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Israel, Hezbollah Claim Victories After Weeks of Fighting

August 4, 2006 at 6:10 PM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: This 24th day of the war brought an expansion of the conflict. The Israelis bombed farther north into Lebanon; Hezbollah launched rockets farther south into Israel than ever before.

Israeli troops and Hezbollah forces continued their fierce ground fighting in southern Lebanon, as well. And as the casualty count grows, each side insists its victory is at hand. The U.N.’s deputy secretary general, Mark Malloch Brown, commented on that phenomenon on the NewsHour earlier this week.

MARK MALLOCH BROWN, United Nations Deputy Secretary General: The worry for us is that the longer the fighting goes on, both sides are getting more intransigent. This is a very odd war, where both sides think they’re winning, so neither side is particularly quick to sue for peace in this.

MARGARET WARNER: That observation was echoed in recent statements by the leaders of the two warring parties. On Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert touted Israel’s achievements, saying, “The infrastructure of Hezbollah has been entirely destroyed.” And today, the Israeli defense minister said Israel is determined to keep up the pressure.

AMIR PERETZ, Israeli Defense Minister (through translator): Hezbollah should not be under the illusion that we are about to give up. Nasrallah should not think that he is facing a force which will give up completing the mission.

MARGARET WARNER: Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, in a televised speech yesterday, touted the achievements of his fighters against the vaunted Israeli army.

SHEIK HASSAN NASRALLAH, Hezbollah Leader (through translator): These fighters are still holding their positions, fighting, resisting and even taking the initiative in attacking and inflicting material damage and casualties on the enemy. This is, indeed, a miracle by military standards.

MARGARET WARNER: Hezbollah also appears to have enhanced its stature elsewhere in the Muslim world, as evident today in demonstrations from Baghdad to Indonesia. Yet diplomats at the United Nations continue their intense efforts to come up with a negotiated solution, in hopes they can persuade Israel and Hezbollah to stop fighting.

Who is winning?

Mark Perry
Conflicts Forum
If you're in the Arab world right now, there's not anyone ... who isn't thinking about 1967, when Jordan, Syria and Egypt fought for six days and were thoroughly defeated. We're now in day 24; that's 18 days better. It's quite an accomplishment.

MARGARET WARNER: And for more on how Israel and Hezbollah see their progress in this war, we turn to Mark Perry, co-director of Conflicts Forum, a British-American group promoting dialogue between the West and Islamist groups like Hezbollah. He's met with several Hezbollah officials over the past two-and-a-half years.

And Gal Luft, executive director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security in Washington. He's a former lieutenant colonel in the Israel Defense Forces and has served in south Lebanon.

And welcome to you both.

Mark Perry, if you listen to both Olmert and Nasrallah, they both seem to be claiming that they're gaining with every day. Can both be right?

MARK PERRY, Conflicts Forum: No, one has to be right and one wrong. These are, as you point out, two very different narratives.

Let's take a look at Hezbollah. They're still able to field an army. They still have command and control. They still have their communications systems in place. They're still able, in southern Lebanon, in those villages of southern Lebanon, where the IDF went even a week ago, they're still fighting in those villages.

And as we saw today, they're able to launch rockets at Israel. So if there is a degradation of Hezbollah capabilities, it's certainly not shown on the field of battle, and that's where it's important to see it.

MARGARET WARNER: So you would say -- your assessment is that Hezbollah is winning?

MARK PERRY: They're holding their own, and they don't need to win to win. They need to survive to win. And if you're in the Arab world right now, there's not anyone in that world who isn't thinking about 1967, when Jordan, Syria and Egypt fought for six days and were thoroughly defeated. We're now in day 24; that's 18 days better. It's quite an accomplishment.

MARGARET WARNER: So how do you explain that Israel says they're winning? And do you think Israel really thinks they are?

