Israel Goes to War With an Iron Fist
He is a wrinkled, tiny old man with a ring of thin, snow-white hair encircling his bald head. His delicate moustache vibrates when he speaks, his voice thin and fragile. When he is asked a question, the old man seems to shrink away, as if he believed that he could somehow make himself invisible, could survive the worst by offering as little resistance as possible.
Zwi Shalit, 79, is a Jew who has mastered the art of coping with misfortune, but not by choice. If there is a God, Shalit has always experienced Him as an angry God, not as some benevolent deity. And if there is a God, He has picked his Chosen People to bear more than its fair share of the world's suffering.
As a child, Zwi Shalit was driven from his home. Born in the city of L'viv in Galicia, a former province of Austria-Hungary and today in western Ukraine, he and his family lived peacefully in a community of Jews, Germans, Poles, Ukrainians and Armenians. The family attended a synagogue next to a Catholic church. There were no tensions among the region's religious groups, at least not until Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany. Under the Nazis, L'viv's Jews were literally slaughtered, suffering as many as 800 deaths in a single day. "We were not one hundred percent Zionists," says Shalit, but in an atmosphere of anti-Semitism fueled by the Nazis, no one cared how devout a Jew was. "Mother took us to Palestine, to safety, we believed."
That was 65 years ago.
As an adult, Zwi Shalit lost his son. When the state of Israel was founded in 1948, Arab agitators promptly declared their aim to "drive the Jews into the sea." The Shalit family survived, Zwi married and joined the coastguard, and his wife gave birth to twins, Noam and Joel. Like all Israelis, the two boys were drafted for a three-year stint in the military. In October 1973, when Syrian and Egyptian troops invaded Israel on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, Joel's unit was sent to the Golan Heights. The Syrians outnumbered the Israeli forces, and Joel burned to death in his tank.
That was 33 years ago.
And now, as a grandfather, Zwi Shalit has lived through the kidnapping of his grandson. It was on a Sunday morning when Shalit, now retired, heard a report on the radio that an Israeli guard post at the border to the Gaza Strip had been attacked. Zwi Shalit was alarmed, because he knew that his 19-year-old grandson, Gilad, was stationed there. By noon, his worries had turned into bitter reality. Gilad had been kidnapped by Palestinian militias and was now a hostage, gone without a trace.
That was four weeks ago.
The attacks against Zwi Shalit and his family are getting closer -- in more ways than one. He lives in Kiryat Ata, a town near the Israeli port city of Haifa, only about 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the Lebanese border. He sits in an old armchair, looking at photographs of his loved ones and listening to the rumble of artillery. What he hears is the sound of Katyusha rockets, launched from territory controlled by Islamic militants from Hezbollah, impacting only a few kilometers from his house. Although no one was hurt in the seemingly random strike -- unlike the deadly attacks in Haifa that have claimed several lives -- it triggered yet another wave of panic among residents.
That was last Wednesday.
Whenever Zwi Shalit hears the sirens warning of each new rocket attack, the old man and his wife hurry into the living room in the interior of the house, as far from the windows as possible. The house has no basement, and the 60-second warning the air raid sirens supposedly provide doesn't leave enough time to reach the nearest bomb shelter. "We are at war again," says the man, who has been dealt more than his fair share of grief, but has no other choice but to persevere. "But haven't we always been at war? And what have we done to deserve this?"
Israel the victim
Israel -- the permanent victim. Israel -- the homeland of the Jews and a country whose very existence is constantly under threat. Israel -- a state on the brink of disaster, surrounded by enemies intent on its destruction. Forced to unite as a nation, set aside its internal battles and respond to external threats by defending itself at all cost. This is the essence of a widespread Israeli credo.
In the eyes of many Jews, their history is a tale of near constant suffering. The murder of millions during the Nazis' extermination campaign has forged a strong belief into the minds of the Jewish people: We shall never again be led as lambs to the slaughter! This Auschwitz syndrome allows many in Israel to feel justified in placing their faith in the country's ever-growing arsenal. Israel has long been the strongest military power in the region, equipped with the most state-of-the-art and deadly weapons -- including nuclear ones.
Many Israelis see their worst nightmares confirmed by the kidnappings in the Gaza Strip by Palestinian militants and, even more so, by the Lebanese Hezbollah militia's unprovoked attack on an Israeli border post, which caused the death of eight soldiers and led to the kidnapping of two others. Hezbollah responded to Israel's large-scale retaliatory attacks by launching a hail of rockets on Israeli territory.
