What Was Hezbollah’s Strategy in 2006?

What was the strategy employed by Hezbollah in 2006 that justified indiscriminate bombing by Israel?

After the brutal 34 day war in 2006 between Hezbollah and Israel that resulted in over 1,200 dead Lebanese and 160 dead Israelis, many Israelis and Israeli supporters were outraged because international condemnation focused on the indiscrimination of the Israeli military attacks.  Israel countered with the claims that Hezbollah should be condemned for war crimes for operating from civilian areas (thus endangering civilian lives) and for shooting rockets into civilian towns in northern Israel.

Hezbollah undeniably shot rockets into civilian populated centers (justifying its actions as a response to Israeli indiscrimination), but the claims of hiding in civilian areas and using civilian human shields were much more dubious:

In fact, of the 24 incidents they document, [Human Rights Watch] researchers could find no evidence that Hizbullah was operating in or near the areas that were attacked by the Israeli air force. Roth states: “The image that Israel has promoted of such [human] shielding as the cause of so high a civilian death toll is wrong. In the many cases of civilian deaths examined by Human Rights Watch, the location of Hezbollah troops and arms had nothing to do with the deaths because there was no Hezbollah around.”

The impression that Hizbullah is using civilians as human shields has been reinforced, according to HRW, by official Israeli statements that have “blurred the distinction between civilians and combatants, arguing that only people associated with Hezbollah remain in southern Lebanon, so all are legitimate targets of attack.”

The claim that Hezbollah was operating from civilian centers was the main justification for the so-called Dahiye Doctrine – the doctrine of indiscriminate and disproportionate force used by Israel in 2006 and 2008/9 (in Gaza).  Proponents say that the tactics in the doctrine are required to effectively fight an asymmetric war, while opponents call the doctrine institutionalized war crimes that intentionally target civilians.  Until now, Israel has continued to defend its use of disproportionate military response under the argument that Hezbollah and Hamas operated out of civilian centers, thus those centers were open to attack.

Yesterday, the AP published an article that seemed to be an attempt to preemptively justify the employment of the Dahiye Doctrine in the next war.  Without visiting southern Lebanon to verify Israeli claims, reporter Matti Friedman details how Hezbollah is re-militarizing the buffer-zone between Israel and Lebanon in violation of UN Resolution 1701.  Friedman reports that Israeli intelligence (gathered by illegal Israeli surveillance flights in Lebanese territory) claims that Hezbollah is creating arms depots and command centers in villages as well as using a building for handicapped children as a ‘look out post.’

Nicolas Noe highlights the importance Friedman’s failure to verify Israeli claims; while it is possible that such moves are occurring (right under the nose of the 17,000 strong UNIFIL force), Friedman does not actually back up the Israeli claims with evidence.

[tweetmeme] The article highlights two important facts in Lebanese-Israeli relations.  First, as Noe points out, the article is arguing that, in contradiction to 2006, Hezbollah is moving from the forests into villages.  This, of course, completely contradicts Israeli claims that Hezbollah was fighting from villages in 2006, thus undermining Israel’s justification for the Dehiye Doctrine:

Israel’s military says Hezbollah has changed strategy since the last war, moving most of its fighters and weapons from wooded rural areas into villages. It says the aim is to avoid detection and use to civilians for cover if war erupts.

This is precisely the same argument as in 2006, so how can it be a change in tactics?  Either Hezbollah operated from civilian centers in 2006 or they did not.

The second important note comes from this passage buried at the end of the AP article:

UNIFIL, the international peacekeeping force, “has not found any evidence of new military infrastructure in its area of operations,” said spokesman Neeraj Singh. “Only on a few occasions, UNIFIL found armed elements in the area with personal weapons like AK-47s.”

While saying UNIFIL had made “significant progress” in helping the Lebanese army secure the south, he acknowledged that the peacekeepers are barred from searching private property, where the Israelis say much of the evidence of the guerrillas’ presence would be found…

UNIFIL’s performance has implications beyond south Lebanon. If the Israelis turn out to be right about the Hezbollah buildup, it will undermine their trust in international forces to police other volatile areas, such as Gaza and the West Bank, under a peace treaty. [My emphasis]

While the reputation of the UNIFIL forces in Lebanon has taken a hit over the years, the complete failure of the force to detect what sounds like a significant Hezbollah build-up in southern Lebanon (if the report is indeed true) would compromise the integrity of UN forces around the world as well as the willingness of states to accept their presence.

This is particularly important in Palestine.  Mahmoud Abbas has already called for the presence of international (presumably UN) forces in the future Palestinian state.  Benyamin Netanyahu, on the other hand, has been reluctant to leave Israel’s security to the UN – though he has been open to a European force.  If UNIFIL actually failed to detect such brash activity by Hezbollah, the international community might be more sympathetic if Israel refuses to accept international peace keepers in any future peace deal.

The AP article is interesting considering the recent border clash between Israel and Lebanon – a fight in which Hezbollah refused to participate.  While it does reinforce the Israeli claims that a Dahiye-like approach to fighting Hezbollah is necessary, it does so by contradicting its justifications for Israeli brutality in 2006.

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