15 July 2009

* Three Years Later, The Core Issues in Lebanon Remain Unsolved

Three years have passed since the outbreak of the Second Lebanon War. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pointed out this week that the cease-fire which ended the war on August 14, 2006, remains fragile. The core issues which triggered the fighting remain unresolved. Since the guns fell silent, both sides have been busy seeking to learn the lessons of their successes and failures, on the assumption that another round is at some stage inevitable.

For Israel, the war served as a wake-up call that a new chapter in the Arab-Israeli conflict had begun.

In the two decades prior to 2006, the main focus of the IDF ground forces had been on counter-insurgency in the West Bank and Gaza. The result was that the IDF's war-fighting capabilities grew rusty.

The reports of the committee headed by Judge Eliyahu Winograd were harshly critical of the performance of both the political and military leaderships during the war. Winograd noted a failure to understand and internalize the requirements of war, as opposed to those of low-intensity operations. His reports were critical of the setting of unrealistic goals by the political leadership, the pursuit of goals in an unsuitable way (for example through excessive reliance on air power and illogical and half-hearted use of ground forces), and the lack of readiness of some IDF units.

The result, he concluded, was that the war represented a "great and grave missed opportunity" for Israel. The decay in some parts of Israel's defense structures that the 2006 war revealed derived from a misapplication of resources. This, in turn, was the result of a conceptual failure.

The faulty pre-war conception held that Israel was unlikely to be called upon to engage in conventional warfare in the foreseeable future. There was an accompanying belief that future wars would involve mainly air power and small groups of highly trained specialists on the ground. The 2006 war, however, ended the notion that the Arab-Israeli conflict was engaged in a long process of gradually winding down. It lifted the veil on a new mutation of the conflict, in which Islamist forces, armed, trained and aided by Iran, are engaged in a long war strategy of seeking to inflict a "death by a thousand cuts" on Israel.

But despite the failures of the Israeli military and political systems in the 2006 war, the results were hardly a ringing success for Hizbullah and its Iranian masters. The movement sustained very heavy casualties (over 500 men killed), and the loss of a large amount of sophisticated and costly Iranian equipment - most importantly, the Zelzal and Fajr missile systems destroyed by the IAF at an early stage of the war. The south of Lebanon was decimated, and efforts by Iran and Hizbullah to rebuild the damaged areas have proved sluggish and inefficient. The terms of Security Council Resolution 1701 significantly complicated the movement's deployment south of the Litani River.

Hizbullah went on to significantly overplay its political hand as a result of the war. The movement imagined it could translate its self-proclaimed "divine victory" into increased political power, and engaged in a series of adventures which saw it turning its guns on fellow Lebanese, and attempting to bring down the government in Beirut. The results of last month's elections showed the discontent of many Lebanese at Hizbullah's desire to turn the country into a front line in an Islamist war to the death with Israel.

Since the Second Lebanon War, both sides have been preparing for the next round. The performance of the IDF in Operation Cast Lead showed that Israel has internalized some of the lessons outlined by Winograd.

The Gaza operation saw a better integration of political and military objectives, and a far more logical and effective use of ground forces. Hamas's leaders believed that they would be able to maintain a level of attrition that would force Israel back. They were wrong.

Hizbullah, meanwhile, is rearming. The movement is now thought to possess 40,000 missiles north of the Litani. It has tripled the number of C-802 ground-to-sea missiles in its possession, is attempting (reportedly with some difficulty) to recruit and train new fighters, and has created an anti-aircraft unit.

The northern border, three years after the war, is pastoral and quiet. The quiet is deceptive.

Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah admitted that had he known the Israeli response to the kidnappings that began the war, he would never have carried them out. The result of this miscalculation, we are told, has been stronger Iranian supervision of their Lebanese proxy.
Hizbullah's creator and most enthusiastic backer - The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps - is emerging as the victor in the power struggle under way in Iran. Hizbullah is a key asset for Iran in its ongoing bid for regional hegemony. The larger struggle of which the 2006 war was an episode is still under way.

The reactivation of the northern front at some time in some future turn of events thus remains likely. The most meaningful form of remembrance of the dead of 2006 is in ensuring that when that time comes, the systems tasked with defending Israel are properly prepared and properly led.


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Lebanon Time-Line

Introducing Lebanon

Coolly combining the ancient with the ultramodern, Lebanon is one of the most captivating countries in the Middle East. From the Phoenician findings of Tyre (Sour) and Roman Baalbek's tremendous temple to Beirut's BO18 and Bernard Khoury's modern movement, the span of Lebanon's history leaves many visitors spinning. Tripoli (Trablous) is considered to have the best souk in the country and is famous for its Mamluk architecture. It's well equipped with a taste of modernity as well; Jounieh, formerly a sleepy fishing village, is a town alive with nightclubs and glitz on summer weekends.

With all of the Middle East's best bits - warm and welcoming people, mind-blowing history and considerable culture, Lebanon is also the antithesis of many people's imaginings of the Middle East: mostly mountainous with skiing to boot, it's also laid-back, liberal and fun. While Beirut is fast becoming the region's party place, Lebanon is working hard to recapture its crown as the 'Paris of the Orient'.

The rejuvenation of the Beirut Central District is one of the largest, most ambitious urban redevelopment projects ever undertaken. Travellers will find the excitement surrounding this and other developments and designs palpable - and very infectious.

Finally, Lebanon's cuisine is considered the richest of the region. From hummus to hommard (lobster), you'll dine like a king. With legendary sights, hospitality, food and nightlife, what more could a traveller want?

Introducing Beirut

What Beirut is depends entirely on where you are. If you’re gazing at the beautifully reconstructed colonial relics and mosques of central Beirut’s Downtown, the city is a triumph of rejuvenation over disaster.

If you’re in the young, vibrant neighbourhoods of Gemmayzeh or Achrafiye, Beirut is about living for the moment: partying, eating and drinking as if there’s no tomorrow. If you’re standing in the shadow of buildings still peppered with bullet holes, or walking the Green Line with an elderly resident, it’s a city of bitter memories and a dark past. If you’re with Beirut’s Armenians, Beirut is about salvation; if you’re with its handful of Jews, it’s about hiding your true identity. Here you’ll find the freest gay scene in the Arab Middle East, yet homosexuality is still illegal. If you’re in one of Beirut’s southern refugee camps, Beirut is about sorrow and displacement; other southern districts are considered a base for paramilitary operations and south Beirut is home to infamous Hezbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. For some, it’s a city of fear; for others, freedom.

Throw in maniacal drivers, air pollution from old, smoking Mercedes taxis, world-class universities, bars to rival Soho and coffee thicker than mud, political demonstrations, and swimming pools awash with more silicone than Miami. Add people so friendly you’ll swear it can’t be true, a political situation existing on a knife-edge, internationally renowned museums and gallery openings that continue in the face of explosions, assassinations and power cuts, and you’ll find that you’ve never experienced a capital city quite so alive and kicking – despite its frequent volatility.