Gallipoli and the Lebanese Quagmire

The Israeli public has bitter memories of IDF’s incursions into Lebanon, but without such direct intervention the war against Hezbollah cannot be won.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on August 1, 2006.)

At the outbreak of World War I, Winston Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty – in American parlance, Secretary of the Navy. Hoping to bypass the attrition of trench warfare in France, he initiated the plan for a landing in the Dardanelles Straits – the Gallipoli campaign (a campaign in which Yosef Trumpeldor participated at the head of the Zion Mule Corps). It began in February 1915, and by the time British forces withdrew at the end of the year, they had suffered over 250,000 casualties.

The campaign was a complete fiasco and tarnished Churchill’s reputation, eventually sending him into the political wilderness for many years. It is quite likely that when, as prime minister during World War II almost 30 years later, he initially opposed the plans for an Allied amphibious landing in Normandy, he was influenced by the traumatic memories of the Gallipoli campaign. But his hesitations were overcome and Franklin Roosevelt’s opinion prevailed.

Israel’s invasion of Lebanon similarly tarnished the reputation of Ariel Sharon, sending him into the political wilderness for many years and leaving behind a traumatic memory of the “Lebanese quagmire.” There is little doubt that Israeli government decision makers were obsessed by traumatic memories of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 – which stretched into an Israel Defense Forces presence in Lebanon that ended in 2000 – when they decided to limit Israel’s response to the latest Hezbollah provocation to aerial attacks against targets in Lebanon. “We will not be dragged into the Lebanese quagmire,” our leaders declared over and over again, wanting to believe that the job could be done cleanly and neatly from the air.

Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, who seems to have a good knowledge of Israeli society, its fears and trepidations, played on this psychological block, announcing that his fighters had prepared a proper reception for the IDF soldiers if they were to enter Lebanon. The Israeli response was that we were not going to be dragged into this trap – the air force would do the job. The inescapable conclusion is that Nasrallah is pretty good at psychological warfare. So for over two weeks, the Israel Air Force bombed Lebanon, while Hezbollah launched an average of a hundred rockets a day against Israel’s cities and villages, and over a million Israelis took to the shelters or abandoned their homes.

There is probably no better air force than the IAF, but it should have been clear from the start that suppressing the rocket attacks against Israel could not be left to the IAF alone. And suppressing these rocket attacks must be the IDF’s primary objective in this war. Not only to protect Israeli civilians, but because the outcome of Israel’s war against Hezbollah will be measured in the minds of the Arab world by the degree to which Israel was successful in suppressing the Hezbollah rocket assault. The accomplishment of the government’s stated aims for this war – the substantial weakening of Hezbollah’s military capabilities and its removal from southern Lebanon – is dependent on that. On the other hand, the perception that Nasrallah was victorious in this war will have dire consequences for Israel and for the entire Middle East.

If the IAF is not successful in suppressing the rocket attacks, can a major campaign by ground forces supported by the IAF do it? When the IDF reaches many of the areas from which rockets are being launched against northern Israel, rocket attacks will be substantially reduced. The IDF has not told us what percentage of the hundred or so rockets a day are being launched from southern Lebanon and what percentage of the rockets in Hezbollah’s arsenal do not have the range to hit Israel from launching sites beyond southern Lebanon. That information, which is surely available, would make it clear that the entry of ground forces into Lebanon would substantially reduce the number of rockets hitting Israel.

That is what suppression is all about. It does not lose its effectiveness even if some rockets capable of hitting Israel from more distant launching sites remain in Hezbollah’s arsenal. In addition, the bigger, longer-range rockets and their launchers are more easily located and destroyed from the air than are the smaller, short-range rockets.

Can IDF ground forces, given air support by the IAF, gain control of much of southern Lebanon? Considering the IDF’s superiority in numbers and equipment over the few thousand Hezbollah fighters there, this should not be in doubt. So why has this not been done? The obsession with the traumatic memories of the “Lebanese quagmire” seems to have unduly influenced our decision makers. Such memories may be hard to shake off, but they should not be the basis of the government’s decisions in waging this war, which is so fateful for Israel’s future.

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