Palestinian Violence and the Second Lebanon War
Hamas’s election victory led to growing violence. The Palestinians took advantage of the end of the Israeli occupation in Gaza to launch daily rocket barrages on Israeli towns near the border. On June 25, Palestinians tunneled under the international border between Israel and Gaza, attacked an Israeli patrol, killed two soldiers, and kidnapped a third one, Gilad Shalit. Israel responded by attacking a series of terrorist and infrastructure targets in the Gaza Strip, but the kidnapped Israeli soldier remained in captivity somewhere in Palestinian territory.
Shortly after Hamas’s capture of Shalit, Hizballah opened a second front on Israel’s northern border. Hizballah, a terrorist organization trained, financed, and armed by Iran and Syria and with seats in the Lebanese government, had built up an enormous rocket capability after Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon to the recognized international border (the Blue line) in May 2000.
On July 12, 2006, Hizballah fighters crossed the Blue line into Israel, attacked Israeli soldiers, killed eight of them, and kidnapped two others—Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev—who were taken into Lebanon. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called this an “act of war,” and Israel launched a massive air campaign in response, bombing Hizballah strongholds in southern Lebanon.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) responded with Operation change of Direction. To prevent the supply of arms from Syria and Iran to Hizballah, Israel also launched air attacks against Beirut’s airport and major land routes, while a naval blockade prevented shipping from entering or leaving Lebanese ports. Israel attacked Hizballah targets—including weapons storehouses and missile launching points—across the country. Thousands of foreign nationals eventually had to be evacuated from the war zone.
Meanwhile, Hizballah attacked Israel with Katyusha rockets fired on northern Israeli cities, towns, and villages, including Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city and a major port. Israel called up reservists, and a ground incursion by the IDF led to the taking of villages and towns in lebanon south of the litani river. Israeli forces met fierce resistance from Hizballah fighters entrenched in underground bunkers, tunnels, and caves who were armed with sophisticated antitank and other weapons that appeared to have been supplied by Iran and Syria.
The Israeli war effort was aimed at restoring Israel’s deterrent power, removing the Hizballah rocket threat, and creating conditions for the return of the abducted soldiers.The initial air strikes were successful: On the night of July 12, the Israeli air force destroyed most of Hizballah’s Iranian-made Zilzal long-range rockets, which were believed to be capable of hitting Tel Aviv.
Over the next few days, the air force reduced Hizballah’s Beirut headquarters to rubble, destroyed weapons stores, and killed dozens of elite Hizballah fighters. However, it soon became apparent that incessant Hizballah rocket fire from mobile launchers, such as Katyushas, could only be stopped by a large-scale ground operation. This did not materialize until the last days of the war and Hizballah was able to continue firing more than 100 rockets a day at Israeli civilians in northern Israel and to claim victory on the grounds that Israel had been unable to stop the Katyushas from being launched.
The fighting lasted for 34 days until UN Security council resolution 1701 achieved a cease-fire on August 14, 2006, and an agreement for a “robust” version of UNIFIl (United Nations Interim Force in lebanon), with a larger number of troops and new and different multinational components drawn from a variety of countries (primarily European), to be installed in southern lebanon, essentially between the litani river and the Blue line, to prevent Hizballah from reestablishing itself there and using the area to attack Israel. The resolution also called for an embargo on arms to be imposed on Hizballah, for its forces to be removed from southern lebanon, and for the area to be patrolled by the lebanese army. Israel’s army completed its withdrawal from lebanon on October 1, 2006.
Estimates of the number of lebanese killed varied from about 850 to 1,200. The number of Israelis killed was put at 43 civilians and 117 soldiers between July 12 and August 14, with 4,262 civilians wounded. Others were killed after the cease-fire. UN officials estimated that 1 million lebanese and 300,000 Israelis had been displaced by the fighting. More than 1 million Israelis were forced to live in shelters as some 4,000 rockets landed on Israel, of which more than 900 hit communities in more than 160 Israeli cities, towns, villages, kibbutzim, and moshavim.The Second lebanon War had both positive and negative aspects.
