Analysis: A buffer with a difference

Unlike until May 2000, this security zone won't be clear of Hizbullah cells.

IDF troops lebanon 29888 (photo credit: AP [file])
IDF troops lebanon 29888
(photo credit: AP [file])
A little over six years after Israel's soldiers dashed for the border amid the collapse of the south Lebanon security zone, the IDF is on Thursday, or Friday at latest, set to deploy along a line much the same as that defunct zone's northern edge, dragged deeply back into Lebanon no matter how hard it had tried to stay out. A significant difference, however, is that the zone itself will not be clear of Hizbullah cells, as it was until May 2000. Instead, it will be one of the IDF's tasks, in however many days of fighting the UN Security Council winds up granting Israel, to do whatever it can to reduce Hizbullah's armed presence in that area ahead of the planned deployment of an international armed force there. Israel's argument is that the fewer traces of Hizbullah in the zone, the better the chances for that international force to settle in and gear up for the challenges ahead. For all the public criticisms of Israel's offensive, and the demands from many quarters for an immediate cease-fire, the countries which will be sending personnel to the force would do well to heed that Israeli argument and temper their criticism: The more intact Hizbullah remains when the fighting stops, the more arduous this force's task, and the greater the likely casualties it will suffer. Amid the growing chorus of complaint inside Israel regarding the purportedly belated and insufficient use of ground forces, a key counter argument is that Israel is so traumatized by its Lebanon history that the pro-war consensus three weeks ago would have been shattered had the IDF opened up not with air strikes, but with a wide ground offensive. The political echelon is also adamant that the IDF never sought its approval for anything broader. It seems plain, however, that the IDF overestimated what it could achieve from the air and underestimated Hizbullah's resilience. If it was starting over, the resort to ground forces, if not immediate, would certainly be more rapid. What is unarguable is Israel's desperate determination, even at the cost of leaving this job half-done, not to find itself bogged down in Lebanon long-term again. This war might end early next week, or it might go on for a few days more, but nobody is talking about fighting on into late August, never mind next month. Indeed the concerted effort now, in government and in the IDF, is to start determinedly talking victory - to assert that Hizbullah has been badly battered; that some Arab nations and many Lebanese openly recoil from it; that Israel has demonstrated an undreamed of capacity to absorb missile strikes and hit back, to absorb kidnappings and hit back. And some new ground rules have been set, too, it is asserted: Hizbullah never gets back to the border; Israel will never again be extorted into releasing Palestinian prisoners into Hizbullah hands; and Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, and his leadership cohorts and successors, will remain fair game, cease-fire or no cease-fire. Only time will tell if Israel can hold to those positions. And only time will tell, too, if this planned international force can, however improbably and unprecedentedly, prove more effective than the bombed US marines and French paratroopers, and the ignored UNIFIL contingents, in facing up to a Hizbullah that has manifestly not been destroyed - no matter how energetically the government and the IDF talk up victory.