my Lebanese army uniform and go.”
Washington’s retreat does not signify that political leaders—Republican and Democrat—have abandoned their drive to dominate the Middle East. That will never happen as long as imperialism exists because the Middle East holds 70 percent of the world’s oil reserves. Meanwhile, the occupations of Iraq and Palestine continue. So does the threat of a wider war.
But there can be no doubt that the 34-day war was a defeat for the U.S. imperialists and their Israeli junior partners. It was a victory for all the progressive and anti-imperialist forces in the region.