Ted Thornton
History of the Middle East Database
War: Israel-Gaza-Lebanon
Summer, 2006
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The Arab-Israeli Wars
Roots
1948
1956
1967
1973

Palestinian Intifadas:  1987, 2000

War: Summer, 2006

The kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit on June 25, 2006 by HAMAS commandos who tunneled into Israel from Gaza injected fresh tensions into the relations between Israelis and Palestinians which had been steadily worsening since Israel pulled out of Gaza in the summer of 2005 (some 600-800 Qassam rockets had been fired from Gaza into Israel) and especially since HAMAS swept the Palestinian elections the previous January. By mid July, the trouble had spread to the border regions between Israel and Lebanon and it was clear that Arab Syria and non-Arab Iran were also playing key roles. Once again (as had been the case during Lebanon's recent civil war), it seemed that Lebanon had become a battleground where proxies of regional powers were contending with Israel, a proxy of the United States. Indeed, some wondered if Lebanon's civil war had really ended in 1990 after all (see Max Rodenbeck). Israel's failure to destroy Hizbullah left its reputation for invincibility in doubt for the first time since the 1967 war. All told, it began to look like the old order in the Middle East was undergoing another sea change.

After Corporal Shalit's capture, Israeli troops and tanks massed along the border with southern Gaza, and, on June 28th, Israel launched air strikes on bridges and the main power plant aimed at preventing the kidnappers from moving around but at the same time heightening the humanitarian suffering of Gazans.  Israeli jets also "buzzed" areas in Syria, including the summer presidential residence in Latakia. Syria was a state with a long history of sheltering militant Palestinian groups.

Shalit's kidnapping revealed a serious internal rupture inside HAMAS that had spawned a power struggle: between more militant factions in Gaza and Damascus (Khaled Meshal was the leader of the Damascus branch) on the one hand and the political leadership within the PNA (Palestine National Authority) on the other. Prime Minister and HAMAS member Ismail Haniya had just forged an agreement with President and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas (“Abu Mazen”) calling for a two state solution thus giving implicit recognition of Israel's existence by HAMAS’ governing wing.  This was too much for the militants to swallow and it may have led to the decision to kidnap the soldier and force the struggle with Haniya’s wing into the open.  Haniya was regarded as badly weakened by the financial and humanitarian crisis his election created. In addition, some speculated that a new Palestinian group allied with al-Qaeda, "Army of Islam," the first purely Islamic (as opposed to nationalistic) resistance movement in the Arab-Israeli conflict, may have also played a role in the kidnapping operation. Their motive may have been to embarrass and split HAMAS and other Palestinian factions, provoke an Israeli invasion, and destroy any chance of negotiations (see New York Times, July 8, 2006).

Israeli operations in Gaza intensified steadily over the following week, provoked in part at least by Palestinian Qassam rockets which began to target the Israeli city of Ashkelon. To the aim of freeing Corporal Shalit, Israel added the goal of stopping rocket attacks by creating a buffer zone in northern Gaza. The EU, Israel's chief trading partner, criticized what it called a "disproportionate" use of force on Israel's part.

On July 12, the conflict spilled over into Lebanon after Lebanon-based Hizbullah militants fired Katyusha rockets into Israel and then launched a raid across the border from the Lebanese village of Ayt al-Shaab into Israel capturing two Israeli soldiers. Hizbullah had a history of launching attacks against Israel in support of Palestinians and shared many of the same aims as HAMAS (in spite of sectarian differences: Hizbullah was a Lebanese Arab Shiite group backed by non-Arab, Shiite Iran). Hizbullah had provided training for HAMAS commandos.

Israel described Hizbullah's attack as an "act of war" and threatened to retaliate against Lebanon, Syria, and Iran all of whom provided support to Hizbullah. However, there was considerable speculation that Hizbullah had miscalculated the level of Israel's response, expecting some token retaliation which would then quickly lead to negotiations and a prisoner swap, as had occurred in 2004 (Nasrallah himself confirmed that this had indeed been the case in an interview with Lebanese NTV television on August 27, as reported in the Jerusalem Post).

Israel launched artillery attacks against Hizbullah positions in Lebanon and Israeli ground troops entered southern Lebanon for the first time since Israel pulled out of Lebanon in May of 2000 (see other Israeli invasions of Lebanon: 1978, 1982, see also attack on Beirut airport in 1968). Israeli gunboats shelled targets along the southern Lebanese coast. Israel carried out air strikes against Hizbullah strongholds and Palestinian commando bases south of Beirut and bombed runways at Beirut International Airport (and, the following night, a fuel dump) forcing its closure. Israel suspected Hizbullah was using the airport to import arms from Iran via Syria noting pointedly that UN Security Council Resolutions 1559 and 1680 had called for Hizbullah and all other militias in Lebanon to disarm. Israel imposed an air and sea blockade on Lebanon (which was lifted in early September) and bombed Hizbullah targets in the Bekaa Valley and the southern suburbs of Beirut (both Hizbullah strongholds), a power plant in Beirut, and the Beirut-Damascus road.