The ensuing escalation is more serious than anything that has happened in the Middle East in many years. Contrary to widely held beliefs, Israel's enemy is not only capable of striking villages in its northern border region, but also Haifa, the country's third-largest city, and Nazareth and Afula, more than 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the Lebanese border. To make matters worse, Iran has supplied Hezbollah with even more sophisticated rockets with ranges of up to 75 kilometers (47 miles), which would enable the militants to strike beyond Haifa, well into the Israeli heartland. Hassan Nasrallah, the militant leader of Hezbollah, once said: "The Zionist entity is like a cancer in this region, and when a cancer is detected is must be wiped out." His Iranian ally, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, clearly agrees, having said that the state of Israel should be "wiped off the map."
Can Israel survive under these circumstances?
Lebanon under attack
She was a woman in her twenties, pretty and vivacious, her entire life still ahead of her. Her parents were devout Shiites, but not so devout as to forbid her from wearing a brightly colored headscarf. She became a nurse because she wanted to help others. And she was even proud of her first name, Nimra. Translated as "tigress," she felt it suited her well.
If there is a God, then He hasn't been easy on his charge, Nimra Bidun, from the southern Lebanese port city of Tyre. He has put the woman, who has never done anyone harm, to one test after the other.
The first came on a June day in 1982. Lebanon had once again turned into a battlefield for the proxy wars of its neighbors. The Palestine Liberation Organization had established itself as a state within a state, and the Israelis, under the command of General Ariel Sharon, occupied Lebanon to drive out Yasser Arafat and his cohorts. The roar of fighter jets filled the sky above Tyre. A woman had just given birth at Behr Hospital when the air raid sirens went off. The doctor, sensing the danger, sent Nimra to hang a white sheet from the window. "I ran back, and then everything went black," she says, remembering the incident.
The bomb was a direct hit, completely destroying the hospital. No one but the nurse survived -- not the four mothers in labor, not the babies and the not the doctor. Nimra Bidun has only vague recollections of what happened in the next few hours. She remembers men from the Red Cross lifting her onto a stretcher and Israeli medics taking her across the border into Israel, where she was given emergency care and then sent back to Lebanon.
Despite having lost a lot of blood, Bidun survived. But her leg was horribly disfigured. She was no longer able to work as a nurse. The only ones willing to look after her in Tyre were members of Hezbollah, the militant "Party of God." They waged their war from the outskirts of the city or from hideouts in outlying areas, but in Tyre their main concern was to care for the people.
Bidun found a husband, a pensioner almost 30 years her senior, a man who was not exactly attractive and no great intellectual. But as a cripple her choices were limited. She returned to her family's village, Aitit, only 12 kilometers (about seven miles) from the Israeli border. But Aitit was hardly safe and saw daily artillery fire from both sides of the border. Fearing for her safety, Bidun took a significant step and moved to the capital, Beirut. She gave birth to a daughter four years later, and her husband's pension provided just enough money for the family to live in relative comfort. Her life had begun again.
Beirut, founded by the Phoenicians and ruled over the centuries by both the Romans and the Ottoman Turks, was an exhilarating city, a pearl perched on the Mediterranean shore. And it was finally rebuilding itself, after a longer and horribly blood civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990. Suddenly Beirut was filled with a new self-confidence and a lust for life. Dance clubs began popping up on former battle sites, places where Christians had smashed the skulls of Sunnis and Sunnis the skulls of Shiites. Beirut's young people were literally dancing on graves.
And then, in the wake of the "Cedar Revolution" in 2005, the Lebanese even managed to oust their unwanted foreign masters by expelling the Syrians, who by then had become comfortable calling the shots in Beirut. But despite the Syrian departure, Hezbollah continued to play an important role, partly because, in Lebanese eyes, it had "defeated Israel militarily." Amid continuing losses, the Israeli occupiers withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, giving way to the radical Islamists. And in Nimra Bidun's view, Hezbollah also began to play an important role in Lebanon's politics. Bidun even voted for the Islamists, partly because of their social welfare activities and partly in the belief that the Israelis still occupied Lebanese territory -- the disputed Shabaa Farms.
Like most of her fellow Lebanese, Bidun approved of Hezbollah's periodic pinprick-like attacks against Israel. But she prefers not to comment on the group's abduction of the two Israeli soldiers. She simply shrugs her shoulders. All she knows is that the consequences have been fatal -- for Lebanon, her country. But they have also been devastating for the 47-year-old and her family.
The first ominous signs appeared last Wednesday, when the sky over southern Beirut grew dark with leaflets falling on the area's densely packed houses. The word "Fillu" -- "Leave the area!" -- was printed on the Israeli flyers.
