Ground offensive in Lebanon - Israeli ruling class faces dilemma

On Wednesday serious land operations commenced in southern Lebanon. The Israeli army has met severe resistance from the Hezbollah guerrillas. The longer this drags out the greater will be the political consequences for the Israeli ruling class.

Wednesday was the first full day of Israel's attempted land offensive into southern Lebanon. While the main powers argue over whether to impose a cease-fire, Israeli armed forces have been bombing villages and hospitals. Earlier they killed 60 people in a village, including 37 children. At first they claimed it was a mistake, but later it was revealed it was an "experiment".

In the latest attacks they went for the Dar al-Hikma hospital in Baalbek with the excuse that Hezbollah commandos were there. They claimed they have caught some "big fish", but the latest information we have seems to indicate that this was just one of the many gimmicks to show that the Israeli armed forces are actually making "progress". The barbarism of the Israeli ruling class seems to have no limits.

Hezbollah in the meantime responded with its deepest rocket strikes into Israel. Hezbollah guerrillas said they struck deeper into Israel than ever before with a rocket hit on Beit Shean which is 42 kilometres south of the Lebanon border. In total one Israeli was killed and 17 were injured. In total over 200 rockets hit northern Israel in one day. This fact alone exposes thee lies of the Olmert government, who had just announced the total destruction of Hezbollah structures.

Israel's aim is to drive Hezbollah far enough back from the border, to the Litani river 18 miles into Lebanon so that most of Israel's north becomes safe from Hezbollah rockets. It has also been officially declared that the aim is to get to the Litani until some "international peacekeeping force" can take over.

By Wednesday at least 540 Lebanese had been killed, including 468 civilians and 26 Lebanese soldiers and at least 46 Hezbollah guerrillas. However, the death toll could be as high as 750, while fifty-five Israelis have died including 19 civilians.

Since Israeli troops went in there has been severe fighting, as the Hezbollah fought back with determination from its positions. They have been proving much tougher than the Israeli generals had bargained for. Its forces are spread out and they have dug into bunkers. The task of removing Hezbollah is going to cost Israeli very heavily. They are already losing many soldiers.

Hezbollah's strategy is to inflict as much pain on the Israeli state and show that Israel, the so-called policeman for US imperialism, cannot defeat them. If they were to achieve their aim it would be a serious defeat for Israel. As things stand at the moment Israel is staring defeat in the face. Israel started out with the aim of destroy Hezbollah as quickly as possible, before opposition mounted up at home and before some kind of international deal was brokered.

The dilemma now facing Israel is that Hezbollah have clearly demonstrated they can fire deep into Israel. Thus even pushing Hezbollah back to the Litani would not be enough. They would have to push at least another 10 miles north of the river to achieve this goal. This means extending Israeli lines quite some distance into Lebanon. This is very far from the original idea of securing a safe zone of one or two kilometres along the border.

The problem haunting the Israeli government and generals is that the memory of the last Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon is still fresh in the minds of ordinary Israelis. If the fighting continues for any lengthy period of time and causes large numbers of casualties it will start to have political effects on the home front. In fact we cannot look solely at the military capabilities of the Israeli army and the Hezbollah guerrillas. In purely military terms the Israeli army is one of the most powerful in the world. But this war also heavily depends on political criteria, and these limit room for manoeuvre.

Israel was preparing for war

The pro-imperialist mass media have been telling us that the Israeli generals' assault on Lebanon is an act of self-defence against Hezbollah's Katyusha rocket attacks and the capture of two of its soldiers in violation of Israel sovereignty. They have also been telling us that Israel merely wants to impose UN resolution 1559 that Hezbollah is violating.

It is clearly not true that the rulers of Israel were surprised by the capture of the two Israeli soldiers. Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah had repeatedly warned that if Israel did not release its Lebanese prisoners, he would be compelled to take Israeli soldiers as bargaining chips.

On the question of "sovereignty", Israel continues to occupy parts of South Lebanon, and has violated Lebanese sovereignty, by air, sea, and land. To this day the rulers of Israel have refused to give Lebanon 's government a map of the more than 400,000 land mines that it left behind in South Lebanon, and which continue to kill Lebanese children in the region.

Israel itself also has a long history of kidnapping Lebanese as bargain chips. Let us recall that in 2004, Israel exchanged 438 prisoners in a swap with Hezbollah for the return of Elchanan Tenenbaum, the high-ranking officer and drug dealer. Among the Lebanese was Sheikh Karim Obeid, a Hezbollah leader abducted by Israel in an attempt to exchange him for the pilot Ron Arad.