On July 13, Hizbullah launched rockets against Israel penetrating as far as Safed and Haifa (this was the first time an Arab force had hit Haifa since the war of 1948). In Gaza, Israel bombed the Palestinian Foreign Ministry. The following week, Israel extended its range of operations northward inside Lebanon and Hizbullah began launching attacks deeper inside Israel, firing rockets as far south as Nazareth and Tiberias.

Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah urged Israel to negotiate prisoner exchanges as a way to halt the conflict. Hizbullah named three Lebanese prisoners it wanted released (Israel was said to be holding 9,000 Palestinian prisoners at the time).

There were signs that, at a time when United States influence in the Middle East was at an all time low (with that country bogged down in Iraq, with its refusal to talk with Hizbullah or HAMAS, with the widespread perception that the it was biased in favor of Israeli interests) and when Israel was being led by a new, untested Prime Minister (Ehud Olmert who had no military leadership experience), Hizbullah and HAMAS had decided to flex their muscles. Both groups, prompted by Iran, which had ambitions of increasing its influence in the region (see, for example), had planned the initial kidnapping of an Israeli soldier as a means of provoking the conflict with Israel, an ominous development, in the opinion of Hisham Melhem, Washington Bureau Chief for Lebanon's daily an-Nahar. Melhem was troubled by the ease with which "non-state actors" like HAMAS and Hizbullah had become capable of steering regional events (BBC interview, July 13, 2006). Richard N. Haass saw this as a sign that the American era in the Middle East had come to an end (see).

Israel said its attacks were its way of holding the Lebanese government responsible for the behavior of Hizbullah in spite of the fact that the Lebanese government was not strong enough to impose complete sovereignty over Hizbullah controlled areas. President Bush expressed American concerns that the Israeli attacks in Lebanon might "topple" the government of Lebanon. Based as it was on the political principle of confessionalism, which began to play an increasingly larger role in Lebanon's political life after the sectarian violence that occurred there in 1860, the Lebanese government was weak, fragile, and struggling to overcome its crippling history of sectarianism (history of Lebanon; see also Lebanon's "National Dialogue," March, 2006).

On July 15, at an emergency meeting of the Arab League in Cairo, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt were joined by some Gulf states in condemning Hizbullah for its "unexpected, inappropriate, and irresponsible acts." (New York Times, July 17, 2006) However, by the following week as the carnage from Israeli attacks mounted, these governments had changed their tune and had begun to express support for Hizbullah. Many Arabs had regarded Hizbullah as heroes having credited them with forcing Israel to withdraw from Lebanon in 2000.

On July 22, Israeli tanks entered Lebanon with the aim of destroying Hizbullah positions.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan condemned Hizbullah for starting the conflict, but also condemned what he called Israel's "excessive use of force." UN envoy Jan Egeland, touring south Beirut where, as he put it, "block after block" of buildings had been leveled, called what Israel had done there "a violation of humanitarian law." (BBC) But, Egeland also slammed Hizbullah for its practice of hiding ("cowardly blending") amongst the civilian population of Lebanon which, he said, was a main factor in the high numbers of Lebanese civilian casualties (Lee Keath, Associated Press, July 25, 2006).

The United States at this point was resisting calls by Saudi Arabia and other nations to get involved in pushing the combatants for a ceasefire. Its "neo-conservative" policy, committed as it was to promoting democratic reforms in the Middle East, was aimed at thwarting groups like Hizbullah and HAMAS, protégés of America's biggest state rivals in this venture: Syria and Iran. So, the U.S. was happy to have Israel do the actual dirty work of trying to disable HAMAS and Hizbullah. Earlier in the spring, speculation had begun mounting that the U.S. was making plans to attack Iran. (For more on this angle, see Seymour M. Hersh, "Watching Lebanon: Washington's Interests in Israel's War," The New Yorker, August 21, 2006, 28ff.)

For its part, Israel began requesting a strong (i.e. non-UN) multinational force with enough clout to monitor and enforce a ban on Lebanese Hizbullah's military activity across the border with Israel. According to Michael Oren of the Jerusalem think tank "Shalem Center," Israel was adopting a strategy long favored by Arabs: provoking a crisis to bring a situation to the forefront of international attention, then aggressively requesting international help to resolve it (see New York Times, July 24, 2006 -- see also, for example, the 1973 Arab-Israeli War).