Bidun and her family left as quickly as they could. Her daughter ran back to the house to retrieve her doll's yellow dress. Aside from a few towels and the little girl's toys, however, they lost most of their belongings. But they did manage to make it to relative safety, despite being slowed down by Nimra's disability. They went to a public shelter in a school in Verdun, a modern area of Beirut. Now the yellow doll's dress flutters in the window. Reduced to being refugees in their own country, the people in the shelter do their best to keep their spirits up.
But every few hours the shelter is filled with the thunder of Israeli bombs hitting their targets. Based on the location of the flashes and black clouds of smoke, Bidun, the tigress from Tyre, infers that her neighborhood has been bombed several times. Bridges, power plants and government buildings have been smashed to pieces, steel beams melted, concrete crushed as if by a giant hand and power lines reduced to tangled masses of wire. Bidun doesn't want to go back to see the destruction. She knows what a sad sight it would be, a sight as distressing as the vague memories she has of the ruins of the hospital where she was wounded.
For the first time in her life Bidun, already dealt such a poor hand by fate, no longer knows whether she will have the courage and strength to start again, to build yet another new life from the ruins. Fighting back tears, this normally stoic woman asks: "Whatever did we simple Lebanese do to the Israelis? I am not raising my child so that she will have to live through all of this again and again. Someone has to end this vicious circle."
Continue reading on page 2 about the civilian toll.
No neutral observer would suggest that the Israelis are deliberately targeting civilians in Lebanon. And yet their military blithely accepts that there must be collateral damage when Hezbollah positions in densely populated Shiite residential areas are bombed. An Israeli pilot, for example, fired on a minibus filled with fleeing civilians, killing a dozen Lebanese. After the incident, Israeli officials said that Hezbollah uses minibuses to transport its Katyusha rockets. By this weekend, well over 300 Lebanese civilians had died in the latest conflict -- ten times the Israeli civilian death toll.
In 2002, Dan Halutz, currently the Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff, commented on an attack that dropped a 1,000-kilogram bomb on a residential house to target Hamas leader Salah Shahada. He was killed but so were 15 civilians -- 11 of them children. Afterwards, Halutz said that he felt "excellent" and had "no trouble sleeping." Two weeks ago, the Israeli hard-liner threatened to bomb Lebanon back by 20 years if the soldiers aren't returned. Judging by the devastation in parts of Beirut, where power plants, bridges and buildings are in ruins, it already looks as though Halutz has reached this goal. Meanwhile, growing hatred for the Israelis with their superior air power is only driving more and more recruits into the arms of Hezbollah.
Israel -- the country that applies a double standard when it ignores any United Nations condemnation of its own actions while vehemently demanding Lebanese compliance with UN Resolution 1559, which calls for the disarming of the Hezbollah militia. Israel -- the state that insists on unilaterally dictating its own terms for peace and even attempts to redraw borders in the Middle East without so much as consulting its neighbors.
Can Israel survive this way?
Rarely has the international community been as helpless as in the past days. Rarely have minor clashes involving no more than a few dozen troops escalated so quickly into a war affecting millions, a war that still threatens to turn into a regional firestorm.
The world looks on
At the G-8 summit two weekends ago, the world's leading industrialized powers were once again successful at glossing over their differences, condemning the attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians as having triggered the crisis and calling on the Israelis to exercise restraint. Indeed, the most successful aspect of the statement was that it even materialized.
But the parties to the conflict didn't seem to notice. Hezbollah kept on firing its rockets at Israel and, like the Palestinian militias in Gaza, refused to even discuss the kidnapped Israeli soldiers unless Israel was willing to agree to a large-scale "prisoner exchange." Nasrallah, backed by his Iranian sponsors, whose approval he likely needed before launching the initial attack, apparently believed that his bold move would make him a hero in the Arab world and weaken the Lebanese government.
Israel rejected Hezbollah's "offer," calling it blackmail. Despite his relative lack of military experience, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert suddenly sounded as bellicose as his predecessor Ariel Sharon in his most warlike days. "We will continue the bombardment for as long as we like," he said. Olmert gave the military free rein, allowing it to prepare a ground invasion and fly thousands of sorties against neighboring Lebanon.
"They are tearing our country apart," complained the liberal and pro-Western Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora. "We are facing a humanitarian catastrophe," he said last week, issuing a desperate and urgent appeal to the international community.
With more than half a million people fleeing from the bombs by late last week, dramatic scenes unfolded as civilians waited in line for space on busses and ships. Weeping parents were separated from their children as they were being handed across wire fences to waiting aid workers. The French, the Germans and the Americans evacuated their citizens, leaving the Lebanese behind to figure out where they would be reasonably safe from the deadly aerial bombardments.