Even the British The Guardian on Saturday July 15, 2006 wrote: "The prisoners Hizbullah wants released are hostages who were taken on Lebanese soil. In the successful prisoner exchange in 2004, Israel held on to three Lebanese detainees as bargaining chips and to keep the battle front with Hizbullah open. These detentions have become a cause celebre in Lebanon. In a recent poll, efforts to effect their release attracted majority support, much more even than the liberation of Shebaa Farms, the disputed corridor of land between Syria and Lebanon still occupied by Israel."

The recent crisis is related to United Nations Security Council resolution 1559. The background to this resolution began with big businessman Rafiq al-Hariri [the assassinated former Lebanese prime minister] in 2004, when he collaborated with the US and France to get that resolution passed in the Security Council. It had the full support of Israel and client Arab regimes of the US: Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt.

There is a humorous side to all this. Does it not make one laugh to hear the rulers of Israel speaking of UN resolutions? Most of them are ignored precisely by Israel and the US power of veto on the Security Council is used to block any attempt to pass resolutions against the Israeli ruling class's war crimes.

Israel's aim in this war has never been the freeing of the two soldiers taken by Hezbollah. As in the case of the Palestinians, the aim of the rulers of Israel is to implement UN Security Council 1559 to disarm Hezbollah in order to establish obedient puppets as rulers of Lebanon. This was their aim in the 1982 war and it is their aim today.

Inability to destroy Hezbollah

Israel possesses a very powerful military machine. It has the potential to defeat any regular Arab army in a very short time. It can destroy most of Lebanon. It can create a new refugees problem, as more than 600,000 have fled South Lebanon. But what it cannot do is defeat and completely eliminate the small army of Hezbollah. The only way they could achieve this would be by eliminating practically the whole of the Shi'ite population, something they can never do - although recent events have shown clearly how barbaric the Israeli government and military are, bombing civilians as they flee the war zone.

Israel has put itself in a no-win situation. If it were to retreat now and accept a cease-fire it would be a defeat; if it continues with its land assault it would still be facing a defeat in the long run, just like last time. That is why the European imperialists are considering sending what they call a "multinational force", with the blessing of Kofi Annan, the General Secretary of the UN.

At the moment there is lot of talk going on on the diplomatic front, with Rice and co hopping on and off planes. While all this goes on, the imperialist governments are giving Israel some more time to try and inflict more pain on the Lebanese population before brokering some kind of "cease-fire" and sending in their own troops as "peace-makers" to do the job the Israeli rulers are incapable of doing. In its rush to show that they can do the job the Israeli government has decided to send in a large number of troops, which only serves to make things much worse.

A second Vietnam?

What they have been hoping for is to destroy Hezbollah's fighting capability, but this has been proving to be much easier said than done. They have met stiff resistance every time they have gone in, losing significant numbers of soldiers. The spectres from the past are haunting them. Are they prepared to suffer a second Vietnam?

In this situation, how long will it take before those ugly monsters that rule the world step in? How long will they allow the killing and the suffering of the Lebanese people to go on? How long will the Israeli people have to live under the constant threat of being bombed? It all depends on how much more the Israeli people can suffer before the mood changes. And how long before the rulers of the Arab states come under the pressure of the Arab masses who are already demonstrating in many Arab states.

The rockets that are falling on Israeli cities are killing and injuring innocent people. This is a terrible suffering, but the havoc and destruction being suffered by the Lebanese people is even greater, far greater.

The Israeli government already knows that it cannot completely crush and eliminate the Hezbollah guerrillas. A senior military source said over two weeks ago that Israel seeks "to significantly weaken Hezbollah but not crush it." He said that, "it is impossible to crush a popular, religious movement."(Haaretz, 19 July). Now they need desperately to show some gains to justify this war, and that is why they have launched a land offensive.

But the Israeli people still remember the last war of Lebanon and they are opposed very much to a new occupation of Lebanon and if the generals have forgotten this, they will soon be reminded. The first indication was the first conscientious objector, Staff Sergeant Itzik Shabbat, a 28-year-old TV producer and a resident of Sderot. He refused to comply with an emergency order (Tsav 8) to report for reserve duty in the territories in order to free forces in the standing army for the war in Lebanon. The Israeli soldiers that have gone into the Lebanon are facing stiff opposition.

The generals have been asking for 10-14 more days to come up with some gains and in that time they can do many horrible and stupid things. The Bush administration would like to give the Israeli generals all the time they need to complete the killing job before imposing a cease-fire. However, there is growing pressure from other imperialist governments who fear the destabilisation of Lebanon's fragile government.

Where now?

