September 4, 2006
"C’est la Victoire du Sang: It’s the Victory of Blood"; Hezbollah flag spotted in South Lebanon
There’s a sign at the entrance to Bint Jbeil that says: "Bint Jbeil—Capital of Freedom". The cheery greeting contrasts dramatically with the vast devastation that lies just beyond. Bint Jbeil was a bustling hamlet in Southern Lebanon that became the central battlefield in Israel’s’ war of aggression. It withstood the IAFs withering aerial bombardments as well as a month-long siege which left most of the town in complete ruins. Bint Jbeil is where a small group of committed nationalists stood up to the mighty IDF in "toe to toe combat and forced them to withdraw. Its where the sluggish wheel of Middle East history shifted ever-so slightly, challenging the dominance of Israeli military power as the sole agent for change in the region. The results of the battle have already sent shock-waves through the area’s political landscape.
Bint Jbeil has been called Nasrallahgrad, in honor of the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, and the Russian city where the "costliest battle in human history" was fought from Aug 1942 to Feb 1943. Just as the Russian army faced the German Wehrmacht in a year-long siege, so too, Hezbollah fought from the wreckage of their battle-scarred city for 28 days without yielding an inch of ground. In the end, their determination upset the over-confident IDF and turned the invasion into a hasty retreat.
On July 26, Israel suffered its heaviest one day loss during the conflict. In a bold, daylight ambush, Hezbollah killed 9 members of the elite Golani Brigades, destroyed a Merkava Tank and armored troop-carrier, and stopped the IDFs advance on the city. The news of the casualties stunned the Israeli public who were expecting triumphant reports from the front. This was not the cakewalk-war their leaders had promised. Hezbollah was geared up for combat and the Israeli High-Command was suddenly thrown into disarray. The guerilla-militia’s daring tactics and sophisticated weaponry, particularly their Russian-made anti-tank missiles, took Israel completely by surprise and created a palpable sense of self-doubt among the IDF leadership. Chief of Staff Dan Halutz and Defense Minister Emir Peretz never completely regained their footing.
One Hezbollah cadre described the fighting this way:
"We saw the IDF taking up posts here and here (pointing to the ranges which overlook the town from east and south)"We knew they would eventually come down. We prepared an ambush near the jail behind the trees. They arrived in a very small force, maybe 20 or 30 soldiers. They walked right in front of us, and then we opened fire. We hit many of them and they began running like madmen, trying to drag their killed and wounded. We continued to shoot at them until they were gone." (YNET News "An Israeli in Katyushaland")
Another Hezbollah fighter added, "Houses and stores were leveled to the ground, but we arose from the rubble like lions, not caring about the shooting of guns, tanks, and bombs…The 'invincible army’ became a laughingstock."
Sketchy accounts of the battle have appeared in the Arab media and circulated on the internet patching together picture of fierce street-by-street gun-battles which (according to Jane’s Weekly) sometimes included hand to hand combat. The well-disciplined Hezbollah fighters held their ground despite the nonstop aerial attacks and artillery bombardment.
No one knows exactly how many Hezbollah fighters were involved in the hostilities, but estimates range from 100 to 200. Their forces were broken into small cells which operated independently of a central command. Although the fighters are superbly trained for guerilla-style warfare their overall instructions are quite simple and straightforward, "When you see the Israelis, attack them."
This strategy had a profound effect on the war’s outcome. Hezbollah does not play defense. They swarm their enemy inflicting as much damage as possible and then return to hideouts. Their daring and aggressive tactics kept the better-armed Israelis constantly off balance. In a matter of weeks they had killed 118 IDF regulars and blown up an estimated 20 Merkava Tanks. That's why Israel decided to cut its losses and leave.
