The Lessons of Lebanon

Uri Avnery

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SO WHAT HAS happened to the Israeli army? This
question is now being raised not only around the world, but also in Israel
itself. Clearly, there is a huge gap between the army’s boastful arrogance,
on which generations of Israelis have grown up, and the picture presented
by this war.

Before the choir of generals utters their expected cries of
being stabbed in the back “The government has shackled our hands! The
politicians did not allow the army to win! The political leadership is to
blame for everything!” it is worthwhile to examine this war from a
professional military point of view.

(Who am I to speak about strategic matters? What am I, a general? Well I
was 16 years old when World War II broke out. I decided then to study
military theory in order to be able to follow events. I read a few hundred
books from Sun Tzu to Clausewitz to Liddel-Hart and on. Later, in the 1948
war, I saw the other side of the medal, as a soldier and squad-leader. I
have written two books on the war. That does not make me a great
strategist, but it does allow me to voice an informed opinion.)

The facts speak for themselves:

  • On the 32nd day of the war, Hizbullah is still standing and fighting.
    That by itself is a stunning feat: a small guerilla organization, with a
    few thousand fighters, is standing up to one of the strongest armies in the
    world and has not been broken after a month of “pulverizing.” Since 1948,
    the armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan have repeatedly been beaten in wars
    that were much shorter.

    As I have already said: if a light-weight boxer is fighting a
    heavy-weight champion and is still standing in the 12th round, the victory
    is his whatever the count of points says.

  • In the test of results the only one that counts in war the strategic
    and tactical command of Hizbullah is decidedly better than that of our own
    army. All along, our army’s strategy has been primitive, brutal and

  • Clearly, Hizbullah has prepared well for this war while the Israeli
    command has prepared for a quite different war.

  • On the level of individual fighters, the Hizbullah are not inferior to
    our soldiers, either in bravery nor in initiative.

Guilt for Failure

The main guilt for the failure belongs with General Dan
Halutz. I say “guilt” and not merely “responsibility,” which comes with the
job. He is living proof of the fact that an inflated ego and a brutal
attitude are not enough to create a competent Chief-of-Staff. The opposite
may be true.

Halutz gained fame (or notoriety) when he was asked what he felt when he
drops a one-ton bomb on a residential quarter [in Gaza ed.] and answered:
“a slight bump on the wing.” He added that afterwards he sleeps well at
night. (In the same interview he also called me and my friends “traitors”
who should be prosecuted.)

Halutz started this war with the bluster of an Air-Force officer. He
believed that it was possible to crush Hizbullah by aerial bombardment,
supplemented by artillery shelling from land and sea. He believed that if
he destroyed the towns, neighborhoods, roads and ports of Lebanon, the
Lebanese people would rise and compel their government to remove Hizbullah.
For a week he killed and devastated, until it became clear to everybody
that this method achieves the opposite strengthens Hizbullah, weakens its
opponents within Lebanon and throughout the Arab world and destroys the
worldwide sympathy Israel enjoyed at the beginning of the war.

When he reached this point, Halutz did not know what to do next. For
three weeks he sent his soldiers into Lebanon on senseless and hopeless
missions. Even in the battles that were fought in villages right on the
border, no significant victories were achieved. After the fourth week, when
he was requested to submit a plan to the government, it was unbelievably

If the “enemy” had been a regular army, it would have been a bad plan.
Just pushing the enemy back is hardly a strategy at all. But when the other
side is a guerilla force, this is simply foolish. It may cause the death of
many soldiers, for no practical result.

Now [August 13 ed.] he is trying to achieve a token victory, occupying
empty space as far from the border as possible, after the UN has already
called for an end to the hostilities. (As in almost all previous Israeli
wars, this call is being ignored, in the hope of snatching some gains at
the last moment.) Behind this line, Hizbullah remains intact in their

However, the Chief-of-Staff does not act in a vacuum. As
Commander-in-Chief he has indeed a huge influence, but he is also merely
the top of the military pyramid. This war casts a dark shadow on the whole
upper echelon of our army. Almost all the many officers that have appeared
on TV are unimpressive, uninspiring professionals, experts on covering
their behinds, repeating empty clichés like parrots. The ex-generals, who
have been crowding out everybody else in the TV and radio studios, have
also mostly surprised us with their mediocrity, limited intelligence and
general ignorance.

