• Is Israel justified in its strong military action against Hezbollah and Hamas?
Crisis in the Middle East: Frequently Asked Questions
Posted: July 18, 2006
• Israel has been accused of a "disproportionate" response that may undermine the Lebanese government. Why is this necessary?
• How has the international community reacted to Israel's actions?
• Didn't Israel unilaterally withdraw from Lebanon and Gaza?
• What are US interests in this struggle?
• Will the war expand?
• What about the Israeli soldiers who were kidnapped?
Is Israel justified in its strong military action against Hezbollah and Hamas?
Yes, on three levels. First, Israel had withdrawn from both Gaza and Lebanon so there wasn't even the usual excuse of "resisting occupation" to justify the launching of rockets into Israel and the unprovoked attacks on and kidnapping of Israeli soldiers. If anything, the argument can be made that Israel's mistake was not earlier enforcing a stated policy of zero tolerance of aggression once it pulled out of the two areas.
Second, Hezbollah and Hamas are not just engaged in violence and terror. These organizations seek to severely weaken Israel and to create a situation where Israel's very existence is once again threatened. Israel clearly needs to respond to these threats – not only to stop this current aggression, but to make clear that it will not stand for greater threats down the road.
Third, Israel's ability to survive and prosper for decades in a region where enemies abound has been due to its strength and deterrence which held off cross-border aggression because of fear of a massive Israeli response. Hezbollah and Hamas, together with Syria and Iran, decided to challenge and even collapse that deterrence capability through their rockets, which, particularly in the case of Hezbollah, are even more lethal and long-ranging than Israel anticipated.
Weapons technology advances mean that in the future, Israel will likely have to deal with the specter of missiles armed with chemical weapons. Israel understood that it must end the barrage now or else it will never end, and will jeopardize Israel's fundamental security and existence as an independent state.
Maybe so, but Israel has been accused of a "disproportionate" response that may undermine the Lebanese government. Why is this necessary?
Israel must take into account questions of proportionality, including the impact on civilian populations and the impact on the government of Lebanon. In fact, it has been doing exactly that. Its goal in Lebanon is clear – to eliminate the Hezbollah threat to Israel, mostly by dramatically weakening its firepower and leadership and creating a situation where the Lebanese army will finally take control of southern Lebanon, which the UN had already mandated six years ago.
To achieve that goal, Israel is targeting Hezbollah's infrastructure – its military installations, its political headquarters, its media outlets.
It is also targeting Lebanese infrastructure in a measured way to slow down and eliminate the massive flow of weapons from Syria and Iran which has made Hezbollah such a menacing force. Thus, Israel struck the Beirut airport to retard the arms flow and to prevent Hezbollah from shuttling out of the country the two captive Israeli soldiers – but not to a degree that the airport would be severely damaged and unable to reopen. The major highways to the Syrian border have similarly been targeted – again to prevent the removal of the Israeli soldiers into Syria and to prevent a new influx of arms from Syria. It is Hezbollah and its infrastructure that is under attack, not the Lebanese people. While there have been tragic civilian casualties, Israel has been leafleting residential neighborhoods with advance warning of impending Israeli attacks, providing opportunity for civilians to evacuate the areas.
The charge of a disproportionate response is unwarranted. It has the effect, if not the intent, to undermine Israel's war of necessity against Hezbollah and Hamas, necessary for Israel's security, necessary for Lebanon's integrity as a state, necessary for the Arab world's stability and necessary for the civilized world's struggle against international terrorism.
How has the international community reacted to Israel's actions?
There is, of course, the usual anti-Israel activity: introduction of UN resolutions critical of Israel, charges by countries such as France, Spain, Ireland, Sweden and Norway focusing on Israeli "overreaction." In a circumstance where the case is overwhelmingly in Israel's favor, this reflexive anti-Israel sentiment is troubling.
Still taking into account the usual response to such situations, the mildness of the criticism in some circles has been striking. There has been a focus on the threat of Hezbollah and Hamas from international leaders and there even been support for Israel beyond the United States, as seen in positions and statements by Canada, Great Britain, Australia and Germany among others.
Even more significant are comments from some Arab states and the Lebanese government. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, while making sure to condemn Israel, have made clear that Hezbollah and Hamas by their aggressive actions take on a heavy blame for the current crisis. Their willingness to point the finger away from Israel, not a common reaction in the Arab world, reflects the threat posed to their own regimes by the power of Islamic extremism.
Meanwhile, the Lebanese government itself, undoubtedly reflecting the will of the people, is finally talking about taking control of the south from Hezbollah and accusing Hezbollah of illegitimately dragging the whole nation into war.