The rest of the world was divided. On the one side were Israel and its protector, the United States, which promptly politicized delays over a cease-fire. US President George W. Bush said he didn't want to pressure "our ally" Israel, adding that it has "a right to defend itself." The New York Times reported last Wednesday that the United States had carefully coordinated its response with the Israelis, allowing the Israelis to continue bombing for another week.
The governments in Berlin and London did their best to avoid the issue. Russia, France, Spain and the Vatican formed the opposing front. Though calling the Palestinians' and Hezbollah's actions "terrorism," they demanded a speedy cease-fire. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan criticized Israel with unusual fervor for the "unprecedented scale of death and destruction through excessive use of force." Russian President Vladimir Putin's government said Israel's actions went "well beyond an anti-terror operation." French President Jacques Chirac said that an entire people -- the Lebanese -- had been taken hostage.
Despite its massive military superiority, Israel has acted because it feels threatened and its leaders are fully awareness of its one fundamental weakness. It is a small country about the size of the US state of New Jersey. Less then 20 kilometers (about 12 miles) wide at its narrowest point, it is wedged between the Mediterranean cost and the Palestinian West Bank.
Referring to its precarious situation, strategists often call Israel a "one bomb country." A single nuclear warhead, which Jerusalem is firmly convinced Iran's mullahs are already developing, would be enough to destroy the ability of the Jewish state on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean to survive. Its industrial infrastructure would be largely destroyed, a large swath of the population wiped out and its fertile core rendered uninhabitable.
In an effort to make up for its lack of physical space for military deployment for its defenses, Israel transformed its conventional forces into the Middle East's most modern military. Israeli armed forces also acquired nuclear capabilities as a massive deterrent, should any of its Arab enemies so much as consider using weapons of mass destruction to wipe out Israel.
So far the Israeli arsenal, estimated at up to 400 nuclear warheads, has proven to be effective. For years, neighboring states have kept thousands of tanks and heavy artillery, fighter aircraft and rockets in barracks, bunkers and hangars, weapons they have acquired for the sole purpose of liberating Jerusalem and all of Palestine from what they call the "Zionist occupation." They are weapons the Arab states have been unable to use, since using them against Israel would only bring about their own destruction.
But Hezbollah's attacks threaten to turn Israel into a victim of the same type of asymmetric warfare that has proved so challenging to its ally, the United States, in Iraq and now in Afghanistan. Indeed, the deterrent effect of Israel's war arsenal is lost on the martyr militias of the Palestinian Hamas in Gaza and the Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon -- something far more devastating to Israel's military leadership than the hail of rockets itself. "If deterrence must be reestablished through fighting, then the entire concept has failed. Deterrence must prevent fighting," says Ami Ayalon, a retired Israeli admiral and former chief of domestic intelligence, explaining the chink in Israel's armor.
No one knows exactly how powerful Israel's most recent attacker, Hezbollah, really is. American and Israeli intelligence agencies believe the group has at least 15,000 rockets and 20,000 combatants who can be mobilized at any time. They are supposedly funded by Iran to the tune of $50 million each year.
However, opinions are divided over whether the religious warriors in Lebanon act on direct orders from Tehran, with very few Middle East experts seeing the relationship as one of direct military command. Indeed, Nasrallah's outfit has become far too independent for that -- and, as a state within a state in Lebanon, far too powerful. After all, says Volker Perthes, head of Berlin's Institute for International and Security Affairs, Hezbollah has demonstrated its legitimacy through its success at the polls. But the organization's loyalty to Tehran is rooted in history, since the militia would likely never have been created without help from Iran. The former ambassador in Damascus of Ayatollah Khomeini, Hashemi Mohatshemi, is widely viewed as the founder of Hezbollah. Following Israel's invasion of Beirut in 1982, Iran sent hundreds of its Revolutionary Guard to Lebanon. They brought money, military logistics and a clear ideological message: only jihad, or war in the name of God, could promise victory against the Zionist occupiers.
With spectacular kidnappings, car bombs and suicide attacks in the 1980s, Hezbollah quickly developed a reputation as the most feared extremist organization in a region already rife with extremists. Indeed, former US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage calls them the "A-team of terrorists."