More than once it has been said in this column that an army that has
been acting for many years as a colonial police force against the
Palestinian population “terrorists,” women and children and spending its
time running after stone-throwing boys, cannot remain an efficient army.
The test of results confirms this.

Corrupted by Occupation & Racism

After every failure of our military, the intelligence
community is quick to cover its ass. Their chiefs declare they knew
everything–they provided the troops with full and accurate information;
they are not to blame if the army did not act on it.

That does not sound reasonable. Judging from the reactions of the
commanders in the field, they clearly were completely unaware of the
defense system built by Hizbullah in South Lebanon. The complex
infrastructure of hidden bunkers, stocked with modern equipment and
stockpiles of food and weapons was a complete surprise for the army. It was
not ready for these bunkers, including those built two or three kilometers
from the border. They are reminiscent of the tunnels in Vietnam.

The intelligence community has also been corrupted by the long
occupation of the Palestinian territories. They have gotten used to relying
on the thousands of collaborators that have been recruited in the course of
39 years by torture, bribery and extortion (junkies needing drugs, someone
begging to be allowed to visit his dying mother, someone desiring a chunk
from the cake of corruption, etc.) Clearly, no collaborators were found
among the Hizbullah, and without them intelligence is blind.

It is also clear that Intelligence, and the army in general, was not
ready for the deadly efficiency of Hizbullah’s anti-tank weapons. Hard to
believe, but according to official figures, more than 20 tanks were

The common denominator of all the failures is the disdain for Arabs, a
contempt that has dire consequences. It has caused total misunderstanding,
a kind of blindness of Hizbullah’s motives, attitudes, standing in Lebanese
society, etc.

I am convinced that today’s soldiers are in no way inferior to their
predecessors. Their motivation is high, they have shown great bravery in
the evacuation of the wounded under fire. But the best soldiers cannot
succeed when the command is incompetent.

Lessons for the Future

History teaches that defeat can be a great blessing for an
army. A victorious army rests on its laurels, it has no motive for
self-criticism, it degenerates, its commanders become careless and lose the
next war (see: The Six-day war leading to the Yom Kippur war). A defeated
army, on the other side, knows that it must rehabilitate itself. On one
condition–that it admits defeat.

After this war, the Chief-of-Staff must be dismissed and the senior
officer corps overhauled. For that, a Minister of Defense is needed who is
not a marionette of the Chief-of-Staff. (But that concerns the political
leadership, about whose failures and sins we shall speak another time.)

We [the Israeli peace camp] have a great interest in changing the
military leadership. First, because it has a huge impact on the forming of
policy and, as we just saw, irresponsible commanders can easily drag the
government into dangerous adventures. And second, because even after
achieving peace we shall need an efficient army at least until the wolf
lies down with the lamb, as the prophet Isaiah promised. (And not in the
Israeli version: “No problem. One only has to bring a new lamb every

The main lesson of the war, beyond all military analysis, lies in the
five words we inscribed on our banner from the very first day: “There is no
military solution!”

Even a strong army cannot defeat a guerilla organization, because the
guerilla is a political phenomenon. Perhaps the opposite is true: the
stronger the army, the better equipped with advanced technology, the
smaller are its chances of winning such a confrontation. Our conflict in
the North, the Center and the South is a political conflict, and can only
be resolved by political means. The army is the instrument worst suited for

The war has proved that Hizbullah is a strong opponent, and any
political solution in the North must include it. Since Syria is its strong
ally, it must also be included. The settlement must be worthwhile for them
too, otherwise it will not last. The price is the return of the Golan
Heights [Syrian territory captured in 1967 ed.]

What is true in the North is also true in the South. The army will not
defeat the Palestinians, because such a victory is altogether impossible.
For the good of the army, it must be extricated from the quagmire. If that
now enters the consciousness of the Israeli public, something good may yet
have come out of this war.

ATC 124, September-October 2006