ISRAEL LEARNT NOTHING FROM LEBANON DEFEAT
A year from now, give or take, we should be able to read the documents from the 2015 Herzliya Conference, and we would know then what exactly was on the minds of Israel’s most important strategists in July 2014.
22 July, 2014 al-Akhbar
“If you take up arms, you’ll end it, but if you sit around and wait for the one who’s in power to make up his mind that he should end it, you’ll be waiting a long time.”
– Malcolm X, speech at Oxford University
After carefully reviewing the documents produced by previous conferences and the literature published by the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies in previous years as well, one can safely conclude that their eyes will not be only focused on Gaza and the Shujayeh district, but also on the United States and the assessment American strategists would come out with behind the scenes of Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza.
One can also infer that Israel’s leaders will be extremely concerned about the implications of what is happening on the ground in the Gaza Strip for the status of the Zionist entity and its position in overall U.S. strategy. Indeed, any setback for Israel undermines its position and importance for the United States, which is an existential issue for the Israelis as their documents and studies tell us.
The reason is actually very simple. Measuring gains and losses in wars, which the Israelis are very skilled at, is never just about the number of victims or the scale of destruction, no matter how great. On the contrary, the barbarism and unfettered brutality, as seen for example in the Shujayeh massacre, is actually a sign of defeat, as we learned from the 2006 July War in Lebanon.
This is exactly how the White House saw the urgent Israeli request for a large quantity of guided missiles on July 21, 2006, after Israel depleted its stockpiles in the brutal bombardment of Beirut’s southern suburbs and South Lebanon. For the Americans, the request signaled that the aerial campaign meant to destroy Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal had failed miserably and that Israel was in a military predicament, especially since only once had Israel made such a request to the White House before, at the height of the October 1973 war. One former Pentagon official even commented, “This [request] can only mean one thing. They’re on the ropes.” (See: How Hezbollah defeated Israel, Part 2: Winning the ground war, by Alastair Crooke and Mark Perry). That day, the Americans realized that the war was over and that Hezbollah had won.
From Gettysburg to Gaza: The ground war
Another sign of Israel’s defeat in July 2006 as interpreted by the Americans, emerged on the same day (July 21), when Israel, surprisingly, decided to call its reserve forces, something that Hezbollah did not do throughout the war and something that Israel is doing again in Gaza today. At the time, Olmert – like Netanyahu today – thought that a ground war would solve the problem that the air force could not.
But the Israelis forgot that a similar mistake by General Robert E. Lee had changed the outcome of the American civil war in Gettysburg, if not the outcome of American history itself. General Lee did not heed the advice of one of his officers, as he was blinded by the arrogance of power. “Oh I can get there, all right,” the officer said. “It’s staying there that’s the problem.”
Yet Israeli leaders did not need to go back to July 1863, the date of the bloodiest and most fateful battle of the American civil war. All they have to do is go back to July 2006, and read the reports of the soldiers they had sent across the border during the war. In Alastair Crooke and Mark Perry’s analysis of the July War, they state, “Special IDF units operating in southern Lebanon were reporting to their commanders as early as July 18 (i.e. before the ground invasion) that Hezbollah units were fighting tenaciously to hold their positions on the first ridgeline overlooking Israel.”
What happened in Gaza on July 20, 2014 shows clearly that the Israelis learned nothing from the battles in Maroun al-Ras and Bint Jbeil, which had routed the Golani Brigade (perhaps they should send this brigade to disperse demonstrations by Palestinian children before they send it to fight adults). They learned nothing from all the lessons of Lebanon and Palestine, something that the Americans also realized. (See: Hezbollah’s resistance in July: the engineering miracle, Al-Akhbar, July 22, 2013 [Arabic]).
By contrast, Hezbollah learned very well the lessons of the battle of Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam, built upon them, and took them into astonishing new levels, as U.S. military experts studying the July War have indicated. It appears from the heroic performance of the Resistance in Gaza that they have learned the lessons of Vietnam and Hezbollah very well too. The way the Resistance has engaged enemy soldiers from point blank is reminiscent of the Viet Cong leaders’ instructions to their fighters: “Fight the Americans in small unit actions. You must grab them by their belt buckles.”
