By simply returning to their homes Lebanese civilians played a key role thwarting Israel’s plans in its most recent war in Lebanon. As the Associated Press reported on August 14, immediately upon the start of the UN sponsored cease fire tens of thousands of Lebanese families defied orders from Israeli commanders, took to the roads, and returned to their villages in southern Lebanon . Their courageous action stifled any hope the Israeli government may have had for accomplishing its grand vision for southern Lebanon with this war.
As the Los Angeles Times reported in an article, “Old Feud over Lebanese River Takes on New Turn,” August 10, 2006, three of Israel’s founding fathers, Chaim Weizmann, David Ben-Gurion, and Moshe Dayan, all favored occupying and annexing southern Lebanon up to the Litani River. Israel launched massive attacks on Lebanon in 1978, 1982, 1993, 1996, and now in 2006, each time ultimately failing.
Features of Israel’s most recent attack reveal a military plan similar to that used in the 1967 war to acquire the Golan Heights from Syria. The massive bombing of Hezbollah positions along the border was designed to weaken or destroy Hezbollah’s ability to resist Israel’s coming ground attack. The bombing of population centers and civilian infrastructure in this region was designed to frighten and drive out most of the civilian population that would support the guerrilla fighters. The mobilization of 30,000 reserve soldiers meant that Israel intended to invade and occupy the region south of the Litani with sufficient ground troops to drive out remaining civilians and isolate surviving Hezbollah guerrilla fighters from support and resupply. Then those ground troops would destroy all remaining isolated guerrillas, entirely clearing the land between Israel’s northern border and the Litani River. Finally, fully replicating Israel’s successful depopulation and repopulation of the Golan Heights, Jewish settlers would be brought in to secure Israeli control of the land and guard against return of Lebanese villagers so Israel could ultimately annex the region.
But Israeli bombing went much further than the region south of the Litani. Israel also intensely bombed residential apartment buildings, schools, power plants, bridges, roads, and hospitals in most other parts of Lebanon, including in densely populated Beirut.
The bombing of the civilians and the civilian infrastructure south of the Litani succeed in driving out 3/4 million people, nearly emptying that region. But Israel aroused world wide condemnation for the part of its bombing campaign that focused on civilians, particularly the seemingly gratuitous part of the bombing extending far beyond the border region that seemed way out of proportion. That civilian targeting could only be explained by an Israeli goal that was far more sinister then Israel’s stated goal of retrieving its captured soldiers or driving Hezbollah from Israel’s northern border region. The devastating bombing of houses, apartment buildings, power plants, fuel storage, roads, and bridges as far away as Beirut, and the killing of over one thousand civilians, was seen as intentionally directed toward civilians throughout Lebanon. Its purpose appears to have been to demonstrate such a level of ruthlessness as to discourage villagers from returning to their homes in southern Lebanon once the expected UN cease fire was finally imposed.
While the depopulation portion of its bombing in southern Lebanon succeeded, Israel found that its first two weeks of bombing did not dislodge Hezbollah rocket launchers or substantially weaken Hezbollah’s ability to resist the coming ground assault. Thus Israel was forced to delay the ground offensive while extending the bombing campaign. When Israel finally launched its big invasion on August 11, intensely negative worldwide public opinion had already forced the UN Security Council to impose a cease fire and only three days remained before that cease fire took effect. Despite the month of bombing Israel found that its tanks and infantry met fierce resistance from Hezbollah which inflicted heavy losses and kept most of the Israeli ground troops locked in a region close to the border. Only by airlifting troops with helicopters could Israel expand its presence to the region near the Litani River but not in a sufficient numbers and not with sufficient supplies and equipment to have any hope of both protecting themselves from guerrillas and guarding the river to stop returning civilians.
Perhaps it was the inspiring ability of Hezbollah to withstand the bombing and continue to resist. Perhaps tens of thousands of civilians just knew that if they hesitated after the cease fire, like the Palestinians, they would become long term refugees. Whatever the reason, despite the pulverizing bombardment for 33 days, amazingly the civilian population was not so shocked and awed that they were immobilized. By the tens of thousands a flood of Lebanese civilians boldly took to the roads in an enormous act of civil disobedience to the occupying Israeli troops.
Hezbollah’s well executed guerrilla strategy combined with the massive display of civilian courage crushed all hopes for Israel of getting any benefit at all from this war. The nearly solid Israeli support for the war shattered immediately after the cease fire began, and a powerful wave of criticism exploded, especially among returning soldiers, many of whom announced refusal to remain in the reserves. Extreme right wing factions called for resuming the war with even more devastating strategies for dealing with Lebanese civilians. For example, an editorial in the August 20 right wing Gamla newsletter states, “The IDF could have crushed the resistance within days. It is true that instead of 600-800 civilian deaths, there would have been much more. But when you have in your hands the very future of our people, you cannot think about how things will ‘look’ or what they will say to you in the mainstream media.”
Stopping the next war, whether it is again directed at Lebanon or whether it is directed against Syria or Iran, will require a sustained world wide campaign calling on Israel to immediately withdraw all its forces from Lebanon and abide by the cease fire. Whether the next war can be prevented depends on the ability of people all over the world to deny Israeli and US attempts to find pretext to destroy the cease fire and resume or expand the war. Because Israeli troops continue to occupy southern Lebanon and blockade its ports and because elite Israeli commandos continue military attacks in defiance of the cease fire resolution, Israel provides ample grounds for building this worldwide campaign. Lebanese civilians have already played a crucial role. Now its up to the rest of us.
JAMES MARC LEAS is a patent lawyer in South Burlington, Vermont. He is a member of the National Lawyers Guild and is a board member of the Refuser Solidarity Network. He has long been active with Jewish peace groups opposing the Israeli invasions of Lebanon and occupation of Palestine. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org