Hezbollah's social activities
To avoid being perceived as merely an extension of the Islamic Republic of Iran, "Hisb Allah," or the "Party of God," put up its own candidates in elections and developed a dense network of social services. It built hospitals, schools and orphanages, created the "Martyr Fund," a social service agency for the families of fallen fighters, and established "Jihad for Reconstruction" to rebuild war-damaged areas. Hezbollah became a popular movement. "We have our roots everywhere in the population," boasts Hezbollah leader Nasrallah, who developed a dual identity for his organization: as a political party in the parliament and as an underground organization in the struggle against Israel.
But Hezbollah experts warn against paying too much attention to the group's social and political functions. "Hezbollah is the second or third most competent military power in the region, after Israel and Iran," says Mark Perry of the Beirut-based Conflicts Forum NGO. Hezbollah researcher Nicholas Noe of Cambridge University stresses the massive psychological effect of the Hezbollah attacks: "No Arab leader since (Egypt's former leader) Nasser has achieved anything like it."
Nevertheless, Nasrallah's troops would be no match for the more than half a million excellently trained and equipped soldiers Israel could send into battle at a moment's notice -- in conventional warfare, that is. The true strength of Israel's sinister attackers lies in their unconventional weaponry, their unconventional approach to warfare and their ability to remain largely hidden. They depend entirely on light handheld weapons, explosives and, most of all, rockets -- lots of rockets.
Hezbollah, says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, author of a book about the Shiite underground organization, is a terrifying enemy "because, as a populist movement, it is able to mobilize members at any time from within every family living in Hezbollah territory. I believe the Israelis know that destroying Hezbollah is literally impossible. They can use any house, any basement or any cave as storage for their weapons and ammunition, and any courtyard, any playground or any intersection can be turned into a battle position within minutes."
Israel's air force has bombed roads and bridges in Lebanon mainly to prevent Hezbollah from moving its arsenal of rockets to positions close to the border, rockets that no longer threaten only a few isolated kibbutzim in northern Israel.
In attacking Haifa, Hezbollah has targeted Israel's third-largest city. Possible attacks on the city's oil and chemical industry carry the risk of unforeseeable damage, both for the environment and for the economic strength of this highly industrialized country. Even the Dimona nuclear center deep in the Negev Desert, the nerve center of Israel's nuclear deterrence, appears to have come within reach of the militia.
Thousands of rockets
The lion's share of the arsenal, Hezbollah's approximately 12,000 Katyusha rockets, is of only limited military value. With a maximum range of 20 kilometers (about 14 miles), the Katyushas -- the Russian diminutive nickname for Katherina -- when fired from positions near the border, are still capable of reaching deep enough into Israeli territory to terrorize the local population. Because these successors to the feared rockets used by the Russians in World War II are not guided, they can only be fired at large-scale targets -- cities or major industrial facilities, for example -- where their warheads, containing up to 18 kilograms of explosives, are nevertheless sufficient to trigger fear and mayhem.
The Israeli army has almost nothing to protect against the Katyushas. The problem is mainly technical. The shorter a rocket's range, the less time there is to intercept it before it strikes. Conventional missile defense systems are essentially useless, partly because the missiles they launch travel at much higher altitudes than the extremely low trajectory of Hezbollah's rockets.
Hezbollah's longer-range rockets are far more dangerous and just as difficult to intercept. The group's arsenal is said to include several hundred Iranian Fajr-3 and Fajr-5 missiles. According to recent intelligence information, the militia has buried these jewels in its arsenal so deeply underground that even Israel's most advanced bunker buster bombs can't reach them. In addition, the depots are said to be guarded by Hezbollah suicide commandoes in the event of a ground assault by Israeli elite units.
The striking power of these missiles justifies the steps Hezbollah has taken to protect them. They are capable of carrying their highly explosive 50-kilogram payloads for distances of between 45 and 75 kilometers (28 to 47 miles). Eight people were killed when a Fajr-3 struck Haifa's train station.
Even the outer suburbs of Tel Aviv, Israel's largest city, are at risk of attack from the longer-range missiles. Several dozen Iranian Silsal-2 missiles apparently provide the Shiites with the capacity to strike targets up to 200 kilometers (124 miles) away. One day their 600-kilogram warheads could even be filled with chemical weapons, rendering them capable of terrorizing large parts of Israel.
Israel does have air defense capabilities against the Silsal -- domestic Arrow and US Patriot missile systems. A number of these batteries have already been put into position. But Israeli forces cannot rely completely on the effectiveness of their high-tech missile defense gear. During the 1991 Gulf war, they achieved only a 50 percent success rate against Saddam Hussein's outdated Scud missiles.
The Israeli Navy, which until now has operated unopposed in Lebanon's sovereign waters, has few defenses against weapons it hadn't even known Hezbollah possessed.
