x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Israel learns from 2006 Lebanon war

Israel avoids same mistakes by briefing cabinet, providing for civilian bomb shelters and announcing vague terms of victory.

Israeli soldiers prepare their tanks as they take position on the Israeli-Gaza Strip border yesterday.
Israeli soldiers prepare their tanks as they take position on the Israeli-Gaza Strip border yesterday.

TEL AVIV // A spectre hangs over Israel's massive military operation against the Islamic group Hamas in the Gaza Strip: its botched war in Lebanon in 2006. As Israel advances into the fifth day of one of its largest military campaigns in decades, the Jewish state is proceeding with the caution and preparation that it was widely criticised for lacking during the 34 days of fighting against Hizbollah in Lebanon more than two years ago. After that conflict, triggered by Hizbollah's abduction of two Israeli soldiers on Israel's northern border in July 2006, Israelis faulted the country's political and military leaders for rushing into an unwinnable battle within hours of the cross-border raid with no comprehensive plan and with overly ambitious goals. About 1,200 Lebanese and 170 Israelis were killed during what is known in Israel as the Second Lebanon War. A report by Eliyahu Winograd, a retired judge who had led a government inquiry panel in assessing the flawed 2006 conflict, declared that Israel's mismanagement of the war was "a serious missed opportunity" and laid much of the blame on the military. In the aftermath of the war, many Israelis demanded that the wartime leaders resign. Eventually, Amir Peretz and Dan Halutz quit as defence minister and army chief of staff, respectively, but Ehud Olmert hung on to the premiership until last September, when he resigned amid corruption scandals; he stays on as caretaker prime minister until February's national elections. More than two years later, Israeli officials say the country is better prepared for war. The orchestrators of the Gaza operation, the defence minister, Ehud Barak, and the army chief of staff, Gaby Ashkenazi, are viewed as more experienced than their predecessors who led the fighting in Lebanon. Mr Barak had been planning the operation for at least half a year - preparations that apparently started even as Israel was negotiating the six-month truce with Hamas that expired on Dec 19. According to Israeli media, the army carefully gathered intelligence mapping out details on Hamas and other Gaza factions such as their bases, training camps and leaders' homes. The long list it developed on which targets to strike enabled the air force to deal a massive blow to Hamas before Israel decides whether to embark on a risky ground invasion. Defence officials kept Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister, in the loop about the preparations and a week ago briefed other cabinet ministers in detail about the plans of action - things they were faulted for not doing ahead and during the Lebanon fighting. The approach of Mr Olmert to the Gaza strikes is emblematic of the lessons learnt by Israel. In an address on Saturday, just hours after Israel launched the campaign in a bid to halt rocket fire from Gaza on its southern communities, Mr Olmert simply said the mission aimed "to change the situation in the south part of the country" and made no other pledges. That contrasted with his speech after he ordered the attack against Hizbollah in 2006, when he was criticised for setting unrealistic conditions to end the fighting, including crushing Hizbollah and forcing the group to return the kidnapped soldiers - whose remains were brought home but only two years later. Israel has also made strides in taking better care of the civilians residing near the line of fire. During the Lebanon war, civilians in rocket-hit communities in the north often huddled in shelters that had no air circulation, running water or sewage facilities and lacked access for the disabled or elderly. Instead of the government, they relied on volunteer groups for food, shelter equipment and medication. Exasperated by the government's inability to provide decent shelters, thousands of northern Israelis fled south during the war to an all-expenses-paid tent city erected by a Russian-Jewish billionaire philanthropist. Now, the government is making amends in southern Israel. It has declared a state of emergency in all communities located within 30 kilometres of Gaza, assigned an army officer for each municipality to arrange emergency assistance for civilians and renovated bomb shelters. "We have implemented the conclusions from what happened on the home front during the Second Lebanon War," Mr Barak told parliament this week. "The embarrassing scenes of tent cities set up by philanthropists shall not return and the state will not cast off its responsibilities." However, experts warn that it is too early to judge whether Israel has learnt its lessons. Indeed, the 2006 conflict was initially as supported by the public as the Gaza operation is today, and Israelis' bitterness only poured out in its aftermath. Already, cracks are emerging in the unified stance of the leadership orchestrating the operation. According to Aluf Benn of the left-wing Haaretz newspaper, defence officials are "talking enthusiastically" about continuing the operation for three or four more weeks and preparing for a ground invasion. But that plan, the commentator wrote, is not being welcomed by Israeli diplomats, who want the country to end the conflict before international pressure forces it to do so. Such tensions are likely to escalate should Israel carry out a ground invasion, complicating the operation and posing a critical test for Mr Barak - who, more than anyone else, risks losing the public support he has gained since the attacks began. "Barak will need very strong nerves to know to stop the mission at the right time rather than be tempted to score another small achievement," Mr Benn wrote. vbekker@thenational.ae