Creating people's geographies
Sydney Morning Herald August 12, 2006
SOUTHERN LEBANON is no country for massed tank attacks. Rugged hills and steep ravines funnel traffic – even jeeps and armoured vehicles – onto narrow paths, off which boulders would quickly chew through tank tracks and bogeys.
The dark crevices between the boulders might be harmless, or they could be the mouths of well-prepared bunkers, where small teams of highly motivated fighters hole up for days or weeks with ample supplies of old but effective anti-tank weapons.
Above them scrub, long grass and olive trees provide the perfect cover for sneaking down to place command-detonated mines along the roadsides. In the valleys below winding, overgrown wadis are highways for stealthy infiltration, resupply and escape.
The Israeli army should know all about this terrain: it held it for 22 years, before the ever-more effective Hezbollah insurgents finally drove it back across the border in May 2000.
One of the last Israeli soldiers to leave Lebanon that day, Brigadier-General Benny Gantz, told reporters: “Hezbollah is a very well-trained guerilla organisation. I am not sure that too many regular armies would have done as well against them.”
General Gantz was back on camera this week, now a major-general and commander of all Israeli ground forces, to talk up Israel’s reinvasion of Lebanon. “It can either be done within a few days or it can be done in a few weeks,” he told CNN. “As everybody knows, we are not about to go anywhere. So, as long as we’re here, we’re willing to fight.”
Yet despite Israel’s total control of the air and massive superiority in tanks, artillery and sheer numbers, its ground forces have made little headway in this war.
On Thursday Israeli infantry entered the town of Marjayoun, but this was undercut by the fact that Marjayoun is a Christian community, a former stronghold of Israel’s collaborationist Lebanese Army, with few or no garrison troops from Hezbollah.
That evening, reporters watched from the nearby northern Israeli town of Metulla as scores of Israeli armoured vehicles withdrew from Marjayoun, pumping out smokescreens. Several were hit as Hezbollah’s old but effective Warsaw Pact missiles whizzed out of the hillsides.
Opinion polls show that more than 90 per cent of Israelis strongly approve of the war and almost as many approve of attacking Lebanese civilian targets even if it means causing civilians harm. Yet underlying the chorus of bravado and jingoism in recent days was a rising note of unease.
One of Israel’s leading commentators, Nahum Barnea, accompanied a reserve unit into southern Lebanon this week and subsequently warned readers of the mass daily Yedioth Ahronoth that “we are getting lost in pursuit of a victory that is not there”. The troops he met had found houses, groves and hillsides stuffed with bunkers and weapons, where infiltrators dared to probe right into the heart of Israeli positions.
“The battle … is reminiscent of the famous Tom and Jerry cartoons by Hanna-Barbera,” Barnea wrote. “Tom is a strong, ambitious cat. Jerry is a weak but clever mouse. … In every conflict between them, Jerry wins.”
Many fingers are now pointing at the slackness and false pride born of five years of putting down the Palestinians, whose militants have none of the equipment, foreign support or cold-blooded ruthlessness of Hezbollah.
Southern Lebanon has proven very different. So far Hezbollah has killed more than 82 Israeli troops and 40 civilians. In contrast, Israel’s furious response has fallen mainly on Lebanese civilians, more than 1000 of whom are confirmed dead so far.
The military, battling to maintain its prestige and self-esteem, has defined its principal intention as the capture and destruction of all of Hezbollah’s Katyusha missile launch sites south of the Litani River. It is vowing to withdraw only when foreign troops arrive to take over the border zone.
The problem is that what the military refers to as “missile launch sites” are what most people would call “hillsides”, and hillsides are difficult to destroy. The mountain will come to Muhammad before any First-World army sends its troops to south Lebanon to fight Hezbollah on Israel’s behalf.