As we entered the fourth week of the war on Wednesday, Hizbullah managed to fire off an unprecedented 200-plus Katyusha rockets into northern Israel, killing David Lelchook at his home kibbutz, Sa'ar, and wounding 21 more Israelis. On Thursday, the barrages continued, with still deadlier effect.
Israel had the names of close to 200 key Hizbullah fighters killed since the conflict began, with many more believed to be dead - but this was still only a smallish percentage of a fighting force estimated to number at least 2,000.
Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah had survived the IDF's best efforts to kill him, including an assault on his bunker in southern Beirut during which some 20tons of explosives were dropped.
Israeli military experts were chorusing their complaints about the handling of the offensive - an over-reliance on air power, a belated resort to (too few) ground forces, a frittering away of day after day of an unprecedented military opportunity.
Lebanese politicians, some of whom are genuinely less than enamored with the sheikh, his Iranian patrons and their plans for the Islamification of Lebanon, were lining up to castigate Israel for its assault on their country.
Arab states which had initially criticized Hizbullah for prompting this crisis by crossing the sovereign border on July 12, and which had indicated their support for an assault on the group's military capabilities, were now publicly accusing Israel of unwarranted aggression.
The United States was telling the world, but most particularly Israel, that it was time for a cease-fire.
Iran, Israel's most potent strategic threat and the source of Hizbullah's most potent weapons, had earned another few weeks of international distraction in which to accelerate its drive toward the nuclear bomb it would dearly love to use against the Jewish state.
Newspaper, TV and radio stations around the world were filled with moving reports from Lebanon of the terrible suffering the war has imposed on the Lebanese, the cities reduced to rubble, the families forced to flee and dodging attack as they did so, the children bombed as they slept.
And the fate of the two soldiers - Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev - whose kidnapping triggered this entire crisis was no closer to resolution, with their whereabouts unknown and no word even as to whether they are still alive.
Yet it is the Israeli government's determined contention that, were the fighting to go on for just a few more days, or even to end right now, Israel could count itself victorious in this conflict.
Plainly there are Israeli achievements.
Prominent among them is the resilience of the Israeli civilian population - a terrorworn populace demonstrably capable of withstanding 2,500 deadly rockets fired indiscriminately into its midst. In addition to the lengthening roster of the dead, let no one underestimate the impact that the North has had to absorb - the long hours in the shelters, the Katyusha barrages and the constant threat of more; the sense of dicing with death when setting foot outside; the protracted emotional strain that has made nervous wrecks even of many Israelis who live beyond the rockets' reach and do not have children fighting in the IDF.
Yet rather than pleading with its government to find the means, any means, to stop the incoming fire, the populace has encouraged that government to keep on taking the fight to the enemy, acutely conscious of what is at stake. There will be a limit to how much the public is prepared to stoically absorb. But if Iran had armed Hizbullah in part so as to be able to threaten our cities with this kind of missile attack as a deterrent to an Israeli strike on its nuclear program, it will now be working on an amended strategy.
For all the derision over the IDF's slow progress in clearing Hizbullah away from the immediate cross-border area, an enemy that had been given six untroubled years to literally dig in has gradually been pushed out of many of its strongholds. Its fortified outposts at the border, massive explosive devices planted all around them, have been uprooted. Its potential to stage another Goldwasser-Regev-style kidnapping, or attempt a more major crossborder incursion, has been drastically reduced.
The relatively short-range Katyusha launchers are proving so hard to thwart because, Kassam style, they are mobile and easy to fire. A handful of gunmen, trundling a few kilometers from mobile launcher to mobile launcher, can set up, fire, hide the equipment and disappear in a flash, wreaking havoc a few dozen kilometers to the south. And Hizbullah has dozens upon dozens of terror cells to do the job. But the medium and longer-range launchers are an easier target. Many were taken out at the very start of this conflict, on the basis of extraordinary intelligence information allied to technical prowess. In precisely 59 villages, it is said, the IDF knew which home had a Fajr rocket as a guest, and went unerringly to the right address time after time.
There were excited voices - step forward Defense Minister Peretz - who spoke of breaking Hizbullah inside a week. But, it has been consistently argued elsewhere in the government and the IDF, ideological terror organizations don't get broken. If the job is done well, they get significantly degraded, as it is asserted Israel has done here. If it is done less well, the confident big power exits with tail between legs, as in the case of Russia from Afghanistan.