On July 26, four unarmed UN observers manning a marked observation post at Khiam in south Lebanon were killed by a precision rocket launched by Israeli forces following six hours of bombardment on their position. UN Secretary General Annan called the attack "apparently deliberate" and demanded Israel launch an investigation. The BBC reported that the observers called the Israelis ten times over the six hour period trying to get them to stop. This was not the first time Israelis had deliberately targeted UN personnel (see) or had been accused of bombarding non-combatant forces (even allies - see). Israel later conveyed its "deep regrets" over what it called a "tragic error" blaming inaccurate maps for the mistake. As Israeli operations against Hizbullah strongholds in the south continued (at Bint Jbail and Marun al-Ras), Israel announced it would "occupy" a buffer zone in the south until a multinational force was deployed.

On July 30, 2006, an Israeli air raid on the Lebanese town of Qana killed at least two dozen civilians (Qana had been the target of Israeli attacks in 1996, too). Israel regarded the town as a Hizbullah base from which at least 150 rockets had been launched into Israel. On August 1, Israel's cabinet unanimously approved plans for a ground offensive in southern Lebanon up to the Litani River (eighteen miles north of the border) aimed at removing Hizbullah as a military threat to Israel. U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Nebraska) said that American support for Israel had to be balanced with concern for Muslim countries (New York Times, Aug. 1). On August 2, Israel sent seven to ten thousand ground troops into Lebanon. The same day, Hizbullah launched more than 200 rockets into Israel, some penetrating as far south as Beit Shean.

In a statement made on August 4, Jordan's King Abdullah II said he was "enraged" by the war and warned Israel that its actions were weakening the hand of moderate rulers like himself in the region. The Jordanian king said the only way to achieve peace was for Israel to end its occupation of Arab territories (beginning in 1967). The king had good reason to be concerned since two thirds of the population of Jordan were Palestinians, many of whom were hoping that the success HAMAS had experienced in the elections in Gaza and the West Bank in 2006 could be replicated in Jordan.

On August 11, 2006, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1701 (text at BBC) calling for a ceasefire, which went into effect (although not without some violations) on the 14th. The resolution called upon all militia groups inside Lebanon to disarm and recognize the sovereignty of the Lebanese government. (context and recent history of the UN and the arming of militias)

On August 23, Amnesty International charged Israel with the commission of war crimes in Lebanon through its deliberate targeting of the Lebanese infrastructure. Israel countered that it had targeted only those areas used by Hizbullah. And, on September 14, Amnesty International charged Hizbullah with war crimes as well for deliberately targeting civilians in its rocket attacks against Israel: approximately 4,000 rockets that killed 43 Israelis and forced hundreds of thousands to flee. 161 Israelis (mostly soldiers) were killed and approximately 1,000 Lebanese (mostly civilians) were killed in the 34 days of fighting. (BBC)

In Israel, protests erupted over how the war had been conducted and IDF ground commander, Maj. Gen. Udi Adam resigned. In the United States, a government investigation began over whether Israel had violated a secret agreement on the conditions under which it could use U.S. supplied cluster bombs in Lebanon (violations after Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 led the Reagan administration to ban sales of cluster bombs to Israel for six years -- New York Times, Aug, 25, 2006). In October, Human Rights Watch announced it had evidence that Hizbullah, too, had employed cluster bombs in attacks against Israel.

In Lebanon, Hizbullah, bolstered by huge influxes of money and equipment from Iran, began flooding southern Lebanon with recuperative aid (Iran was awash with petrodollars in an era of runaway oil prices).

 

Why does Syria seek to influence what happens in Lebanon? -- See Taif Accord, 1989.

See also:

Political Crisis in the Palestinian Territories

Political Crisis in Lebanon

 

Other Resources:

BBC's "Middle East Crisis" page

Edward P. Djerejian, "From Conflict Management to Conflict Resolution," Foreign Affairs, vol. 85, no. 6, Nov.-Dec., 2006, 41ff. (only via ProQuest through NMH Virtual Desktop)

Richard N. Haass, "The New Middle East," Foreign Affairs, vol. 85, no. 6, Nov.-Dec., 2006, 2ff.

Hillel Halkin, "Israel's New Reality," Commentary, Oct., 2006 (online).

Joshua Muravchik, "The Arab Temptation," Commentary, Oct., 2006 (online).

Volker Perthes, "The Syrian Solution," Foreign Affairs, vol. 85, no. 6, Nov.-Dec., 2006, 33ff. (only via ProQuest through NMH Virtual Desktop)

Paul Salem, "The Future of Lebanon," Foreign Affairs, vol. 85, no. 6, Nov.-Dec., 2006, 13ff. (only via ProQuest through NMH Virtual Desktop)

Max Rodenbeck, "War Within War," The New York Review of Books, vol. LIII, no. 14, Sept. 21, 2006.

Ze'ev Schiff, "Israel's War With Iran," Foreign Affairs, vol. 85, no. 6, Nov.-Dec., 2006, 23ff. (only via ProQuest through NMH Virtual Desktop)

 

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Last Revised: June 17, 2007