The following text is a late-draft version of the article that was published in Boston
Review, Nov.-Dec. 2006 under the title "The 33-Day War: Hizbullah’s victory, Israel’s
choice". This text contains the footnotes that were stripped out before publication.
Additional, small-scale editing changes were also made before publication. Only fair-use
or Creative-commons use of this or the BR-published version is permitted.
by Helena Cobban
The central tragedy of war that raged for 33 days this summer between Israel and Lebanon was the killing of more than 1,000 Lebanese civilians and 39 Israeli civilians, and the maiming of many hundreds more. Hizbullah killed 117 IDF soldiers. There is no credible reporting of the numbers of Hizbullah fighters killed, though the best estimate is somewhere between 150 and 170; the IDF
1also killed 43 Lebanese security force personnel. Considerable amounts of vital
natinal infrastructure were also destroyed, especially in Lebanon. The UN reported that during the war Israel destroyed 15,000 homes, 900 businesses, 77
2bridges, and 31 utility plants in Lebanon. (In Israel, the level of physical
destruction was far lower. the pro-Israeli blogger Michael Totten wrote on August 18, "I drove to Hezbollah‘s most targeted city of Kiryat Shmona to do a little post-
war analysis... I expected to see at least one destroyed house... I drove all over
3and couldn‘t find one. Katyusha rockets are pipsqueakers.")
All that destruction and suffering—and for what? Two men stood at the
center of the decisions that steered this confrontation: in Israel, Ehud Olmert, a relatively new Prime Minister who had never had national-security
responsibilities before, and in Lebanon, Hizbullah's secretary-general Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, a man who, though 15 years Olmert's junior, had spent
1 See the Daily Star/AFP "Timeline of the July War 2006", accessible at:
3 Michael J. Totten, "Terror War"; post of August 18, 2006, on Michael J. Totten's Middle East Journal. Accessed
August 29 at
almost his entire adulthood perfecting the art of waging asymmetrical warfare against Israel.
Neither of these protagonists is a person who craves violence for its own sake. (My study of Hizbullah and the political skills of Hassan Nasrallah, was published in the April/May 2005 issue of Boston Review. Olmert, for his part,
has a long and well-documented history in Israeli politics.) Each was directing the forces at his command in what he considered to be a rational, considered pursuit of strategic-political goals. A careful examination of the events of the war reveals that, at its core, it was "about" two central issues: It was about military deterrence, in that a central goal of each of the protagonists was (or became) to re-establish the credibility of its deterrent power against the other; and additionally, it was a struggle for dominance over the decisionmaking power of the government of Lebanon.
Both sides won the first contest. The ceasefire that went into effect August 14 has proved remarkably robust since that date. Given that no outside force has been in a position to "compel" compliance, that robustness must reflect the re-emergence of an effective system of mutual deterrence between Israel and Hizbullah.
In the second contest, however—the one for power over Beirut—
Nasrallah has so far emerged the clear winner. Indeed, not only did Olmert fail completely in his bid to to persuade Beirut to crack down on Hizbullah, but Hizbullah's political position inside Lebanon since the end of the war has been significantly stronger than it was before July 12—as evidenced by opinion polls
and by the massive turnout for the "victory rally" Hizbullah organized in Beirut, September 22. Indeed, the destructive power that the Israeli Air Force unleashed upon Lebanon and its infrastructure during the war itself contributed a lot to the strengthening of Hizbullah's political position.
This outcome should not be surprising. The history of "strategic, counter-value bombing" tells us that only rarely does it effect sweeping political change in its targeted society. My mother had two miscarriages in London during Hitler's 1940-41 Blitzkrieg against the city, and numerous other Londoners suffered far
worse. But neither the Blitz against London nor the Allied counter-Blitz against Dresden sapped the defiance of those cities' defenders. In Japan, the Allies' repeated fire-bombings of Tokyo were even more massively lethal, yet similarly unsuccessful at the political level. It was only the considerably more "shocking and awful" events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that finally "persuaded" the Emperor and his people to offer a speedy surrender.
In Israel, however, Olmert and his chief of staff, General Dan Halutz, believed that strategic bombing could turn Lebanon's government and the majority of its people against Hizbullah. Some reports indicate that he Halutz reached this conclusion after noting what he judged to be the US Air Force‘s success against Serbia in 1999, and in Afghanistan in 2001. Perhaps, too, Halutz over-valued airpower because of his lengthy experience in the air force, where he had been chief of the air staff before becoming the first air force officer appointed chief of the IDF's over-all staff. And a prime minister and defense minister little versed in strategic leadership seemed to have been easily swayed by the advice they received from their brainy-sounding senior military officer.