The C-802 cruise missile is one of the Iranian military's most effective anti-ship weapons. Traveling close to the speed of sound, the radar-controlled cruise missile races toward its target at just a few meters above the surface of the sea. The C-802 is practically undetectable by normal air defense radar devices and is lethally accurate.
Four sailors died when one of the missiles struck the Israeli corvette "Speer." A second C-802 sank a Cambodian freighter. A variation of the Chinese "Silkworm" missile, the C-802 is considered one of the greatest threats to oil shipping in the Straits of Hormuz in the event of a military conflict with Iran.
Because the C-802 needs a long-range surveillance radar system to lock onto its targets, the Israeli air force promptly bombarded the Lebanese military's coastal radar stations. Israel's military leadership hopes the move will at least have made another C-802 attack more difficult.
Owing to its poor interception capabilities, the Israeli air force is redoubling its efforts to seek out and destroy Hezbollah's mobile launching pads before the rockets can be prepared for launch. The Israeli military says it has already destroyed a dozen larger missiles that Hezbollah, using conventional guerilla tactics, is hiding in residential areas -- thereby essentially inviting attacks on its own civilian population.
Continue reading about the chaos in Beirut on page 3.
Beirut, the metropolis that was hoping to regain its status as a Paris of the Middle East, looks as if it has been thrown back into the darkest days of the Lebanese civil war -- an urban nightmare. Mountains of garbage are rotting in the streets, with the power grid only sporadically providing electricity.
The dark streets of the capital itself are practically empty in the evening and at night, as residents behind closed doors and windows listen to Israeli bombs predominantly hitting the city's otherwise hopelessly overcrowded Shiite southern districts.
Conversely, a few hotels in downtown Beirut are relatively full, not with tourists from the Gulf region, whose drivers would normally be fighting for parking spaces at this time of the year, but with the few wealthy families from southern Lebanon who have sought shelter here and are paying for the privilege to the tune of $100 a night. They wait here to see if the storm passes and they can return to their homes, or else leave the country altogether. The going rate for a taxi ride to Damascus, which would normally be about $200, is now $750.
The city's parks and schools are also filled to capacity, especially in Christian neighborhoods in downtown Beirut, where exhausted refugees from the bombing in the south have come for safety. But even in the Lebanese capital's Christian districts, the refugees are no longer safe from Israeli attack. Last Wednesday, an aerial bomb struck in Ashrafiya, Beirut's largest and best-known Christian area, tearing apart a truck that was carrying well-drilling equipment. Israeli officials later said that on the air force's reconnaissance images the equipment looked like an anti-aircraft gun. "Do the Israelis seriously believe that Hezbollah would drive a rocket launcher around Ashrafiya?" asks one of the residents, an American. "I thought they had the world's best intelligence services."
But even such horrible mistakes and vehement international criticism of the Israeli campaign's lack of proportionality have been unable to stem Jerusalem's will to press on. The operation Israel calls "Just Reward" has already wreaked greater havoc than 15 years of civil war in Lebanon. The power supply, drinking water and transportation system have been severely curtailed and are already virtually nonexistent in the south. And now that even filling stations are being targeted, gasoline prices have risen sixfold in some areas. On top of it all, the campaign against Hezbollah is only the northern flank in Israel's fight against terrorism.
In the shadow of the war in Lebanon, Israeli troops continue to fight on the Gaza front, which Hamas opened last month when it kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. The Israeli army launches new attacks each day into the completely isolated, poverty-stricken strip of land along the Mediterranean coast. F-16 fighter jets constantly roar across the skies above the tiny territory, which, with its 1.4 million inhabitants, is one of the world's most densely populated regions. Tanks roll through the winding streets of Palestinian refugee camps, the navy shells targets from the sea and special forces engage in house-to-house combat with the militant Palestinians of Islamic Jihad, the Al-Aqsa Brigades and, most of all, Hamas.
And almost every day, the Palestinians launch their home-made Qassam rockets at Israeli border towns like Sderot, killing Israeli civilians.
The southern front
Qassam rockets are simple do-it-yourself weapons. The parts are smuggled in from Egypt and the rockets are assembled in basements and apartments and then launched from vehicles or mobile launching pads. It's a child's game, but a deadly one at that, especially as the Palestinians are constantly improving the Qassam's range. Starting with a range of three, then eight kilometers, the Qassams are now capable of striking Ashkelon, 12 kilometers from the border and the site of one of Israel's main power plants.