When all this started more than three weeks ago, there were already important divisions at the top, between different wings of the government, within the military and the secret services. They all want to remove the Hezbollah problem, but how to go about it is their problem.

According to a recent Stratfor report (27.07.2006) before the latest ground offensive:

"Israel is essentially broadcasting to the world that its political and military circles are severely divided over the current operation, and that it might have no choice but to cave in to diplomatic pressure to put an end to the fighting and draw up a cease-fire  (...) a real disagreement exists between those promoting a sustained air campaign and those pushing for a ground offensive because IDF forces are getting restive. (...) As support for a continued air campaign is weakening by the day, something else must be factoring into Israel's war strategy.

"The thought of Israel even considering scaling down its military operation at this point - though golden news for Hezbollah - carries devastating consequences for Israel. If the fighting were to come to a halt over the next few days, Hezbollah would claim victory and present itself as the only Arab force capable of standing up to Israeli aggression. Merely resisting and surviving a fight against Israel represents a major win for the Islamist militant movement and its sponsors in Iran and Syria - something Israel, the United States and even the surrounding Arab regimes are unable to cope with. Moreover, an imminent cease-fire would allow Hezbollah to retain the capability to carry out attacks against Israel whenever the need arises.

"Israel, therefore, cannot agree to a cease-fire. At the same time, the current operational tempo has not yet yielded a satisfactory outcome for Israel. Katyusha rockets continue to rain down over the northern part of the country as Israel continues its attempts to take out Hezbollah's rocket launch sites. Though Israel's massive air campaign could gradually wear down Hezbollah's offensive capabilities, it will take several weeks before any definitive results will come to light. Hezbollah, meanwhile, is locked in its own military strategy. Hezbollah commanders have long been preparing for this battle and are ready to stand their ground for an extended period of time and draw the Israelis into bloody insurgent combat."

If the latter scenario were to materialise it would have serious long term consequences for the Israeli ruling class. Which way things will go will be decided in the coming days and weeks.

To understand what is going on now it is worth looking at a few elements that have evolved over the recent years. In an article we wrote over two years ago we said: "Syria has been for a long time on the list of countries the US condemn as terrorists, by which the rulers of the US mean countries that do not toe the line. It is true that the US at the moment has its hands tied with its war against the people of Afghanistan and Iraq. For this reason it would prefer not to open a third front. The rulers of Israel, however, have different concerns, and they may find some support for their adventure amongst the most reactionary wing of the American capitalists." (Bush, Sharon and Syria, May 2004)

As part of their offensive throughout the Middle East, the imperialists successfully removed Syria from Lebanon and managed to install a pro-Western, i.e. pro-imperialist, government. Removing Syria, however, also meant removing the only power that had any influence over Hezbollah. Syria had a degree of control over Hezbollah, but once that was removed it became clear that Lebanon was in danger of being attacked. And ever since Israel withdrew from South Lebanon, Hezbollah has been building up powerful weaponry, thus becoming a serious threat to Israel.

Israel wishes to provoke civil war on its borders

Thus Israel found itself with two problems: Hamas in the Occupied Territories and Hezbollah on its northern border. In both cases Israel has adopted a similar strategy: to provoke civil war among its neighbours with the aim of destroying both Hamas and Hezbollah. Their idea was to get Fatah to come into conflict with Hamas and in Lebanon get the government to "disarm" Hezbollah, which amounts to asking for civil war. Neither Fatah nor the Lebanese government can achieve what Israel wants. That is why they have decided on war as their only option.

In this they have the backing of US Imperialism, or at least of that wing gathered around the Bush administration. Bush is in fact saying that it is not a question of just Lebanon but of the whole of the Middle East. He is saying that if Hezbollah wins it will affect all of the Middle East and beyond. He sees it as part of his own "war on terror".

But as we have explained, things are proving to be more complicated than the limited cerebral capacities of the US president can cope with. Last Friday Hezbollah fired a new rocket that landed near Afula. It was sent into an empty area, but what is significant about this rocket is that it has a 120-Kilometre range. What Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah is saying is that, "I can hit Tel Aviv". This is very embarrassing for the Israeli government. They had been stating that their aim was to clear a one or two kilometer zone inside Lebanon along the Israeli border. But what would be the point of that if Nasrallah can fire rockets with such a long range? It poses a real dilemma to the Israeli ruling class.

What is ironic about all this is that Nasrallah would have liked to be part of the new imperialist order. After all, after Syria was pushed out of Lebanon, Hezbollah joined the pro-imperialist Lebanese government with two ministers - which they still have. To make his position clear he stated at the time that Israel was an occupying force but not the West, especially not Europe, even though Britain was already involved in Iraq. He was sending out a message that the West could do business with him.

