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by Peter Hirschberg

Israel's Lebanon, America's Iraq

(IPS) JERUSALEM -- As a ceasefire went into effect Monday morning between Israel and Hezbollah and a tense calm descended on the region, Israelis were wondering whether the truce would hold, and were beginning to ask questions about what they had gained -- or lost -- during the 33 days of fighting.

With the ceasefire going into effect at 5 am GMT, Israelis in northern Israel began emerging from their bomb shelters where they have spent much of the last month, as it appeared that Hezbollah had halted its daily barrage of rockets on towns across northern Israel.

But for Israelis, the litmus test in the coming days will be to what extent the United Nations ceasefire resolution, which calls for the deployment of an international force and the Lebanese Army in south Lebanon, and the removal of Hezbollah from the area, is implemented.

Cabinet ministers, who voted overwhelmingly in favor of the resolution with only one minister out of 25 abstaining, have publicly praised the terms they say the government extracted during tough ceasefire negotiations, but privately many are skeptical over whether they can actually be implemented.

Israel's insistence on staying put in south Lebanon until an international force deploys, to ensure Hezbollah does not re-establish itself in the area, was accepted by the UN. But the Israeli military is concerned that Hezbollah fighters will carry out attacks on soldiers on the ground. In the 12 hours after the ceasefire went into effect, six Hezbollah fighters were killed in clashes with Israeli troops.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Monday that Israel would not countenance a situation in which its soldiers became "sitting ducks." But Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah made it clear that the Shia organization will continue targeting Israeli troops as long as they remained on Lebanese soil.

The longer Israeli troops stay on the ground, the more confrontations there will be with Hezbollah fighters, and violence could again escalate, threatening the nascent ceasefire.

Israeli military chiefs have recommended to the political leadership that if the ceasefire holds, then troops should be pulled out of south Lebanon as quickly as possible. This will also depend on how quickly the Lebanese Army and foreign troops are deployed in the area.

With a political battle beginning to erupt in Israel over the outcome of the fighting, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert addressed lawmakers in parliament Sunday, telling them that Hezbollah had been dealt a "harsh blow" and that a situation in which "a terrorist organization is allowed to act inside a state as an arm of the axis of evil" no longer existed. Israel's offensive, he said, had changed the "strategic balance" in the region in its favour.

But speaking after Olmert, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, the head of the right-wing Likud party, said the goals set out by the government "weren't achieved." The two abducted Israeli soldiers, he said, had not been released, Hezbollah had not been disarmed, and the missile threat posed by Hezbollah had not been eradicated.

Some cabinet ministers were more circumspect than the Prime Minister. Livni told reporters that the UN resolution was "the best that could be extracted from the Security Council" and that it "could bring about the disarming of Hezbollah.."

The major achievement for Israel, she said, was the expansion of UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) that has been in south Lebanon since 1978 to 15,000 troops (from 2,000) and the fact that the ceasefire resolution authorized it to use force to impose its authority.

Israeli leaders have always been skeptical about the effectiveness of an international peacekeeping force, and that skepticism has not disappeared in the wake of the truce agreement.

When asked why Israel had gone ahead with a massive ground push after a ceasefire resolution had already been adopted by the Security Council, foreign ministry spokesman Mark Regev replied that Israel wanted to weaken Hezbollah as much as possible in south Lebanon before handing the area over to an international force.

"The logic would be that even in the framework of this successful outcome, if you hand over to the Lebanese army a cleaner south Lebanon, a south Lebanon where you have Hezbollah removed from the territory, that makes their (the Lebanese) troubles a lot easier," he said.

While Hezbollah's abduction of two Israeli soldiers on Jul. 12 on Israel's northern border triggered the fighting, their release was not included as a condition for implementation of the ceasefire. Instead, a call for them to be freed was included in the preamble to the resolution. Olmert reportedly told the soldiers' parents Sunday that he would begin negotiations for their release.

Cognizant of the growing calls for an inquiry into how the military campaign was conducted, Olmert told lawmakers Monday that there were "shortcomings" and that they would have to be "reviewed."

He may have to agree to more than that, especially if there is growing public discontent over the manner in which the political and military leadership managed the offensive. While believing the military offensive was fully justified, some politicians have already begun calling for a state commission of inquiry into what they believe was a poorly managed campaign.

Did the military rely too heavily on the air force in the first days of the fighting? Why did the army wait so long to launch a massive ground assault aimed at stopping the rocket fire on northern Israel? And why, once a ceasefire had been achieved, did Olmert order a massive ground operation?

Why were reserve soldiers lacking basic equipment? Why did soldiers not always have enough food to eat in the field? Why were the bomb shelters in many northern towns in such a poor state as to render them uninhabitable?

Why did the government not provide for the basic needs of those people who remained in the north and did not travel south out of range of the rockets? Why did the government not organize accommodation in areas out of range of the rockets for those residents of northern Israel who wanted to leave but did not have the means to do so?

These are just some of the questions that Israel's political and military leadership will have to answer in the coming weeks and months.

Already political commentators in the Israeli media are weighing in over who should shoulder responsibility for how the campaign was managed. In an article titled 'Olmert must go,' columnist Ari Shavit wrote Friday on the front page of the Haaretz daily that "you cannot lead an entire nation to war promising victory, produce humiliating defeat and remain in power."

But writing in Haaretz Monday, in an article 'Olmert must stay,' diplomatic columnist Akiva Eldar argued that despite the Prime Minister's mistakes, "the war has not been in vain."

Commending Olmert for accepting the UN-brokered ceasefire agreement as a "courageous decision to buck a large majority of the public, as well as the generals and pundits who argued against the ceasefire," Eldar writes that the Prime Minister "appears to have learned that it is important to reach peace agreements with those neighbors who are interested in leading normal lives -- even if this requires giving up 'victory,' even if it requires giving up real estate."

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Albion Monitor   August 14, 2006   (

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