- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Less than a month into the still nameless war waged across the Israel-Lebanon border, neither side is entitled to claim victory.

The killing of more than 50 Lebanese civilians by bombs in the village of Kafr Kana was a severe moral setback for Israel. But Jerusalem, while apologizing, said it would press home its attack on Hezbollah.

Hezbollah, a guerrilla force of only several thousand men, has not been broken despite more than 2,000 Israeli air sorties and clashes with crack Israeli units on the ground. Its command structure continues to function, more or less intact, and its front-line fighters, both those facing Israeli troops and those firing rockets, are putting up an exemplary fight.

Israel has been unable to halt the daily dose of more than 100 rockets that has rained down on its northern cities and villages for more than two weeks. With these Iranian and Syrian-supplied rockets, Hezbollah has damaged the Israeli economy and disrupted the lives of more than a million Israelis who have moved to more secure parts of the country or are waiting out the war in shelters at home.

Though Hezbollah receives significant criticism from within the Arab world for having triggered the conflict, its overall popularity among Muslims has soared as the only Arab force willing to take on Israel.

Israel, for its part, has destroyed a significant part of Hezbollah’s infrastructure, destroying hundreds, if not thousands, of rockets hidden in houses and underground caches the militia had believed secure. In doing so, it has revealed Israeli intelligence can penetrate even the disciplined Shi’ite militia. The Israeli Air Force also has destroyed much of Lebanon’s infrastructure, partly to deprive Hezbollah of roads and bridges its men use, partly to punish Lebanon for permitting a militia operating from its territory to provoke war with a sovereign neighbor.

According to Israel, its ground troops have inflicted several times as many casualties on Hezbollah as they themselves have suffered. Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, who had ordered the cross-border raid that triggered the conflict, has had his image as a brilliant leader who never makes a serious mistake tarnished by an overwhelming Israeli attack he did not anticipate.

One of Israel’s most surprising achievements has been the ability of its home front to bear up to almost 2,000 rockets that have struck the northern part of the country. The public has not been intimidated by Hezbollah’s threat to use long-range rockets capable of hitting the Tel Aviv metropolitan area in the heart of the country. “I’m willing to continue living in a shelter for months,” a resident of a northern village told Israel Radio last week. “As long as the army finishes the job.”

Hezbollah may unleash a major surprise before a cease-fire kicks in — perhaps the firing of those long-range rockets with their heavy payloads at Tel Aviv. They may even try to reach the nuclear reactor at Dimona in the southern part of the country, though there has been no public indication they have rockets with that long a range. It is not known what Israel plans in response.

It remains to be seen if the bombing at Kafr Kana will bring pressure for an immediate cease-fire that Israel, and Washington, can not resist. Israel would regard this as a major setback since its major land push has not yet gotten into stride.

Each side can claim it is ahead on points. But two aspects suggest that when the shooting stops Israel will be seen to have gained permanent advantage from the war. The first is that Hezbollah has been driven back from the border area and is unlikely to return. Israel and the international community may not succeed in their demand that Hezbollah disarm but Israel has made it a prime national goal to ensure the militia does not again build up its military infrastructure within sight of Israel’s northern villages. That in itself will have made the war worthwhile for Israel.

The second aspect is Israel’s deterrent image. It has been dangerously eroded in recent years by the pinprick assaults of Hezbollah and Palestinian militants that made Israel seem an awkward Goliath. In recent months, Sheik Nasrallah taunted it as a “temporary state” and Iran’s leaders said its end was nigh. What will likely be remembered from the current war is that Goliath is capable of rising up and roaring.

Abraham Rabinovich is a former reporter for the Jerusalem Post and a regular contributor to The Washington Times. His recent book is “The Yom Kippur War: The Epic Encounter that Transformed the Middle East.”

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