Hizbullah, it is said in the high reaches of government, has lost much of its command and control structure. Its leaders have had to flee. Israel has surprised it in Beirut and in Baalbek. Its much-disseminated myth about brushing away the Israeli spider web has been shattered by the military response. Having confidently expected that Israel would submit to another asymmetrical prisoner exchange, Nasrallah found himself instead facing a military onslaught.
The effort to weaken Hizbullah would have been less arduous had it been undertaken two years ago, or four. But look at the world's horrified reaction to the Kana attack on Sunday, and imagine how an "unprovoked" assault into Lebanon led by the prime minister for much of the time Hizbullah was building its strength, Ariel Sharon of Sabra and Shatilla fame, would have been greeted, and how long his window of military opportunity would have been kept open.
An earlier use of ground forces would have accelerated progress, but how many more soldiers would have died? And would the remarkable national consensus have held up if the IDF had chosen that course from the get-go - a consensus extending deep into the Left that has been so crucial to a war in which civilian steadfastness is a prime factor?
BARRING THE always possible departure of the conflict into unexpected directions - with Syria a somewhat unpredictable player - the next few days are likely to see the rockets continuing to fall, while the IDF works to gradually hunt down the Katyusha cells and strengthen its hold on an area of southern Lebanon not dissimilar to the old security zone.
Early next week, the UN Security Council may finalize a cease-fire resolution, mandating the speedy dispatch of an international force. But the resolution's wording, timing and circumstances are still quite unclear at this time of writing.
Israel had been expecting to be asked to entrust the international force with the implementation of Resolution 1559 within days. But as the reality has sunk in for the would-be participant nations of sending their troops into a zone where the IDF is encountering so bitter an enemy, the momentum for the establishment of such a force has slowed. And the notion of "impose a cease-fire now, worry about the international force later" is anathema to Israel, which wants no vacuum between its withdrawal and the arrival of the foreign forces. To date, the US has backed that Israeli position. Nonetheless, what the IDF achieves in these next few days may prove critical.
ULTIMATELY, OF course, the success or failure of the war against Hizbullah will be judged by its aftermath.
Hizbullah's ruthless dispatch of those previous would-be robust Lebanon peacekeepers, the American Marines and the French paratroopers - via simultaneous suicide bombings of their respective Beirut headquarters in October 1983 that left 300 dead - does not bode well for the international force in the south. The UNIFIL precedent is of absolutely no comfort either. Then there is the dismal daily reality of Iraq. Against that, NATO has proved in Afghanistan and Kosovo that an international force can impose order. A similar force's fate in Lebanon will depend on how drastically the IDF has disabled Hizbullah before a handover of responsibility, and on the degree to which Syria is deterred or prevented from simply reopening the supply lines once the Israeli guns fall silent.
It is hard, however, to derive much optimism from the prospect of an international force partnering with a Lebanese Army, much of whose membership is pro-Hizbullah. And even harder when some of those most energetically championing the force, and apparently set to play a key role in its construction, like the French, are leading the criticism of Israel and clamoring for an early cease-fire when patently their own troops will be all the more exposed if Israel is required to withdraw prematurely.
It would be dangerously wrongheaded to suggest that, even acknowledging some of the positive arguments detailed above, Israel has seen anything like the last of its fight with Hizbullah. It has yet to see the last even of Nasrallah.
It may, at the very least, have seen the last of those devastating prisoner "exchanges." Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is understood to be emphatically opposed to releasing a single Palestinian prisoner into Hizbullah hands, believing this would simply sign the death warrants for more Israeli soldiers.
AS OF late this week, despite the incessant criticism from the backseat drivers about his prowess at the steering wheel, Olmert was emanating absolute confidence in the rightness of his course - the absolute confidence without which a prime minister, it must be said, simply could not survive.
Rather than judging the progress of the war by the number of Katyushas that Hizbullah does still fire, Olmert would much rather it be measured by the number of Katyushas that Hizbullah still wants to fire. None, he would claim. His insistence is that Hizbullah thoroughly misread Israel, misread its new prime minister and anticipated meek capitulation. Israel's losses, though painful, are remarkably low given Hizbullah's preparedness. We all have to stop the self-flagellation and appreciate a restoration of Israeli deterrence, he would say. We should hail the proof of Israel's capacity to withstand international criticism and press on when (as at Kana) accidents happen. We should acknowledge our steadfast population and our brave, skilled army.
And we should realize that Nasrallah is seeking a way out, and that his successor, should the sheikh leave us all soon, will be far warier about picking a fight.
It should sound comforting. But it's not comforting enough, on so bloody a Tisha Be'Av, to drown out the whine of those deadly incoming rockets.
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