But whatever the reasoning behind Olmert's decision to launch a very broad war against Lebanon, it ended up serving him very ill. He did succeed, to some extent, in re-establishing the credibility of Israel's deterrent power against Hizbullah – though he showed, too, that Israel was also deterrable. He failed to bend the Lebanese government to his will. He failed to secure the unconditional release of the two soldiers whose capture by Hizbullah had triggered the whole war. And in the weeks since the war, while Nasrallah and his party have been riding high in Lebanon, Olmert and his government have been in a serious political slump; controversy over the various tactical and strategic debacles of the war has paralyzed much of the IDF general staff; and Olmert's primary political project of undertaking a limited unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank lies in tatters.
How did things all go so horribly wrong for Olmert? To understand this, we need to go back and trace some of the key events and decisions of that
fateful day, July 12, then sketch what each of the two protagonists was doing over the 33 days that followed.
At around 9 a.m. on July 12, Hizbullah launched two simultaneous operations across Lebanon's border with Israel. One was the infiltration into Israel of a small squad that captured two IDF soldiers from a jeep-borne border patrol unit, killing three patrol members and wounding two more. Hizbullah's goal in capturing the soldiers was to use them as "bargaining chips" in an exchange for the remaining Lebanese prisoners held by Israeli. Similar prisoner exchanges had been conducted a number of times in recent years. In Gaza, militants from the fringe "Popular Resistance Committees" had captured another IDF soldier on June 25, with the same goal; and he was still held captive.
Hizbullah's second attack—undertaken as a diversion from the first—was
the launching of several rockets from Lebanon towards IDF positions in two other Israeli sectors of the border. The diversion worked. It took the local IDF commanders half an hour even to learn about the ambush of the jeeps. Once they did, they sent a force of tanks and armored personnel carriers into Lebanon in pursuit of the group that was presumably holding the abducted soldiers. Around 11 a.m. one of these tanks hit a land-mine that destroyed it almost completely, killing its four crew members. It took the IDF many more hours—and
one more soldier's life—to recover the damaged tank and the bodies of the crew
Throughout the day Israeli air and naval forces bombed bridges and other choke points along the routes to the north that they thought the abductors might take. And at some point that day, too, the Olmert government took the more momentous decision to unleash a much broader bombing campaign against Lebanon. That evening Olmert publicly declared that the cross-border raid was "not a terror attack, but an operation of a sovereign state without any reason or
4 Info from UNIFIL report S/2006/560, accessed at:
provocation... The Lebanese government, which Hezbollah is part of, is trying to undermine the stability of the region, and the Lebanese government will be
5responsible for the consequences."
This was a crucial declaration. Olmert‘s language — ―not a terror attack‖
— distanced Israel's actions from Washington's broader "war on terror" and invoked classic rules of war. (Later, much of his discourse would shift back toward that of the global "war on terror.‖) And, crucially for the people and government of Lebanon, Olmert was declaring full-scale war against their country, even though its US-backed prime minister, Fouad Siniora, had gone to pains to dissociate his government from Hizbullah's action.
That same day Israel's military leaders spelled out what this decision meant to them. Maj. Gen. Udi Adam, the head of the IDF's Northern Command, said, "Once it is inside Lebanon, everything is legitimate -- not just southern Lebanon, not just the line of Hezbollah posts." And Halutz told Israel's Channel
610, "If the soldiers are not returned, we will turn Lebanon's clock back 20 years."
On July 13 Israel bombed Beirut's Rafiq Hariri International Airport, Lebanese air force bases in the Beqaa Valley and northern Lebanon, and other targets throughout the country, killing 44 civilians. (Two Israelis were killed by Hizbullah rockets that day.) On July 14, the IDF bombed Hassan Nasrallah's home in south Beirut and many civilian targets around the country. On July 14, too, Olmert spelled out three concrete demands of the Beirut government: the unconditional return of the abducted soldiers, the cessation of Hizbullah's rocket attacks, and the full implementation of Security Council resolution 1559, which
7calls for the disarming of Hizbullah. In response to Siniora's increasingly
anguished pleas for a ceasefire, Olmert insisted that Israel would only agree to a ceasefire if all three demands were met. Winning Beirut's commitment to an active effort to disarm Hizbullah was clearly a central aim of Olmert's war
5 CNN report on July 12, 2006, titled "Israel authorizes 'severe' reponse to abductions"; accessed August 29 at < http://www.cnn.com/2006/WORLD/meast/07/12/mideast>. 6 These quotes from CNN report on July 12, 2006, titled "Israel authorizes 'severe' reponse to abductions"; accessed August 29 at < http://www.cnn.com/2006/WORLD/meast/07/12/mideast>.
