Interview - Dr. Ahron Bregman on the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict: "The next confrontation will be very destructive for both sides."

“Beirut, in the summer of 1982, was all burning up - a city on fire. Looking back now, I am appalled by our brutal bombing of Beirut. Was it justified to turn this beautiful city into a Middle Eastern Dresden and kill hundreds of innocent civilians in the process?”
— Ahron Bregman

© Micha Bar Am/Magnum Photos: West Beirut. Lebanon. 1982. Tanks of the Israeli Army breaking through into the west part of the city.

© Micha Bar Am/Magnum Photos: West Beirut. Lebanon. 1982. Tanks of the Israeli Army breaking through into the west part of the city.

Israeli history in Lebanon is controversial and bloody. The country's involvement in Lebanon carries memories of tragedy, devastation, and massacre for the Arabs and Israelis alike. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin's doctrine was broken by military invasion in 1982 and his career destroyed as the human cost of the Lebanese Civil War (1975 - 1989) took a stark personal and political toll on the founder of the Likud Party. Defence Minister Ariel Sharon, architect of the invasion of Lebanon, was forced to resign from his position in the wake of the Sabra and Chatila massacre which were labelled as war crimes and crimes against humanity

Decades later, the tempestuous relationship between Israel and Hezbollah (The Party of God) has seethed and bubbled, a long-existing and dangerous fault-line running beneath the historic Arab Revolutions reshaping the modern Middle East. The tense relations in the Lebanese and Syrian borderlands has, at times, threatened to lead to a sixth Israeli incursion into the country and the first direct confrontation between the Israeli military and the Shi'a political party's military wing since the 2006 Lebanon War. 

The enduring legacy of the 1982 invasion in which Dr. Ahron Bregman participated, the occupation of South Lebanon, and the harrowing experiences for Israeli, Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian soldiers and civilians have extended into the 1990s and has continued to influence contemporary events. In the words of 19th century novelist Joseph Conrad, Israel has remained loyal to the nightmare of its choosing while its rival Hezbollah has become entangled in foreign wars in Syria and Iraq, conflicts which have been marked by immense savagery and bloodshed. 

As a young officer in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), Dr. Bregman, one of the foremost experts on the Arab-Israeli conflict, experienced historical yet devastating events in Lebanon during the fight against the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the Syrian Army. Participating in several campaigns in Lebanon including Operation Litani (1978) and Operation Peace for Galilee (1982), he served as an Israeli artillery forward observer with the task to pinpoint the PLO’s positions and call in fire from artillery units during the Siege of Beirut.

With the Gaza War raging in 2014, Dr. Bregman looked back on the events which transpired in 1982 with disappointment and drew parallels between the bombardments of 2014 and 1982: "Beirut, in the summer of 1982, was all burning up – a city on fire. Looking back now, I am appalled by our brutal bombing of Beirut. Was it justified to turn this beautiful city into a Middle Eastern Dresden and kill hundreds of innocent civilians in the process? Now to Gaza where, like in 1982 Beirut, the Israeli army is using overwhelming military power to locate and destroy Hamas’s tunnels."

At the beginning of the first Palestinian intifada (1987 - 1993), Dr. Bregman left Israel for the United Kingdom because of his moral objection to the occupation of Palestinian territories. Since then, he has produced several publications and worked as an associate producer on two major BBC TV documentaries on the Arab-Israeli conflict, 'Elusive Peace' and 'Israel and the Arabs: The Fifty Years War'.  His latest publication, Cursed Victory: A History of Israel and the Occupied Territories, focuses on Israel's fifty year occupation of the Palestinian Territories since the Six Day War (1967) and utilises top secret documents and records from the Knesset giving readers unique insights into the military occupation and the Middle East peace process during the 1990s and early 2000s. 

With his research and work now underway for his latest book Defeat: Israel in Lebanon, I sat down with him to discuss the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict in Lebanon and Syria and the wider consequences a renewed Arab-Israeli conflict would have for Israel, Lebanon, and the Greater Middle East. 