About a hundred rockets fly across the border each month. That number will soon increase, at least according to a bearded young man who goes by the name Abu Their and says he is the spokesman for an Al-Aqsa Brigade fighting unit. "We have started a campaign, together with the other martyrs," says the self-proclaimed resistance fighter. "Together we will fire 1,000 rockets against the occupation -- in solidarity with Hezbollah's struggle." He sits on a plastic chair, against a backdrop of concrete walls decorated with posters of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the yellow flag of the Al-Aqsa Brigades, which depicts an assault rifle. "Hezbollah is defending their country," he says, "and of course we support their fight," says Abu Their, his eyes flashing.
To decisively weaken these enemies, both in northern and southern Israel, the country's most powerful ally has assured the Olmert government that it will only insist on a cease-fire once Israeli forces are able to achieve their military goals.
For US President George Bush, the war is more than just another round of fighting in the endless Middle East conflict. Instead, Bush sees Israel's battle against Hezbollah as a new front in the worldwide war on terror. Indeed, the president and his administration see the new Middle East crisis less as a threat than as an opportunity. The White House once again sees a struggle between good and evil unfolding in the Middle East, with Israel battling the powers that have blocked peace in the region. "Sometimes it requires tragic situations to help bring clarity in the international community," the US president said coolly.
This alone was reason enough for Bush to show little interest in the cease-fire proposed by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. In his view, Israel should be allowed to go about its business -- at least for the additional week the administration in Jerusalem told Washington it would need to significantly weaken Hezbollah. "The support we are receiving is exemplary," said an overjoyed Olmert advisor. As UN diplomats in New York realized last week, America has apparently abandoned once and for all its role as an honest broker in the Middle East.
Even US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a visible effort to postpone the date of her trip to the region to begin peace talks until this week.
Bush blames Syria and Iran
Bush sees constant troublemakers Syria and Iran as the driving force behind the outbreak of violence. In Washington's interpretation, the two countries have joined forces with Hamas and Hezbollah in an effort to plunge the Middle East into what President Bush calls "chaos" -- which the president interprets as a highly personal declaration of war. Indeed, Bush still clings to his dream of entering the history books, in the wake of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, as the reformer of the Middle East.
As part of this worldview, Washington has set its sights on the regime of young Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. In recent years, Assad has revealed his colors as one of Nasrallah's most ardent supporters. The ruler of Damascus will do almost anything for the head of Hezbollah. He allows the Iranian weapons that are critical to Hezbollah's success to pass through Syria. He provides Hezbollah officials with safe haven and, if necessary, comfortable living quarters in Damascus. Hezbollah fighters are even permitted to hold parades in Syrian cities, to enthusiastic applause by local residents -- the kind of applause Assad's own soldiers never receive.
Most of all, however, Bush's policies in the Middle East are currently guided by his fixation on Tehran's mullahs. On the one hand, the US president is convinced that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president and notorious Israel-hater, has sent Hezbollah into battle to prevent further escalation of the conflict over Tehran's nuclear ambitions. US government officials said last week that Tehran hopes to use the current crisis to drive up oil prices to a point where the West will think twice about imposing painful economic sanctions.
Bush also believes that the Hezbollah attacks are merely a taste of what the region can expect if the mullahs are not stopped. This is another reason Bush has given the Israelis free rein, calculating that if it does come to a military confrontation with Iran, at least Ahmadinejad will be unable to count on support from his backup troops in Lebanon. Washington says it will only support efforts to achieve a political solution to the crisis, including the deployment of UN peacekeepers, if UN Resolution 1559 is fully implemented. The Security Council resolution calls for the disarming of all Lebanese militias, including Hezbollah.
Washington seems relatively unfazed by the fact that the conflict is steadily destroying Lebanon. In April Bush, smiling broadly, promised Lebanese Prime Minister that his country would be a "shining model" for a new, democratic Middle East. The destruction, while regrettable, is unavoidable from Bush's standpoint.
The difference between Hezbollah and the PLO
But Israel's hope that it can destroy Hezbollah in Lebanon by force could prove to be illusory, even if it is fueled by memories of the country's successful ouster of the PLO in 1982. At the time, Yasser Arafat and the entire Palestinian leadership fled Beirut ahead of an Israeli invasion, traveling on five Greek ships flying the UN flag, first to Athens and then to exile in Tunisia. Although the PLO's influence in Lebanon was destroyed, the Israelis' success did not bring peace to the region by any stretch of the imagination.
But this time the prospects for success are even slimmer. Arafat was a Palestinian and therefore a foreigner in Lebanon. Hezbollah leader Nasrallah is Lebanese. "Arafat was fighting for Palestine," says Nabih Berri, the president of the Lebanese parliament and the country's highest-ranking Shiite. "Nasrallah is fighting for Lebanon." This also applies to the rest of Hezbollah's leadership and its entire combat force.