Luckily for Hezbollah, and for the peoples fighting for their freedoms that would emulate Hezbollah later, a brilliant commander had led the battle, giving students of military science, strategy, and policy something to preoccupy them with for a very long time. (Palestinian political performance even among Resistance political leaders has not yet risen up to the level of the genius and heroism of the Resistance’s performance on the ground in Gaza, which makes us concerned by the prospect of wasting yet another opportunity).
Like Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap, Hassan Nasrallah knew that victory was not just about figures and numbers, and like them too, he understood that there are limits to what the colonizer can tolerate and that the colonized just needed to pay a bigger price than the colonizers in order to win. Nasrallah also knew that a noble goal is worth sacrificing for (do not trust a Palestinian leader who does not put his sons and daughters in the vanguard like Nasrallah did). More importantly, Nasrallah knew that the implications of what happens in the field on politics, culture, sociology, economics, and military strategies, locally, regionally, and even globally, are also important factors in the gains-and-losses calculations.
Ultimately, the enemy lost the battle despite the massive destruction it inflicted and the thousands of casualties, mostly civilians, it killed. Hezbollah prevailed because the performance of the Resistance fighters on the ground and the shrewd political performance of their leader turned the outcome of the war into “a political defeat of the United States – which unquestioningly sided with Israel during the conflict and refused to bring it to an end – [that] was catastrophic and has had a lasting impact on US prestige in the region,” as Alastair Crooke and Mark Perry and other experts concluded.
Expect a similar outcome for the astounding performance of the heroes in Gaza with similar consequences for the status of Israel and its future existence. We will read about this in their documents soon.
How to change the world – with shells – in 57 days
“170 days of confrontation, 57 days of hell,” is how the tagline of one French film describes the battle of Dien Bien Phu, one of the most epic battles fought by peoples of the Global South against European colonialism. Those 57 days were enough to uproot one hundred years of French colonization of Vietnam, and to end the French imperialist campaign in Asia once and for all. A few years later, Algeria would follow suit, uprooting the French empire from Africa as well.
Preparations for the showdown began on November 20, 1953, and lasted several months until the big day on March 13, 1954. Had it not been for the extraordinary military and logistical achievement made by Hannibal the Carthaginian, who hauled a huge army of humans, elephants, and horses and their equipment from Africa to Rome via the Alps to attack Rome, what Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap did in Dien Bien Phu would have probably been the greatest logistical achievement in military history.
The Vietnamese moved hundreds of heavy artillery units and a lot of equipment for the major battle on their backs, across the most rugged and difficult mountain roads of Asia. They dug trenches and fortifications with their hands for their very simple canons, beyond the range of French artillery and warplanes, which had superior firepower.
The French wanted to use Dien Bien Phu, a remote area in northwest Vietnam, to entrap Vietnamese fighters and defeat them using their enormous firepower. However, the genius of the Vietnamese leadership, which knew very well the meaning of victory and defeat, was able to turn the ambush into an opportunity that entered history as one of the greatest military battles of all time (imagine if Mahmoud Abbas and Saeb Erekat had led the battle instead of Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap; France would perhaps have colonized the moon by now, let alone Asia). This was the first time in history that popular resistance by a colonized people developed from simple guerilla warfare into a conventional army that was able, for the first time as well, to defeat the mightiest of empires, and reshape the political map of the region and the globe.
According to the legend that the French often tell, Ho Chi Minh, in a meeting on the eve of the battle with his senior lieutenants, took off his hat, turned it over and explained to his commanders: Dien Bien Phu is a rice bowl, the French are at the bottom, and we are around the rim and we are not going to let them out.
The following day, on March 13, 1954, Vo Nguyen Giap gave his orders to open fire. Nine thousand artillery shells on the first day alone were fired at the positions of the army that, only a few years before that, and since Napoleon’s battle in Austerlitz, had been classed as one of the most powerful armies in the world. The battle lasted 54 days, but it had already been settled with the first shell.
Those great shells, simple, cheap, and easy-to-manufacture weapons of the poor, were able to root out the mightiest empires armed to the teeth with expensive aircraft. For their freedom, the Vietnamese paid a price that was many times more what the French colonists could ever bear for the sake of continuing to plunder Vietnam. The equation was simple: There are limits to what colonists can bear, and all the colonized had to do was to pay a greater cost to win.
