A coup for Hezbollah

Triumph or tragedy? This week’s prisoners-and-bodies­ exchange across the front lines of Israel’s last major war had elements of both. In Israel, the focus was on the tears of the two families coming to terms with the deaths of their soldier sons. But they were almost certainly killed in the Hezbollah raid across the border and the subsequent skirmishing which suddenly escalated into the July 2006 war.

Their deaths had not been confirmed by the time Ehud Olmert launched the fateful bombing of the Beirut suburbs which led to Hezbollah’s massive rocket salvoes on Israel’s northern cities. But pictures of the wreckage of the Humvees in which they were driving suggested the occupants could hardly have got out with their lives.

Until Wednesday morning, their families continued to believe in miracles, prompted in part by officials on both sides who kept up a pretence they might be alive. Hezbollah knew the truth but refused to confirm their deaths, presumably fearing that in this macabre form of trading, the soldiers’ exchange value would go down.

While privately conceding that there was little hope, Israeli officials also kept up the public myth that the men might not be dead. In their case the concern was that public anger over the 2006 war could be rekindled. After all, three Israeli soldiers had been killed by Hezbollah in a similar raid in October 2000 and Ehud Barak, the then prime minister, had not started a war.

In Israel emphasis was also being put on the grim record of Samir Kuntar, handed back to Lebanon on Wednesday after his life sentence for murder was cut short. A Lebanese Druze, he was convicted in 1979 of the murder of a father and four-year-old child in a pointless raid on northern Israel, long before Hezbollah came into existence. So the narrative in Israel this week was poignant and one of moral asymmetry: we give back a vicious child-killer in return for two brave soldiers’ remains.

In fact, Israel handed back four other live prisoners, all Hezbollah fighters. Two had been abducted by Israeli commandos from their hospital beds in eastern Lebanon. They also gave back about 200 bodies of Lebanese and Palestinian fighters killed at various times in the past several years, thrusting dozens of Arab families into the same grief as was being felt by the two Israeli families.

So, while there was mourning on both sides, only in Lebanon was there any real sense of triumph. The Lebanese Prime Minister, Fouad Siniora, sought to make it a state occasion by going to Beirut airport to meet the Hezbollah fighters, but pundits in Israel as well as Lebanon see the swap as a victory mainly for Hezbollah. After all, it was not the Lebanese government which arranged it. Hezbollah did, through intermediaries. Inevitably it now claims the return of the four prisoners as Olmert’s final humiliation and, in effect, an admission of defeat.

The verdict of the official Israeli commission of inquiry under former Justice Winograd into the July 2006 war, of course, did not say that. To many people’s surprise, it largely exonerated Olmert. But the facts on the ground (which is the standard by which Israelis usually judge things) offer no evidence for the view that the war weakened Hezbollah. There may be a larger United Nations peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, thanks to the UN resolution which ended the war, but Hezbollah’s offensive capability is bigger than it was two years ago. As Professor Shai Feldman, a former head of Israel’s Jaffee Centre and now a professor at Brandeis university, put it at a Royal United Services Institute conference in London last month: “Hezbollah has twice as many long-range rockets now. Its command and control system is intact.”

So beyond the personal tragedy for two Israeli and 200 Lebanese and Palestinian families one lesson stands out: the folly of Olmert’s quick reaction in July 2006. Ofer Shelah, a correspondent for Maariv and Channel 10 TV, who has written a book on the war, summed it up well at the same London conference when he ascribed it to three things which took over from intelligence and reason, not for the first time in Israel’s history: impatience, retaliation, and the mentality of dramatising an existential threat to Israel’s survival when it is not justified.—