Deterrence against terror groups is an elusive concept

Withdrawals persuade Israel’s enemies that Israel is weak. And the state has abandoned its duty to assure the safety of the civilian population.

Moshe_Arens_cropped-150x150By Moshe Arens

Fifteen years ago Ehud Barak, as prime minister and defense minister, took one hell of a gamble. He ordered the Israel Defense Forces’ unilateral withdrawal from the south Lebanon security zone, abandoning in haste Israel’s allies of many years, the South Lebanon Army.

It was one more move in the seemingly never-ending deadly game of Israel versus Hezbollah. The game isn’t over by a long shot, but it’s not too early to venture an assessment of this bold move.

Four years earlier in 1996, while Shimon Peres was prime minister and defense minister, the IDF conducted a 16-day campaign against Hezbollah, Operation Grapes of Wrath. It ended in a UN-brokered cease-fire providing that Hezbollah not use Lebanese villages for attacks against Israeli targets and Israel refrain from attacking Lebanese villages.

But Hezbollah kept on using villages as bases for attacks against Israel, while Israel stuck to the agreement and was now fighting Hezbollah with one hand tied behind its back. Fighting between Hezbollah and the IDF continued over the next four years, during which the IDF lost about 24 soldiers a year. It was Barak’s intention to put an end to these losses.

His calculation was simple. After an IDF withdrawal to the international border, Hezbollah would have no reason to attack Israel and would limit its activities to Lebanese politics.

To preempt the possibility of such attacks, he warned that Israel would retaliate with devastating blows that would “set fire” to Lebanon. After having UN officials confirm that the IDF had withdrawn to the international border, he believed he had the legitimacy for that kind of response, and Hezbollah would be deterred from taking any hostile action against Israel.

It didn’t quite work out that way. Hezbollah struck again and Barak didn’t make good on his warning. A number of Hezbollah provocations finally led to the 2006 Second Lebanon War in which thousands of rockets were launched at Israel and 165 Israeli soldiers and civilians lost their lives. It was a reminder that deterrence against a terrorist organization and legitimacy are elusive concepts. Whether in the balance the 2000 withdrawal saved Israeli lives is not at all certain.

The withdrawal did create a perception in the eyes of Israel’s enemies of Israeli weakness. Hezbollah emerged victorious, becoming the dominant power in Lebanon, and began amassing a vast arsenal of rockets and missiles aimed at Israel.

Hassan Nasrallah did not miss the opportunity to celebrate “victory.” Two days after the May 26, 2000, withdrawal from Bint Jbeil, abandoned by the IDF, he announced: “We offer this victory to our oppressed people in occupied Palestine, O our people in Palestine your destiny is in your hands …. Your path to freedom is through serious resistance and a real uprising, intifada …. Israel is weaker than a spiderweb.” Four months later, in September 2000, the second intifada broke out, claiming thousands of Israeli victims.

A sinister part of Barak’s unilateral withdrawal was the abandonment of Israel’s allies the South Lebanon Army. They had for years fought side by side with the soldiers of the IDF and had sustained losses greater than those of the IDF. Israel betrayed them.

But the long-term effects of the withdrawal are the most serious of all. Israel abandoned its traditional defense doctrine that it is the state’s duty to assure the safety of the civilian population.

That’s why David Ben-Gurion insisted that France’s air force guard the skies and ensure the safety of Israel’s civilian population before he agreed to Israel’s participation in the 1956 Suez Campaign. That’s why Menachem Begin launched Operation Peace for the Galilee in 1983 to protect the civilian population in the north from rocket attacks from southern Lebanon. That’s why Israel maintained a presence in the south Lebanon security zone for years.

Since then, almost unnoticed, Israeli withdrawals and the increasing rocket ranges have brought Israel’s entire civilian population under the threat of rocket and missile attacks. The game is not over.

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