In a previous post, I referred to an incident that occurred during the 1996 air and artillery assault on southern Lebanon which the Israelis called Operation Grapes of Wrath. The artillery barrage on a UN refugee camp in Qana in 1996 killed 100 civilians, and resulted in international condemnation of the Israeli operartion, and led to a US-brokered cease fire (which took nearly 3 further weeks to achieve). In that blog entry, posted 13 days ago, I wrote:
But with each passing day, the potential for a Qana-like event grows stronger. There are two trend lines in play here which have not yet intersected: one trend line is the effective degradation of Hizbollah C3 (command, control & communications) capabilities; the other trend line is domestic and US governmental sympathy for the operation. The calculated bet in applying air power against Lebanon and its infrastructure is that the trend line for support of the operation may deteriorate before the strategic goal is realized. And then instead of "new rules," Olmert & Co. will be faced with a slightly degraded Hizbollah, another meaningless cease fire agreement, and no change in the regional equation.
And today, on the 19th day of the war, and in precisely the same place, an Israeli air attack struck a site in Qana at 1 am local time in which 28 people were killed (16 of whom were children - as often happens, original reports on these numbers were inflated by a factor of two). While the exact details of the attack are unclear (a Lebanese Red Cross worker reports that the site was attacked twice, once at 1 am, once at 7 am -- while the Israeli Air commander reports a single attack, and then a 7 hour delay before reports of the deaths became public), the results are disastrous for the Israeli leadership. As the day progressed, over 150 Hizbollah rockets fell on northern Israel, a new single-day record (over 70 fell on the abandoned town of Kiryat Shemona). The world media has been broadcasting images from Qana all day long, and it now looks like the two trend lines I referred to have crossed. What may have been a long-term "window of opportunity" for the IDF in Lebanon has now been shortened.
Word of the bombing in Qana came to the Israeli government as it was in session in the company of Condoleezza Rice. Earlier in the day the Israelis were absolutely convinced that the American "green light" was still in effect; at the cabinet meeting Condi was reported to be stunned, and the Israeli Defense Minister found himself explaining the incident to a shocked guest -- we warned the residents to leave, Hizbollah hides amongst civilians, rockets were fired within 30 yards of the struck building, and the launch crew ran into the building. Possibly unsaid in the meeting is that the American forces in Iraq have done things just as horrific. But it is clear that such claims will fall on deaf ears.
With the door now closing on open American support for the Israeli operation, and the IDF in a state of multi-divisional mobilization, a decision will soon be made whether to continue the current operation at its present pace, or to use the approximately 14 days which remain to expand the ground campaign. The public stance of the Israeli government is still projecting determination to achieve a military win on the battlefield. But all spin aside, this operation has got to be judged a failure so far. While certainly the operation has weakened Hizbollah -- rather than breaking Hizbollah, Hizbollah emerges in the Arab world the heroic victor. Hizbollah claims for itself the bragging rights for driving the Israelis out of Lebanon in 2000; now it can claim it withstood the Israeli army and stood its ground for 3 weeks. Now Olmert & Co. are subject to debilitating internal second-guessing, and it is quite likely their careers (or at least their legacies) are in jeopardy. In my judgment, Olmert, Peretz and Halutz have stumbled from one bad decision to the next throughout this campaign -- now comes the toughest decision of all. Based on their past performance under pressure, expect them to make another ruinous choice.