7 See "Israel hits Hezbollah leader's HQ" on the BBC News website, July 14, 2006; accessible at
But there was another. Many influential members of the Israeli political right had been arguing for some years that Israel needed to "re-establish the credibility" of Israeli military deterrence, not only with Hizbullah but throughout the region. They argued that this deterrent capability had been badly damaged by the Barak government's unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, and Sharon's decision to pull troops and settlers out of Gaza unilaterally in 2005. On and after July 12, these individuals vociferously advocated the decisive destruction of Hizbullah's military capacity in Lebanon through an "exemplary" campaign that would teach all potential foes, everywhere, that they should not even consider messing with Israel. The Olmert government apparently embraced this broader goal. Certainly, by the time the American strategic analyst Anthony Cordesman visited Israel later in the war, "restoring the credibility of Israeli deterrence" was one of the five war goals he heard enunciated by an unnamed
This deterrence-restoration goal was described quite clearly by Nadav Morag, a former security aide to Ariel Sharon, when he wrote in The Christian
Science Monitor on July 20: "the targeting of roads and bridges, power plants, and, in the case of Lebanon, ports and airports, as well as the cutting off of Gaza and Lebanon from the outside world, is ... designed to illustrate Israel's overwhelming military might. It must convince not only Hizbullah and the Palestinian groups that they should abandon their attacks on Israel, but also send a broader regional message that proxy wars against Israel executed by
9Iran and Syria will no longer be tolerated."
Morag also stressed that Israel needed time if the Hizbullah-suppression goal and the broader deterrence-restoration project were to succeed. "Keeping the international community at bay," he argued, was crucial. That role was eagerly taken on by the Bush administration: Bush, Condoleezza Rice, and other administration officials argued for three long weeks after July 12 that it would not
8 See Anthony H. Cordesman, Preliminary Lessons of Israeli-Hezbollah War, working draft of August 17, 2006
(Washington DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies), p. 3; accessed August 30 at
accessed August 29 at <http://www.csmonitor.com/2006/0720/p09s01-coop.html >.
be "helpful" or "appropriate" to seek an immediate ceasefire. On July 20, another former Sharon security aide (and former Mossad director) Efraim Halevy told an interviewer that he judged that, "We'll have at least another eight days of
With the Bush administration (and Tony Blair) blocking Security Council calls for an immediate ceasefire, the bombing and destruction continued inside Lebanon, massively. They continued inside Israel, as well, since the IDF was never able to suppress Hizbullah's rocketeers.
Hizbullah's continued to rain around a hundred rockets a day onto Israel's northern borderlands, and as far south as Haifa—except, notably, during a 48-
hour humanitarian ceasefire that Kofi Annan called for at the end of July. This seemingly unstoppable bombardment had significant political effects. First and foremost, it greatly angered Jewish Israelis, and thus gave the government much stronger popular support for the war than it would otherwise have enjoyed. For many Israelis of all age-groups, their country's lengthy earlier military interventions in Lebanon had previously been viewed more or less as their ―Vietnam". In 1982 and again in late 1990s, large, Lebanon-related peace
movements had a significant effect on public attitudes and government policy: it was the latter peace movement that persuaded Barak to undertake the final (unilateral) pullout from Lebanon in 2000.
In July 2006, however, few Jewish Israelis opposed Olmert's war. From July 12 through early August, the veteran "Peace Now" movement remained noticeably split, with many of its leaders and supporters—including such
luminaries as the novelists Amos Oz and David Grossmann—expressing
11continued support for the war. As for the mainstream Labor Party, it had been
coopted into the government since Olmert first formed it in early May. Labor leader Amir Peretz—Olmert‘s defense minister, despite his lack of experience in
10 "Israel's response is proportional to Hizballah's challenge - an interview with Efraim Halevy", in Bitterlemons International, Edition 27, vol. 4, July 20, 2006; accessible at:
national-security decisionmaking—fatally closed the political and operational
loops in favor of the war.
In addition to having this "Blitz effect" on the Jewish Israeli public, Hizbullah's continued rocketing of northern Israel gave Olmert an ongoing casus
belli with some validity. It can be seen as having prolonged the war—though
from the war's early days Nasrallah was also calling loudly for a rapid, reciprocal, and unconditional ceasefire. Why, then, had he ordered that first provocative raid against Israel on July 12, and why did he continue rocketing Israel even after it was evident that that these continuing attacks were prolonging the war and the suffering of Lebanese people?