GAL LUFT, Institute for the Analysis of Global Security: Well, first of all, we need to remember that, in the Middle East, nobody ever loses a war. In 1973, when the Israeli military was 20 kilometers from Damascus and 100 kilometers from Cairo with nothing to stop them, the Arabs still claimed that they won the war. So I wouldn't read too much into the rhetoric and the propaganda.

The key issue here is definition of victory. And we are still too early in the process to define militarily who won. Hezbollah is still there. They're still active, and they're not going to be a victory in a knock-out. This will be decided by points.

But the reality is that, three weeks into this war, Hezbollah is in a much weaker military position than it used to be before the war, whereas Israel, in pure military yardsticks, is much more superior militarily and has caused a lot of casualties to Hezbollah, which we don't hear about.

We hear about Israeli casualties. We see Israeli funerals. We have not seen one funeral of a Hezbollah fighter. So we will see about that, but I think we need to look at the reality of the military dimension of this.

Definition of an Israeli victory

Gal Luft
Inst for the Analysis of Global Security
If your definition of victory is to stop the firing of rockets, then it will not to be achieved. But if your definition of victory is to change the reality on the ground in southern Lebanon, I think Israel has a very good chance of winning this.

MARGARET WARNER: But in the military dimension, how do you explain the fact that Hezbollah is shooting and launching as many rockets into Israel, more than they were at the beginning of this conflict, and today reaching deeper into Israeli territory?

GAL LUFT: Because that's exactly what they want to show, that they still have the capability to do it. Now, it is very difficult to stop the firing of rockets because they will always have a residual rocket that they can fire into Israel to show that they're still around.

MARGARET WARNER: But it is more than residual?

GAL LUFT: For now. And I think that, if your definition of victory is to stop the firing of rockets, then it will not to be achieved. But if your definition of victory is to change the reality on the ground in southern Lebanon, I think Israel has a very good chance of winning this.

MARGARET WARNER: So part of changing that reality on the ground, Mark Perry, would be to really dismantle the Hezbollah military infrastructure. Now, we heard Olmert say it had been entirely destroyed. To what degree do you think it's been degraded? And when we talk about a Hezbollah infrastructure, what are we really talking about?

MARK PERRY: That's a good question. The infrastructure, as Israel defines it, seems to be the infrastructure of Lebanon, highways, roads, byways, railroad overpasses. All of that has been destroyed; there's no question about it, except in the very far north. But that's not the Hezbollah infrastructure.

This is a group that is deeply rooted in its own communities in the Shia south. It's not an imported group. It's part of the Lebanese political environment, and it has a lot of support in its own communities. It's able to recruit all the time from its own communities.

We haven't even seen Hezbollah reserves get into the battle yet. We've seen the initial 3,000 to 6,000 Hezbollah fighters able to take on the IDF. I think that they have a lot of capacity left, despite all the talk about ruined infrastructure.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree?

GAL LUFT: I don't know if I agree with this. I think that Hezbollah over the years has presented itself to be much stronger than it really is, and I think that we have very little information about what Hezbollah is facing now.

It very much reminds me of the situation with al-Qaida right after 9/11, when the war in Afghanistan started. Their training bases were destroyed. The weapon caches were destroyed. Hundreds of them were killed. And they still said, "We are winning. We are here. We're holding."

So again, if the definition of victory is being able to stand and not falling on the ground with your nose bleeding, then maybe you're right, maybe you are winning, but that's not something that a military analyst would define as a victory.

Controlling a one-trick "mad dog"

Mark Perry
Conflicts Forum
I think Israel is conveying the image that they have a toolbox and the only thing they have in their toolbox are hammers and that, when they face a threat, they use their hammer.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, there is always, of course, the political dimension to even military power. Do you think that Israel's image of invincibility in this neighborhood, mostly a hostile neighborhood, has been and is being enhanced by this, as Olmert said, or degraded?

