Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Editorial: Lessons Learned

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Lessons Learned

The Winograd Committee’s Interim Report, assessing Israel’s performance in the first days of last year’s Hezbollah-Israel conflict, has strongly criticised Israel’s prime minister, defence minister and former military chief of staff for setting impossible-to-achieve objectives and for moving without adequate planning. The report mirrors a public deeply negative towards the government in Israel, and a change of leadership and/or new elections seems likely in coming months.

Some critics of Israel have used the report as an opportunity to justify their own criticisms of last year’s war in Lebanon. But a brief examination reveals the legality and morality of Israel’s decision to wage war, the main focus of these critics, were never in question.

Rather, the government was criticised procedurally for inadequate planning and deliberation about how to decisively win what was seen as an inevitable war. Further, while this is less clear in the published English summaries, the detailed Hebrew text of the report makes it clear that the Winograd Committee’s main substantive complaint about the strategic conduct of the war is actually that Hezbollah should have been hit harder, faster and more effectively.

This preliminary report only dealt with the war’s opening days, and so does not assess the war’s real, if limited, achievements – Hezbollah was dramatically, though temporarily, weakened by the loss of trained fighters, bases and rockets; the UN mandate to disarm Hezbollah was considerably strengthened; and the Lebanese Army was able to deploy to its southern border for the first time since the 1970s.

The hope was that Israel’s inconclusive victory would allow Lebanese sovereignty to reassert itself, because if Lebanon had controlled its own foreign and defence policy, last year’s war would not have happened. Instead, Hezbollah, whose leaders admit that their orders, as well as money, arms and training, come from Teheran and Damascus, has been setting the agenda in southern Lebanon since Israel’s withdrawal in 2000.

Despite the good intentions expressed in UN Security Council resolutions and an increased presence of UN troops in the region, Hezbollah has been rapidly rebuilding its rocket and military capacity since the end of the war, thanks to Syrian and Iranian munificence. Some commentators have predicted Hezbollah will be willing and able to start another conflict this year.

There are also lessons from this experience for the developing crisis in Gaza, where Hamas is attempting to emulate the Hezbollah model. Arms are flooding through the Gaza-Egypt border, largely from Hamas’ patron, Iran. Bunkers, weapons caches and fortified rooms are all being constructed in Gaza’s crowded cities.

In addition, efforts to further mould Palestinians into Hamas’ Islamist model of eternal violence against the West continue - Hamas TV’s recent use of a Mickey Mouse doppelgänger to teach children the virtues of jihad is only one example of a wider phenomenon.

Meanwhile, Hamas, which dominates the Palestinian Authority national unity government, has been giving rockets and logistical support to Fatah and Islamic Jihad, while pretending to observe a unilateral ceasefire. Further, technological and financial help from Hezbollah and Iran have dramatically improved the range and deadliness of rockets in recent months. More and larger Israeli towns, as well as the Ashkelon power plant, providing a quarter of Israel’s electricity, are likely to come increasingly under rocket attack.

Hamas’ response to the dramatic escalation in violence between itself and Fatah in Gaza in mid-May, which left more than 50 people dead over one week, was telling. Hamas not only began launching dozens of rockets at Israel, but made no secret of the fact that the purpose of these attacks was to provoke an armed clash with Israel so Palestinians can “unite against the common enemy.”

Israel has been wary not to serve Hamas’ political purposes and is refraining from a major incursion into Gaza for the present, but this situation cannot continue indefinitely.

Given Hamas’ efforts to locate and fortify its military assets in civilian areas, any Israeli incursion designed to neutralise rocket factories and stockpiles and catch the rocket launching crews will be regrettably bloody for Israeli soldiers and Palestinian fighters and civilians alike.

Furthermore, as long as Hamas and Hezbollah continue to adhere to their Islamist belief that fighting Israel is a religious obligation, they are effectively not amenable to rational deterrence.

The key to containing the conflict and avoiding more bloodshed is therefore cutting off arms supplies and preventing outside interference.

Doing this is beyond Israel’s control, as the Winograd Committee acknowledged. However, the international community has the obligation and the leverage to do much more to prevent new fighting and the suffering this will cause both in Gaza and Lebanon. The UN forces in Lebanon have an obligation to enforce Security Council Resolution 1701, especially the prohibition of arms shipments to Hezbollah. Egypt must become much more serious in its efforts to stop arms smuggling into Gaza, which it can do. Jordan, after all, is able to largely stop such flows across the much longer West Bank border.

Arab governments must pressure Hamas into recognising Israel as a step toward regional peace. Teheran and Damascus must be held accountable for the damage they are unleashing with their illegal arms shipments to Hamas and Hezbollah.

Israel’s military successes over 50 years of conflict had convinced most Arab states that it was a permanent fixture they would have to come to terms with eventually. However in recent years, Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas have convinced many members of Middle Eastern elites, once again, that Israel’s destruction is achievable.

The Winograd Report was critical of Israel’s political and military decision makers primarily because their decisions failed to seize the opportunity last year to demonstrate, emphatically and incontrovertibly, that this is not the case.

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