[join this?] On August 27, in a lengthy interview with Mariam al-Bassam, the (female) political editor of Lebanon's liberal "New TV" station, Nasrallah answered the first of those questions. He denied that the abduction the IDF soldiers had been particularly provocative, saying-- with some validity-- that Hizbullah had launched even larger-scale operations against Israel in the period since the Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon in 2000; those operations, however, had not sparked anything like the furious response of July 12. (It is also worth noting, though Nasrallah saw no need to raise the issue for his mainly Lebanese audience, that UNIFIL records show that Israel had violated the recognized border between the two countries many hundreds of times since
122000.) He said that it was only in the days after July 12 that Hizbullah came to understand that the Israelis had been preparing to launch—with substantial help
from the Bush administration and with or without any pretext from Hizbullah—a
massive "knockout blow" against Hizbullah in late September or late October. It was that attack that Olmert launched on July 12. Nasrallah stressed that prior to July 12 Hizbullah's 15-person leadership "did not see any risk, even one chance in a hundred, that the abduction operation would lead to a war on this scale."
12 Some of these violations were listed in George Monbuit, "Israel was provoked by Hezbollah, right? Wrong" in Mail & Guardian Online, August 8, 2006; accessed at
In the event, he said, it had proven very lucky for Hizbullah that Olmert acted as he didon July 12, since by doing that he significantly reduced the degree of strategic surprise it might otherwise have enjoyed, and forced the IDF
13to fight the big war before the preparations for it had been completed. There is
indeed some evidence that the campaign was undertaken much too hastily. Yoram Peri, a seasoned analyst of Israeli strategic decision-making, has written that, "This military option was discussed in the cabinet for less than three hours, was not countered by any diplomatic option and was approved in a conceptual void. Moreover, once a path of action was adopted, something went terribly
14wrong in making and implementing decisions."
Bassam did not press Nasrallah on why, once the massive counter attack had started, Hizbullah continued launching almost-daily barrages of rockets into Israel. But in numerous public utterances during the war Nasrallah explained that Hizbullah would continue to send rockets against centers of civilian population inside Israel so long as Israel did so against civilian areas in Lebanon. He therefore seemed as anxious as Olmert to re-establish the credibility of the deterrent power his forces had enjoyed prior to July 12. In addition, the war gave Hizbullah's military wing a chance to demonstrate the continued existence, discipline, and effectiveness of its command structure. On July 31 and August 1, after UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for a 48-hour "humanitarian ceasefire" in response to the IDF's July 30 killing of 28 civilians in Qana, the Hizbullah rockets stopped nearly. But after that 48-hour period, they resumed; and they continued until the the August 14 ceasefire went into effect. When it did, the rockets stopped completely, and none have been launched against Israel since then.
13 This is my precis of the relevant portions of Nasrallah's August 27 television interview, as transcribed in Arabic in
"Nasrallah: No second round of the war", in As-Safir (Beirut), August 28, 2006; accessible at
Time—and in particular, the the timing of the ceasefire—was an important
dimension of the whole war. At first the Lebanese government was the party most eager for a ceasefire. Hizbullah wanted one, too—provided it was
unconditional. And Israel and the US were working hard to block that possibility. Over time, however, the Israelis' calculus changed. Olmert and Halutz came to understand that Israeli airpower and other standoff weapons could do nothing on their own to suppress Hizbullah's rockets. (Hizbullah's anti-ship missiles kept the Israeli navy much further away from the Lebanese coast than during previous big battles there.) It became increasingly to the Israeli leaders that Hizbullah‘s firing
positions throughout south Lebanon could only be "cleared" by IDF ground troops. Yehuda Ben Meir has written that "even by the end of the first week of fighting it became clear that ... deploying ground troops to southern Lebanon
15was inevitable." That had not been part of Halutz's plan, nor was it something that Olmert or anybody else in the political echelon was keen to do given the troubled history and tragic memories of earlier ground deployments in Lebanon.
However, the IDF's top commanders also understood well by that time that their ground troops very ill prepared to undertake successful offensive operations in Lebanon. As early as July 13, a unit of the Maglans, described as "one of the finest units in the IDF," had tried to enter the village of Maroun al-Ras, one kilometer north of the border. But as Uzi Mahnaimi wrote, they ran into serious trouble:
'We didn‘t know what hit us,' said one of the soldiers, who asked to be
named only as Gad. 'In seconds we had two dead... Evidently they had
never heard that an Arab soldier is supposed to run away after a short
engagement with the Israelis... We expected a tent and three
Kalashnikovs — that was the intelligence we were given. Instead, we
15 Yehuda Ben Meir, "Israeli government policy and the war's objectives", in Strategic Assessmen, vol.9, no.2,
August 2006; accessible at