GAL LUFT: Absolutely enhanced. Look, Israel is applying today what I call the "mad dog" doctrine. For years, especially since their withdrawal from Lebanon, Hezbollah provoked Israel hundreds of times, and the response was very weak, which caused Nasrallah to reach the same conclusion that bin Laden reached, that Israel is a paper tiger and it can be provoked without any consequence.

Well, now Israel has demonstrated that it can bite and it can bite hard, and Israel is also sending a message to other players in the region, for example, Hamas, that might decide to do the same, and now they're going to have second thoughts.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think Israel is conveying that image that, once aroused, it's a mad dog?

MARK PERRY: I think Israel is conveying the image that they have a toolbox and the only thing they have in their toolbox are hammers and that, when they face a threat, they use their hammer. In this case, it hasn't worked.

Their view in the Arab world has been significantly degraded, as has America's. I would like to point out the tell-tale here, that we have comparisons between Hezbollah and al-Qaida. They're two totally different organizations, and they hate each other. And we have comparisons between Hamas, a Sunni organization, and Hezbollah, a Shia organization, two totally different organizations.

Hezbollah is not just a militia; it's a political party, and they offer services to the Shia people of Lebanon. The better alternative for Israel here, after one day perhaps of military response, would have been to do what good diplomacy does, and that's to talk to Hezbollah. That's what they've done in the past, and that's the way out of this current impasse.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think that Hezbollah will turn the tables now, is coming out of this chastened or emboldened?

MARK PERRY: I think that their position inside of Lebanon as part of the political environment of Lebanon has been enhanced. I think that their position in the Middle East has been enhanced. I don't know if that means they'll be emboldened.

They've made it clear they're ready for a ceasefire, but they need a trade to pull that off, and they want diplomacy. They made it very clear to me -- we met with the leadership of Hezbollah over the last two-and-a-half years -- that they're ready to talk, and they're ready to do a political negotiation. I don't see what's wrong with that. This doesn't seem to be getting us anywhere.

Brokering a peace in the Mideast

Gal Luft
Inst for the Analysis of Global Security
Nothing short of deployment of either the Lebanese army or an international force will satisfy Israel's security.

MARGARET WARNER: So meanwhile, at the U.N., these U.N. diplomats are working frantically to come up with a cease-fire, but the participants aren't in the discussions. So what do you think it will take to make Israel decide that in its own interests it is time to stop? What are Israel's red lines, Mr. Luft?

GAL LUFT: When it is clear that the reality that existed before the war in southern Lebanon will not re-emerge; in other words, there will not be a militarized Hezbollah sitting along the northern border and able to provoke and start a war whenever they feel like. That means that nothing short of deployment of either the Lebanese army or an international force will satisfy Israel's security.

MARGARET WARNER: So you think Israel really means that when -- some officials have said they might stop shooting, but they're not going to physically leave Lebanon until the international force is ready to deploy, it deploys?

GAL LUFT: I'm convinced that they will not leave a vacuum behind. Somebody will sit on this territory until somebody is willing to take responsibility for the territory, and it's not going to be Hezbollah.

MARGARET WARNER: And so what are Hezbollah's red lines, and would Hezbollah accept that? Would Hezbollah accept that the Israelis would stay there until an international force came in?

MARK PERRY: We have to remember, at the beginning of the conflict, what Olmert said. Prime Minister Olmert said he wanted a disarmed Hezbollah at the end of this conflict, and he wasn't going to give up until that happened. Clearly, that's not going to happen; I think, in some sense, he's already lost.

For Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah has made it very clear: He wants the prisoners, Hezbollah prisoners, held in Israeli jails back. I think if he gives up that card, we can say it's a psychological loss.

MARGARET WARNER: So you think he will definitely not?

MARK PERRY: He will definitely not agree to a cease-fire unless he can show something in return. He thinks he's a winner. Why would he ever give anything up now? Why wouldn't he keep fighting?

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Mark Perry, Gal Luft, thank you so much.

GAL LUFT: Thank you.

MARK PERRY: Thank you.