The defeat has ignited a firestorm of anxiety and vitriol in the Israeli press. The front-page recriminations appear on a daily basis and most of the newspapers have already called for the resignations of Olmert, Halutz and Peretz. But the IDFs lack of preparedness is only part of the story. Hezbollah has thousands of highly-motivated and ferocious fighters who fully-grasp the intricacies of asymmetrical warfare and how to minimize the comparative advantages of Israel’s superior firepower. This victory belongs to them. They are the ones who liberated their country from foreign invasion.
Even so, the cost of victory has been enormous. Bint Jbeil felt the full-force of Israel’s wrath and has been reduced to a wasteland of scattered rubble and bombed-out wreckage. Most of the buildings have been either leveled completely or are so severely smashed that they are uninhabitable. The Israeli Air Force pummeled the city mercilessly for weeks leaving vast swaths of the downtown area in a flattened heap of dusty cobble and twisted iron. Israel’s vicious "scorched earth" reprisal will take years to repair and, for the time being, Bint Jbeil is a barren desert lacking food, clean water or electrical power. The townspeople are at the mercy of the humanitarian agencies that are only able to offer sporadic help.
The damage is so vast that some of the city’s people were not even able to find the homes that they had lived in their entire lives. The magnitude of the devastation reflects the frustration that Israel must have felt in failing to achieve any of its stated objectives. Their rage is mirrored in the Dresden-like waste and debris which now extends in all directions from the city’s center.
Still, there are small signs of Hezbollah’s victory. The tattered yellow banners emerge from mounds of broken brick which dot the downtown area and offer a festive contrast to the pock-marked landscape. There’s also a strong sense of national pride that hasn’t been diminished by the daunting task of reconstruction.
Lebanon has paid dearly for Israel’s rampage; the civil infrastructure has been decimated, the environment polluted, the forests burned, the factories bombed, and much of the country is in a complete shambles. Israel has created a moonscape of ruin that stretches out across the south and is peppered with tens of thousands of cluster-bombs that lie in the tall grass waiting to kill the next generation’s children. This is Israel’s gift to its northern neighbor, death and disfigurement for hundreds of people not yet born.
Lebanon is still digging-out and will continue for some time to come. An AFP reporter observed, "In their wake the Israelis left trails of concrete wreckage a half mile long and the stench of corpses buried under sun-baked rubble where once bustling markets stood." Funerals are now the primary form of public engagement.
Israel, however, has lost even more than Lebanon. Its prized "deterrents" have been shattered and the IDFs image of "invincibility" has vanished overnight. Their withdrawal is generally seen as capitulation and an admission of defeat. The humiliation has outraged Israelis from across the political spectrum and created the likelihood that Olmert may restart the war just to salvage his waning political career.
Israel’s current strategy looks distressingly similar to its occupation of Gaza. Olmert has stubbornly defied the UN and maintained his naval blockade as well as his control of Lebanese air space. He insists that Israel has the right to carry out paramilitary operations in Lebanon if they are in Israel’s security interests. This violation of Lebanon’s sovereignty is a reminder that the hostilities could resume at any time and explode into a full-blown war.
For now, Israel has been beaten and that fact may have a profound effect on developments in the region. As British MP George Galloway said, (Israel’s loss signals) "a shift in the 40 year-old paradigm of the Israeli-Arab conflict that is puncturing the belief in a permanent and unchallengeable Israeli military superiority over its neighbors and the hubris this has induced in Israeli leaders….The Israelis were given a severe mauling by Hezbollah fighters when it came to boots on the ground…But make no mistake, with the victory of Hezbollah, a terrible beauty is born." (George Galloway, "Hezbollah’s Victory has transformed the Middle East"; informationclearinghouse)
Will Israel recognize the shifting dynamic in the Middle East and relinquish its dependence on military power as its main implement foreign policy? If so, then there might be a chance for a negotiated settlement and grand bargain involving all the parties. That would make the blood payments on both sides worth the sacrifice.
If that’s the case, we’re bound to look back on Bint Jbeil as a turning point, where the clash between the Israeli Goliath and Hezbollah guerillas created the opportunity to resolve long-held grievances and move the region towards a lasting peace.