Stay out of the Lebanese quagmire
The IDF must do everything possible to avoid the modus operandi it used during its protracted stay in Lebanon after the 1982 Lebanon War.
After a brief hiatus, Hezbollah has resumed firing rockets at northern Israel. It is trying to fire as many rockets as possible, and this week, it set a one-day record of 200 rockets. Hezbollah is primarily using short-range rockets - 122-millimeter Katyushas. Its inventory of medium- and long-range rockets has been drastically reduced, because Israel Air Force operations have knocked out many of them.
The present situation emphasizes the IAF's limited capacity for dealing with small rockets, which are tiny targets. It is just as difficult to rid southern Lebanon of small rockets as it is to stop the firing of Qassam rockets from the Gaza Strip. Judging from the data on the extent of Hezbollah's arsenal of short-range rockets, it can continue its war of attrition for another three months.
The above facts underline the gravity of the error Israel made in not immediately launching, alongside the aerial attacks, an extensive, multipronged ground campaign - obviously, including air support - in southern Lebanon, where the short-range rockets are positioned. From the start, Israel's deployment of its armed forces has been problematic. Apparently, the Israel Defense Forces' immense firepower is not being fully activated.
Now, everyone is seeking explanations - or excuses - for this state of affairs. The Prime Minister's Office says that the IDF never suggested extensive ground operations alongside the aerial attacks. One of the IDF's original objectives was to clear a one- to two-kilometer strip of territory north of Israel's border and prevent Hezbollah's return to that area. The idea was that, since its forces would not remain in Lebanon, Israel would thwart Hezbollah's attempts to return to the border by firing from within Israeli territory.
Now a decision has been made to widen the strip to six kilometers, and Israel's military operations seek to achieve that objective. Although important, this objective cannot offer an effective response to the network of short-range missiles in southern Lebanon.
In a recent cabinet debate on the ground operations, only one minister favored an extensive, immediate, multipronged ground campaign in southern Lebanon: National Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who once held the defense portfolio. Justice Minister Haim Ramon backed him to an extent, proposing a multiphased ground campaign: Initially, ground operations would be confined to a strip close to the border, and only afterward would a decision be made on whether to expand them. Apparently, the basic assumption here is that the IDF still has plenty of time to achieve its operational goals. This line of thinking, along with the cabinet's decisions, has allowed Hezbollah to fire its rockets freely from southern Lebanon. And that is precisely what is happening today.
Let us assume that the government will instruct the IDF to embark on a new phase and seize extensive territory in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah would then move some of its rockets further back, and their range vis-a-vis Israeli targets would be shortened. According to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Israel intends to hold the parts of southern Lebanon that it captures until their transfer to a new international peacekeeping force. Two central questions must be asked: When can this force become operative, and what sort of mandate will it be given? Hezbollah has already taken this option into consideration, and plans guerrilla warfare in southern Lebanon to inflict losses on the IDF and to be able to claim that it is again fighting to banish Israeli occupation forces from Lebanese soil.
The IDF must therefore do everything possible to avoid the modus operandi it used during its protracted stay in Lebanon after the 1982 Lebanon War. Israel must not remain in southern Lebanon. It must not base its operations and deployment there on supply convoys, or on transporting soldiers for furloughs in Israel and then back to their bases in Lebanon, or even on permanent military bases in Lebanon, even if they are fortified. These are convenient targets for guerrilla fighters, and this is the kind of situation that Hezbollah anticipates.
A problem will arise if no international peacekeeping force can be found to which the IDF can hand over the territory that it now occupies in southern Lebanon. In such a scenario, Israel will be faced with a dilemma: Stay in southern Lebanon, or withdraw, even if Hezbollah returns to set up bases there? If confronted with this question, Israel must choose withdrawal - in order to avoid again finding itself waist-deep in the Lebanese quagmire.