The deployment to southern lebanon of a stronger UNIFIl, with new and different multinational components drawn from a variety of countries, was a positive feature of the outcome of hostilities. At the same time, the lebanese Armed Forces deployed in southern lebanon for the first time in decades. Militarily, Israel dealt Hizballah a severe blow—Hizballah lost its control of and position on the lebanon-Israel border, its weapons systems were destroyed and degraded, it lost much of its arsenal of long-range missiles, and it suffered serious casualties, both killed and wounded.
But, at the same time, Hizballah survived (as did Hassan Nasrallah, Hizballah’s secretary-general) and could sustain what it termed “its resistance” against Israel. Perhaps most significant was that the war ended inconclusively after more than a month of fighting and at the end Hizballah was still able to fire more than 100 rockets a day against Israeli civilian targets. Subsequently, it restored much of its arsenal of weapons.
The war also identified the links between Hizballah, Syria, and Iran. It reminded the international (and especially the Arab and broader Middle Eastern) community of the destabilizing nature of Iran as reflected in its current leadership. clearly Iran provided missiles and other munitions to Hizballah, and many saw it as the guiding hand in providing other armaments, as well as training and other support for Hizballah’s mission.
Within several months of the end of hostilities, the Israel-lebanon frontier was quiet with a reasonable prospect that it might remain that way for some time despite bellicose statements from Hizballah. But the issues that triggered the conflict were not resolved. The kidnapping of Israeli soldiers by Hamas and Hizballah and Iran’s growing effort to become a major regional player continued to loom large. Militants in the Gaza Strip seemed eager to emulate what Hizballah did on Israel’s northern border. They smuggled weapons, built tunnels, and continued firing rockets at Israel.
The Altered Political Environment
Instead of an anticipated brief postelection “honeymoon,” Israel’s new prime minister was faced with a war, followed by a changed perception of the region and of appropriate policies to pursue. rather than concentrating his efforts on fulfilling his campaign pledge to move ahead with further unilateral withdrawals in the absence of a Palestinian peace partner, Olmert was now forced into the defensive posture of explaining the “failures” of the summer, consolidating his hold on power, and searching for an alternative to a now-discredited unilateral withdrawal scheme that could be applied to the West Bank.
In fall 2006 he removed the idea of further unilateral withdrawal from the public agenda. His rationale was that the 2000 Israel withdrawal to the international border from lebanon and the 2005 withdrawal to the international border from Gaza did not prevent Hamas and Hizballah from attacking Israel in 2006.As with previous wars that ended without clear success for Israel, the war altered the political environment.
When the war ended, the kidnapped Israeli soldiers remained in their captors’ hands and the image of Israel as an overwhelmingly successful military power seemed diminished. This led to protests and demonstrations, calls for commissions to evaluate the handling of the conflict, and for an evaluation of the IDF and of Israel’s political leadership. Some called for changes in the government; others for changes at the senior levels of the IDF.
The Olmert government came under harsh criticism for its handling of the conflict and the related diplomacy. Military analysts and exgenerals were highly critical of the failure to order an early large-scale attack, and reservists returning from the front complained of confused orders, a lack of confidence in their superiors, and shortages of food, water, and equipment. critics of the government cited the lack of military experience of both Prime Minister Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz, the leader of the labor Party.
Pressure mounted on Olmert to set up a formal, independent state commission of inquiry with the power to subpoena witnesses, impound evidence, and recommend the dismissal of political and military leaders. In mid-September, the Winograd commission convened to set the parameters for its investigation into the war in lebanon. The commission was appointed by Olmert and established by a cabinet vote. The inquiry itself came under challenge because it was not an official and independent state inquiry. Discontent and concern lingered into the winter.