In Dien Bien Phu, 2,293 French soldiers perished and more than 23,000 Vietnamese were martyred, but it was a French military and political disaster that paved the way for the end of the French campaign in Asia, and it completely changed the political map of the world. The Vietnamese won despite their enormous sacrifices, and the hostilities ceased on May 8, 1954 under the terms set by Ho Chi Minh and Giap, who knew that the tally of what happened on the battlefield went far beyond the casualty figures.
What makes this battle even more important, and explains the dialectic behind the phenomenal price paid by the Vietnamese in Dien Bien Phu, is that they were not only fighting the elite of the Imperial French Army and its paratroopers, but were also fighting against an army backed logistically and financially by the United States, the emerging empire at the time, which supplied the French with M24 tanks for example, and paid more than $1 billion to help the French in Dien Bien Phu before the Americans had to invade Vietnam themselves later.
Yet the same equation remained valid with the Americans as well: There are limits to what colonists can bear, and all the colonized had to do was to pay a greater cost to win. The Vietnamese lost more than 1.3 million martyrs and won, and the United States was defeated because it could not bear to lose more than 55,000 soldiers. The U.S. defeat would also become an important factor later in shaping international politics, prompting Immanuel Wallerstein to chronicle the start of the U.S. decline with the defeat in Vietnam. In other words, 1.3 million Vietnamese martyrs were the cost of changing the world, and not just liberating Vietnam.
Learning to love the rocket
Remember this date: November 16, 2012. Your children and grandchildren will learn that this day was the turning point in the history of the Arab-Zionist conflict. They will learn that on that day, the Resistance bombarded Tel Aviv for the first time in its history. After that, bombarding Tel Aviv on the first day of any confrontation would become natural and expected, rather than an extraordinary event.
They will learn that on November 16, 2012, and in heroic and great Gaza, rockets became more than a weapon. Rockets became midwives of history. Gone forever are those days, which now seem so far in the past, when bombarding Tel Aviv was a distant dream, as we once thought, or a red line, as the enemy once thought.
In Gaza, which many have betrayed on dirty political grounds, these rockets were the title of the greatest military-logistical achievement in the history of the Palestinian revolution, if not in modern Arab history. After these rockets were moved across thousands of kilometers, cutting through borders, countries, and even continents, and bypassing spies and spy satellites, the Resistance dug trenches for them in preparation for the decisive moment. On November 16, when the promised day finally came, the land of Palestine smiled, and Gaza’s soil parted to unleash a Fajr-5 rocket. The sky caught fire that day, portending the inevitable epic battle between us and them.
This wonderful rocket, the rockets made by the heroes of Gaza, and the rockets that followed in their footsteps in July 2014, are like a history book that came to us from the future: We read it to see the current battle as only a prelude for a major battle that will no doubt culminate with the demise of the Zionist entity and the liberation of Palestine.
Those who did not see the end of Israel with the first rocket that struck Tel Aviv, and did not see all of Palestine free, from the river to the sea, with the first siren that echoed in what was once an Arab city, is blind in sight and insight. Those who did not read the history-to-come of the coming great battle written on the fuselage of every rocket that emerged from Gaza’s belly, about the Arab Dien Bien Phu to come in Palestine, is ignorant of the simplest lessons of history.
Everyone who betrayed Gaza, or conspired against its people, will rue the day. We, those who are fond of great and heroic Gaza and its people, say that our sorrow for the children and civilians will only make us more determined, and more fond of those wonderful rockets.
How we wish we could speak to those rockets, and tell them of our great longing for the coming inevitable battle with the enemy. How we wish we could send the enemy a letter on board those rockets to say: We shall fight you, we, our children, and our grandchildren and their children if we have to. We will fight you until the last inch of Palestine is recovered, and every Arab who doesn’t is a traitor. Only after that will the world change.
Saif Daana is a professor of sociology at the University of Wisonsin-Parkside. He is also associate editor of Arab Studies Quarterly and contributes to Al-Akhbar Arabic and English, as well as Al-Ahram Weekly.