Is the Israeli policy of massive military response an effective way of providing security along Israel’s borders? The statement by “senior Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officers” that “we’ll turn Lebanon’s clock back 20 years” (reported in Ha’aretz, 13 July 2006) invites an examination of the effectiveness of major military reprisals in the long history of the conflicts of Israel with its neighbors. There are moral issues involved in wholesale military attacks on civilian populations. However, it is also useful to look at the actual results in terms of the policy makers who ordered the attacks.
The historical experience can be summarized simply: the massive Israeli military reprisal operations have been counterproductive and have often made the security situation worse. These major military responses have been an obstacle to negotiations that might have led to conflict reduction and have often created the conditions for the development of even stronger hatred of Israel among its neighbors. Even if one can ignore the moral issues raised by the indiscriminate Israeli military violence against innocent civilians, massive military reprisals have failed to achieve the goals of the people who ordered them. However, despite these experiences, Israel has maintained the policy of destructive military response for more than half a century.
The IDF officers are correct in identifying the events of twenty to twenty-five years ago in southern Lebanon as being related in important ways to the current crisis. At that time, in 1982, Israel undertook a major invasion of Lebanon which led to an Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon for eighteen years. The invasion in 1982 was to stop anti-Israeli militants from attacking northern Israel. Overwhelming military force was used to crush all local resistance.
The “enemy” in 1982 was, however, different. At that time, the “security risk” to northern Israel came from various armed groups within the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the invasion was to destroy the capacity of the PLO to attack Israel from Lebanon. This goal was achieved, but at what was ultimately a high cost, because the massive and indiscriminate military actions of the Israeli military created a whole set of new enemies among the Lebanese people themselves.
Initially the war had been against “foreign” militants who happened to be in southern Lebanon. Southern Lebanese, the majority of whom are Shi’ite Muslims, resented the creation of a “state-within-a-state” by the PLO in southern Lebanon, and many were relieved when Israeli armed forces drove the PLO military out of the region. However, as news reports from the time indicate, that situation rapidly changed. The attitude change of a Sunni imam in the city of Sidon was common. As reported eighteen months after the invasion, Shaykh Hussayn Mallah had been “among the tens of thousands in southern Lebanon who welcomed the Israeli army as a savior from the oppression and harassment of the guerrillas of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Now the religious leader says he believes one evil has been replaced by another, and a majority of the people in the region are said to agree.” (Joseph Treaster, New York Times, 27 January 1984)
Experienced journalists who are now well-known for their analyses of Middle Eastern developments covered this story and came to the same conclusions. Thomas Friedman, writing about two years after the invasion, noted a shift in anti-Israeli resistance from Palestinian to Shi’ite opposition in southern Lebanon. He cited Western security forces in southern Lebanon as thinking that “the vast majority of the attacks against Israeli troops in the area are being made by small, loosely connected cells of Shiites whose goal is to force the Israelis to withdraw…. The Israelis have tried various means to deal with the guerrilla attacks, but thus far they have ended up only increasing the resistance.” (Thomas Friedman, New York Times, 21 May 1984)
David Shipler summarized the situation early in 1985 in terms of a major setback for both American and Israeli interests in the region. One might wish that the “senior IDF officers” quoted in recent days could have listened to the “senior Israeli Army officer” quoted by Shipler in 1985, when he said, “Both Israel and the United States are realizing gradually the limits of military power.” Shipler’s broader view is also tragically relevant today: “Many Israelis are beginning to see their involvement in Lebanon as a grave failure of perception – the mistaken belief that applying superior military force to a labyrinth of ancient feuds would bring desired results.” (David Shipler, New York Times, 26 February 1986)
Unfortunately, Israeli political and military leaders have not made much use of what could be learned from the experiences of twenty years ago. At that time, Israeli policies of massive military reprisal created a whole new enemy for Israel. The Shiites of southern Lebanon had not been involved in the Israel-Palestine fighting and might even have been cooperative with the Israelis. Instead, Israeli policies of indiscriminate destruction in the 1980s laid the foundations for the current conflicts.
John O. Voll is Professor Emeritus of Islamic History at the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.