The PLO was the enemy of all Lebanese factions in that country's civil war, even fighting against Syria. Although Hezbollah was isolated for a short time after the Syrian withdrawal last year, it still has allies in Lebanon and especially in Syria.
The 1982 Israeli invasion took the PLO by surprise. Hezbollah, on the other hand, appears to have been preparing for the current war for years. It has established weapons and ammunition depots throughout the country, mainly in southern Lebanon, but also in the Bekaa Valley and in the northern Hermel region.
Hezbollah's combat strength isn't the only reason Nasrallah continued to issue defiant statements from his apparent hiding places late last week despite the large-scale Israeli bombing campaign. The Hezbollah leader's rise to prominence also reflects the self-confidence of an entire denomination whose world changed fundamentally after the 2003 Iraq war. The world's approximately 150 million Shiites, from Lucknow in India to the Biblical hills of southern Lebanon, minorities in most of the countries where they live, have since felt buoyed by current events.
As Jordan's King Abdullah II warned a year and a half ago, a nightmare scenario for Sunni Arab leaders would be the development of a "Shiite crescent" from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean, a wedge inserted between Sunni populations across the Islamic world.
The Shiite threat
A new concept of the enemy is emerging -- and not just in the West -- a concept promoted for self-serving reasons by the leaders of the major Sunni states, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, whose regimes find themselves facing challenges from extremists. The evil Shiite, carried to the grave in 1989 with the death of Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, is reemerging from the depths -- in the form of Iranian President Ahmadinejad, Iraqi Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr and now Hezbollah leader Nasrallah.
For its part, a frighteningly pragmatic Tehran is attempting to wipe aside the differences between Sunnis and Shiites, seemingly insurmountable in the past, to expand its own power even further. In addition to supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon, militias in Iraq and Shiite groups in Syria, Azerbaijan and Qatar, Tehran has no trouble lending its support to Hamas, a deeply Sunni movement whose fringes overlap with al-Qaida's ideology. "There is a deep divide between Sunnis and Shiites, says Mustafa Alani of the Gulf Research Center in Dubai. "But they have one concept in common: jihad, or holy war." It's a war in which the ultimate goal is to crush the decadent West and its most powerful outpost in the Middle East: Israel.
The Jewish state certainly feels more threatened than it has been in years, which is why Israel has also been highly critical of the idea, proposed by Annan and British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg, of stationing a peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon. After all, UNIFIL, the current UN mission in Lebanon, has been unable to reduce the threat from Hezbollah.
Possibly the only solution acceptable to Jerusalem would be a NATO-led peacekeeping force based on the Kosovo model, a force that would be set up in a buffer zone and authorized to use its weapons to prevent attacks on Israel. But whether Beirut, which only managed to shake off the Syrian occupation last year, would agree to such a powerful foreign military presence once again is highly questionable.
To Israeli critics of operation "Just Reward," who see the war as unwarranted, this all comes as a foreboding sign. "Only a strong government would have been able to make it clear to the Israelis that the kidnapping of two soldiers isn't worth a war," said Israeli historian Tom Segev, who has been highly critical of his prime minister.
But aside from a few critics, Israelis have rarely been more unified. In an opinion poll conducted last Friday, 95 percent of respondents said they felt Israel's reaction to the Hezbollah abduction was correct, while 90 percent were in favor of continuing the war.
The current mood reminds many older Israelis of the country's solidarity and unity in June of 1967, when the Jewish state successfully defended its right to exist against the armies of Jordan, Egypt and Syria -- in a conventional war.
This time even pacifist writer and intellectual Amos Oz supports the Israeli military action. "Israel," says Oz, "is right in waging this war." Though well aware of the fact that many in other countries disagree, the author, winner of a German book industry peace prize, defiantly adds: "Every decent person must support this war."
Given this amount of public support, Israel even plans to expand its attacks, calling up thousands of reservists. By all indications, the Israeli military plans to attack Hezbollah in a ground offensive. The warnings Israeli officials distributed among the population of southern Lebanon triggered a widespread panic. In leaflets, radio broadcasts and text messages sent to local officials, the Israelis warned civilians to leave the region south of the Litani River as quickly as possible -- unless they planned to risk their lives.
Reported by Dieter Bednarz, Erich Follath, Siegesmund von Ilsemann, Georg Mascolo, Mathieu von Rohr, Christoph Schult, Daniel Steinvorth, Volkhard Windfuhr and Bernhard Zand.
Translated from German by Christopher Sultan