by ROBERT PAPE | The New York Times | August 3, 2006
ISRAEL has finally conceded that air power alone will not defeat Hezbollah. Over the coming weeks, it will learn that ground power won’t work either. The problem is not that the Israelis have insufficient military might, but that they misunderstand the nature of the enemy.
Contrary to the conventional wisdom, Hezbollah is principally neither a political party nor an Islamist militia. It is a broad movement that evolved in reaction to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in June 1982. At first it consisted of a small number of Shiites supported by Iran. But as more and more Lebanese came to resent Israel’s occupation, Hezbollah — never tight-knit — expanded into an umbrella organization that tacitly coordinated the resistance operations of a loose collection of groups with a variety of religious and secular aims.
In terms of structure and hierarchy, it is less comparable to, say, a religious cult like the Taliban than to the multidimensional American civil-rights movement of the 1960’s. What made its rise so rapid, and will make it impossible to defeat militarily, was not its international support but the fact that it evolved from a reorientation of pre-existing Lebanese social groups.
Evidence of the broad nature of Hezbollah’s resistance to Israeli occupation can be seen in the identity of its suicide attackers. Hezbollah conducted a broad campaign of suicide bombings against American, French and Israeli targets from 1982 to 1986. Altogether, these attacks — which included the infamous bombing of the Marine barracks in 1983 — involved 41 suicide terrorists.
In writing my book on suicide attackers, I had researchers scour Lebanese sources to collect martyr videos, pictures and testimonials and the biographies of the Hezbollah bombers. Of the 41, we identified the names, birth places and other personal data for 38. Shockingly, only eight were Islamic fundamentalists. Twenty-seven were from leftist political groups like the Lebanese Communist Party and the Arab Socialist Union. Three were Christians, including a female high-school teacher with a college degree. All were born in Lebanon.
What these suicide attackers — and their heirs today — shared was not a religious or political ideology but simply a commitment to resisting a foreign occupation. Nearly two decades of Israeli military presence did not root out Hezbollah. The only thing that has proven to end suicide attacks, in Lebanon and elsewhere, is withdrawal by the occupying force.
Thus the new Israeli land offensive may take ground and destroy weapons, but it has little chance of destroying the Hezbollah movement. In fact, in the wake of the bombings of civilians, the incursion will probably aid Hezbollah’s recruiting.
Equally important, Israel’s incursion is also squandering the good will it had initially earned from so-called moderate Arab states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The countries are the court of opinion that matters because, while Israel cannot crush Hezbollah, it could achieve a more limited goal: ending Hezbollah’s acquisition of more missiles through Syria.
Given Syria’s total control of its border with Lebanon, stemming the flow of weapons is a job for diplomacy, not force. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, Sunni-led nations that want stability in the region, are motivated to stop the rise of Hezbollah. Under the right conditions, the United States might be able to help assemble an ad hoc coalition of Syria’s neighbors to entice and bully it to prevent Iranian, Chinese or other foreign missiles from entering Lebanon. It could also offer to begin talks over the future of the Golan Heights.
But Israel must take the initiative. Unless it calls off the offensive and accepts a genuine cease-fire, there are likely to be many, many dead Israelis in the coming weeks — and a much stronger Hezbollah.
Robert A. Pape, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, is the author of “Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism.”