Didn't Israel unilaterally withdraw from Lebanon and Gaza?
Yes, Israel withdrew its troops from south Lebanon in May 2000, and unilaterally uprooted its presence in the Gaza strip – including settlements – in August 2005. Polls at the time demonstrated that both redeployments had the support of the majority of Israelis.
In light of the attacks from Gaza and southern Lebanon, however, there has been much discussion in the Israeli media about the impact and prudence of those redeployments.
Clearly, the fear expressed by critics of the withdrawals – that Israel will appear to be weakening in its resolve in the face of terror and that the lesson for Hezbollah and Hamas is that terror works – resonates.
In the case of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, there have been many Kassam rocket attacks on Israel's south, and particularly on the town of Sderot since last summer's disengagement. On the other hand, it has been pointed out that the steep rise in rocket attacks is only in comparison to the period leading up to the withdrawal, which was quiet because Hamas didn't want to do anything that might cause Israel to change its mind. Indeed, for several years before that, Kassam attacks were just about as high as during the post-withdrawal phase.
On the other side, however, Israel is benefiting within the international community and with its own domestic audience as a result of the withdrawals. Internationally, even countries like France that have been very critical of Israel, acknowledge that there was no excuse for the attacks by either Hezbollah or Hamas since Israel was not in Lebanon, nor in the Gaza Strip. Richard Haas, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, pointed out that the Lebanese government had six years to implement the UN resolution to take over the south of the country and disarm Hezbollah, but did nothing, allowing Hezbollah to run free. Haas was thereby giving context to what Israel is doing in Lebanon, which would have been very different were Israeli forces still in southern Lebanon. Similarly in Gaza, the fact that Hamas continued to attack after Israel's withdrawal gives Israel some leeway in responding, along with the confirmation by the international community that Hamas – which now controls the Palestinian Authority government – is extremist and a terrorist group.
In some ways, more significant is the internal consensus in Israel that has emerged, not over the wisdom of unilateral action, but over Israel's right to take military action. Because Israel is no longer in the territories or in southern Lebanon, the left joins the right in standing with the Government in support of a strong military response which might not have been the case had the Israeli army still been in these areas. Just as was the case when then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians a state at Camp David and the Palestinians said no and turned to violence in September 2000, so today the Israeli public is united in its shock and anger at this violence after Israeli withdrawals. This is tremendously important because it leads to a strengthening of determination and a resilience in the people which is so necessary in a crisis.
What are US interests in this struggle?
The Administration has stood with Israel in general and in international fora, such as the UN and the G-8 Summit - while cautioning Israel not to undermine the Lebanese Government (which is in Israel's interest as well). The US appreciates that this is not Israel's fight alone; it is part and parcel of the struggle against Islamic extremism and terrorism. The US recognizes that an Israeli victory over Hezbollah and Hamas will be a major step in the war against terror, among other reasons because it will give confidence to US allies like Egypt and Jordan that the tide is turning their way and against Syria, Iran and their extremist Islamist allies that operate throughout the region.
On the other hand, an outcome where Hezbollah and Hamas appear to be victorious will undermine moderate regimes throughout the region and open the way for further takeovers by the Islamic extremists.
Will the war expand?
While Syria and Iran are behind the aggression of Hezbollah and Hamas, Israel seems intent at this point on cutting off the two states' ability to supply the terrorist groups weapons without directly confronting them. How this will evolve is uncertain, but as of now there does not seem to be an interest on both sides to expand the war in that way.
Regarding Iran, Israel cannot help but view the current struggle in the context of the approaching showdown over Iran's nuclear bomb. Today's issues of deterrence, of the question of the ability of the international community to act against terror, of the role of Hezbollah as a surrogate for Iran will all have an impact in the months and years ahead concerning international decision-making toward Iran and the bomb. Again, a firm hand now in the case of Hezbollah could pay dividends down the road toward Iran.
What about the Israeli soldiers who were kidnapped?
Israel sees no end to the crisis without the unconditional freeing of the soldiers. Hezbollah's early propaganda campaign to compare the seized Israelis to Israel's imprisonment of mostly terrorist Hezbollah figures was ludicrous to begin with and seems to have petered out. The kidnapped soldier issue remains critical to Israel as part of the larger effort to restore deterrence. Just as Israel must prove to the extremists that they cannot fire missiles into Israel with impunity, so they also must learn that there is no incentive to kidnap Israeli soldiers.
Finally, it is important to recognize that this conflict goes far beyond the issue of kidnapped soldiers, as heartbreaking and fundamental as that is. It involves the unprovoked aggression against Israel, the most serious within the country since the 1948 war, which Israel must permanently put an end to if it is to live as a free nation.