The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) are responsible for an unprecedented refinement of State terrorism.
Its list of achievements might start with tools like assassinations, collective punishment, torture and the detention of women and children. It would include recent tactical developments like ‘swarming‘ which mimics the independent movement of soldiers in guerrilla war, or the use of bulldozers to carve roads through buildings, or battering rams that punch holes through living rooms.
This list must also incorporate legal instruments like preventing Arab land purchase in order to encourage ‘population transfer,’ to the establishment of settlements that watch over and sever Palestinian towns, or technical developments in surveillance like drones and heat imaging equipment that can ‘see through walls.’
In this way the discontinuous scattering of towns known as the Occupied Territories has become both a prison and a kind of laboratory. The occupation of Palestine has allowed the IDF to rehearse, test, reconceptualise and experiment with the instruments of State terror. The fruits of this have been exported to Afghanistan, Iraq, and now unfortunately Lebanon
The IDF’s objectives for the current war in Lebanon operate on three distinct scales.
On a personal scale, the Israeli obsession with the psychological profiling of Palestinian leaders allows it to believe that ‘targeted assassination’ is an effective strategy against Hezbollah. But the chances of a direct strike at the Hezbollah leadership is remote considering that Israel has not even managed to take Al Manar, Hezbollah’s TV station, off the air. Al Manar has been running 24 hours a day during the war, complete with talk shows and news reports. The bungled kidnapping of another Hassan Nasrallah, a hapless fruit shop owner in Baalbek, after a daring midnight paratroop raid only confirms Israel’s lack of decent intelligence on the organisation.
At a national level, Israel can be seen as attempting to apply pressure to the fragile sectarian balance in Lebanon in the hope that Sunnis, Druze and Christian Maronites might turn against Hezbollah. This has so far proven to be a massive miscalculation. If anything, the brutality of the Israeli attack has only strengthened cross-confessional support for Hezbollah in Lebanon. Leaving aside for the moment the horrific idea of fomenting another civil war which is really what this amounts to the means for applying this pressure has been a strategy of ‘surgically’ targeting civilian infrastructure and, thus, civilians.
From the moment Beirut airport was bombed in the opening days of the Israeli invasion, it was apparent that the IDF was directing its efforts at Lebanon’s infrastructure. The thought that Hezbollah arms dealers might be sneaking weapons into their hand luggage rather than using trucks along the expansive border with Syria is absurd. The press however continues to refer to Lebanese villages and Beirut suburbs as ‘Hezbollah strongholds.’ We should note that this only makes sense in the way that Mosman or Toorak could be described as a ‘Liberal Party strongholds.’ Either way, this demonstrates little understanding of guerrilla warfare which is precisely not about holding territory.
Of course, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, and his colleagues see no ‘moral equivalence’ between Arab civilian death and Israeli civilian death. For him, Israel and The United States are innocent in advance by virtue of their essential goodness. According to this logic, Hezbollah are similarly intrinsically bad responsible not only for all Israeli civilian and military deaths but for all Lebanese civilian deaths as well. In fact, Hezbollah is responsible for death per se.
This logic is unsurprisingly lost on the Arab world.
At the international level, the killing of innocents or ‘collateral damage’ is carefully managed by the IDF so that it occurs within the West’s capacity to tolerate civilian death. The IDF must carefully monitor this capacity, so that it can operate just below it. As the bombing of the Lebanese village of Qana has shown, to transgress this limit is provoke public condemnation.
This is not a question of number as if it were simply a matter of counting the dead but of their distribution in time and in space. Qana tipped past the critical threshold of media feedback because it was too focused, too intense, too instant. Death should be nicely and evenly distributed.
Of course, the IDF may not know in advance exactly where this threshold or limit will be, so it will be necessary to test it and discern its shape even at the risk of momentary public horror.
In order for there to be interest in the plot, a minimum of violence or other activity is required otherwise, events slip out of the news cycle. Below this threshold, battlefield activity ceases to pressure the international community into finding a ‘lasting peace’ defined as the creation of a buffer zone for Israeli protection (everything must be measured against a gradient of Israeli security) and the deployment of a proxy military presence.
It is only at this point that humanitarian concerns are important when the threat of a catastrophe complements the achievement of military objectives. The current UN resolution must be seen against this backdrop.
The IDF must therefore strike a careful balance in its commitment to the war. The stakes are high too little commitment and it risks being perceived as unable to secure significant military victories. The formidable image of the IDF its power, intelligence and irrationality constitutes a real and significant part of its deterrent capacity. Domestic pressure within Israel will always demand signs of episodic victory.
Too much commitment is also dangerous, because anything but the total annihilation of Hezbollah would then be seen as a catastrophic failure. So, by not fully deploying its military capacity, the IDF protects its reputation. Of course, wars of this type are rarely fought all out. As the architect and author Eyal Weizmann points out, resisting full commitment also means reserving the potential to fully commit at some later date. The threat of escalation must always be present.
All this is carefully stage managed to feed back into the mechanisms that shape Western public opinion, so that the West will see Israel as existentially threatened a victim of the barbarous Muslims who threaten to engulf it on every side rather than the militarised regional superpower that it is.
At a strategic level, this war is either a rehearsal for an attack on, or a lesson in deterrence for, Iran. Admittedly, this is more of immediate benefit for Washington which hopes to gain operational intelligence on the Iranian trained Hezbollah.
We should note that the influence of Syria and Iran on Hezbollah has been consistently overplayed in the Western media. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining the ‘surprise’ at the stiff resistance shown to the IDF. If we stopped to consider that Hezbollah is an organic part of the Shi’a community in Lebanon, that it provides health care, education, and other services to a much neglected community, then we might see that what allows Hezbollah soldiers to risk their lives is not the prospect of fighting a proxy war for Tehran or Damascus but the defence of their country against foreign invasion.
Whether the motivation for the carnage in Lebanon is the IDF’s military hubris or not, it has been an utter failure with regards to weakening Hezbollah politically or militarily. As hostilities simmer down for the moment, few would disagree that it is Sheik Nasrallah who has emerged strengthened whilst the tentatively pro-Western Lebanese Government has been thoroughly destabilised. Only a paranoiac could believe this was Israel’s intention all along.
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