The problem was that Israel could not accept Hezbollah, just as it could not accept similar offers from the leaders of Hamas. The problem is not so much the leadership of either Hamas or Hezbollah. The leaders can be corrupted, but the people they represent cannot. The poor Palestinians and the poor Shi'ites in south Lebanon see Israel as an oppressor and they are right of course. It is with these considerations in mind that Israel concluded its only option was war.

Nasrallah has been fully aware of the fact that Israel was preparing for war for at least two years. So he prepared for it, and prepared well. Nasrallah could hit Haifa's industrial zone, where there are refineries and many poisonous gases. Hitting this would amount to destruction similar to that of a nuclear attack. And he has proved beyond any shadow of a doubt that he can do this. He is now saying he can also hit Tel Aviv. The message is not intended solely for the Israeli government but also for the major imperialist powers.

The fact that he isn't doing it indicates that he is interested in a cease-fire. He would gain from it. It would show that he has been able to hold off the much more powerful Israeli army and keep his fighting capacity intact.

The more intelligent of the Israeli ruling class are also looking for a way out, so they would be keen on some kind of face-saving symbolic victory of some kind. One idea that has been obviously considered is that Israel could claim that had it not been for international interference and pressures it could win the war. On this basis it could accept a cease-fire at some point.

The opinion polls say that 78% of the Israeli population still supports the war, but we would ask the question: who are they asking? One would get a very different answer in Tel Aviv from people in Haifa and the rest of the north of Israel.

In the north people are suffering, and the suffering is growing daily. Some families have been in the shelters for weeks with scarce food, huddled together with other families. It is very unpleasant; 30-40% of the population in the north has escaped to the south, but only to face hugely inflated prices. Workers have been losing their jobs; others are forced to return to workplaces that have been hit by rockets. It is with this knowledge in mind that we seriously doubt the figures published from the opinion polls.

Adding insult to injury is the fact that the latest reserve troops to be called up will not be paid. If they were called up under Order Number 8 they would receive a salary, but they have been called up under other emergency orders that allow for service without pay.

One interesting anecdotal point is that Halutz, the chief-of-staff, only recently came out of hospital after having suffered severe stomach pain. This is not a sign of someone confident in what he is doing. It resembles more a man who is extremely worried at how military operations are going.

All this is happening while there has appeared a public split between the army and government. A part of the government, including Peretz, were opposed to a major offensive and occupation. It is clear Peretz is reflecting the changing mood among a layer of the population, or at least is worried of the effects of such an operation on the population.

We are now into the fourth week of this situation and the longer it drags out the greater will be the defeat for Israel. The more intelligent strategists are saying that what is needed is a cease-fire followed by the deployment of 8000 NATO forces. But these will not be able to disarm Hezbollah. So it would be back to square one.

A dangerous element in the equation for the Israeli rulers is the Arab street. If the present situation continues, with the bombings and killings of Lebanese civilians, the masses in the Arab countries will start to put pressure on their own governments to enter the conflict. The latest news is that even Egypt could be sucked in, not just Syria. This would mean a generalized war dragging the whole of the Middle East into a terrible conflagration. All the Arab leaders fear this. It is the last thing they want.

The Syrians have in fact been offering their services as "broker", but this also would be a defeat both for Israeli and US imperialism, as it would mean accepting to deal with a so-called "rogue state" rather than overthrowing it like they did in Iraq. It would mean going back to the situation of three years ago. In actual fact it would be worse as such a scenario would involve Israel having to consider the possibility of returning the Golan Heights to Syria.

From all this we can see that all that the Israeli ruling class has achieved in the last few weeks is to destabilize even further the whole region. They had worked painstakingly to "stabilise" Lebanon, to remove Syria and so on, and now they are making the situation even worse than what it was.

What all this highlights is the real state of the whole of the Middle East and the world. Capitalism is at the root of all this. It is a senile and decrepit system, lashing out as it enters its death agony. It is a social system that is well past its "sell-by-date" and like all rotting products it should be put in the dustbin.

At the end of the day after some severe fighting they may manage to patch together a safe-facing deal for all sides concerned. But the underlying problems and tensions will remain. The situation will continue to fester with new conflicts breaking out at any time.

What is clear is that nothing will be the same after this particular conflict is over. In particular, Israeli society will never be the same again. The confidence of the past is gone and will not come back. The working people in Israel are learning not to trust their rulers. This will open up the gates to the class struggle at some stage and then it will be a completely different ball game.

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