Israel has conducted several campaigns in Lebanon including 1978, 1982, 1993, 1996 and 2006. In brief, how would you summarise the Israeli military's historical experience in the country as well as the occupation of Southern Lebanon (1985 - 2000)? 

© Micha Bar Am/Magnum Photos: A column of Israeli armored personnel carriers runs into a PLO ambush east of Sidon, Lebanon (1982)

© Micha Bar Am/Magnum Photos: A column of Israeli armored personnel carriers runs into a PLO ambush east of Sidon, Lebanon (1982)

In Lebanon, the Israelis scored some tactical victories. For instance, the destruction of the Syrian air defence system in eastern Lebanon in June 1982 was a spectacular air assault. Dislodging Yasser Arafat from Beirut in August 1982 was also an impressive Israeli achievement. But overall, Israel got stuck, for many years, in the Lebanese quagmire. South Lebanon from 1985 until the Israeli unilateral withdrawal from there in 2000 turned out to be Israel’s Vietnam. The Israelis lost many troops as Hezbollah proved itself to be a most efficient guerrilla organisation. 

The Winograd Commission set up by the Israeli government to investigate the 2006 Lebanon War stated that 'Israeli Defence Forces failed to fulfil its missions (and) in most cases demonstrated powerlessness in its contest with Hezbollah.': To what extent do you think the Israeli military has learnt it lessons from the 2006 Lebanon War? 

In hindsight, the 2006 Lebanon war did achieve a good deterrence. Hezbollah is very careful of the Israelis and the front between Israel and Lebanon – thus far – is quiet. The truth is that Israel is also careful not to provoke Hezbollah too much, as they do realise that the next confrontation with Hezbollah will be very destructive for both sides.  

Several commentators, including Eyal Zisser, argued that the 2006 Lebanon War should be considered the first round of fighting between Israel and Iran in their proxy war as supposed to an extension of the Arab-Israeli conflict. What are your thoughts on this idea? 

Building shattered in Beirut during the Second Lebanon War.

Building shattered in Beirut during the Second Lebanon War.

Iran armed Hezbollah in south Lebanon [before 2006] in order that it could open a front against Israel in case Israel or the US bombed Iran’s nuclear facilities. We now know, that Tehran was cross with Hezbollah for provoking war in 2006 because it then led to the destruction by Israel of the missiles which were meant to be in Lebanon in case of strikes on Iran. Hezbollah acted too early. It ruined Iran’s careful plan to be ready to strike back from Lebanon in due course. 

Since the historic Arab Revolutions, can you explain how the Israeli government has responded to the current upheaval across the Middle East?

The Israelis try to keep out. They regard themselves as a “villa in the [Middle Eastern] jungle”. But they do strike whenever the Syrians or Hezbollah attempt to transfer weapons – particularly missiles which could harm the Israeli Air Force ability to fly freely in the skies of Lebanon – from Syria to Lebanon. Also, the Israelis attack whenever they feel that Iran or Hezbollah try to turn Syria – in the areas which are close to Israel or to the Golan Heights – into a new front. Israel want to fight Hezbollah – when the moment arrives – in Lebanon but not in Syria. The Israelis do not want to have a long front with Hezbollah.

The intervention of Hezbollah in the Syrian Civil War in 2012-2013 was significant in turning the tide against the extremist and moderate rebels fighting against President Bashar al-Assad. Do you think the organisation's intervention in the Syria, and to some extent Iraq, has strengthened or weakened Hezbollah militarily and/or politically in Lebanon?

In Lebanon, there is plenty of criticism – indeed anger – with Hezbollah for working so closely with Iran [in Syria]. The Shi'a of Lebanon are also upset as many of their people get killed in Syria; and Hezbollah – which used to invest a lot of money in the Lebanese Shi'a community, providing social services and so on – does not now have the resources to do so, as so much is spent in wars abroad. 

If President Assad wins the Syrian War, do you think peace talks with Israel and the question of the occupied Golan Heights will come back into focus? 

© Matthew Williams/The Conflict Archives: The Occupied Golan Heights overlooking the Quneitra ( Muḥāfaẓat Al-Qunayṭrah)  province.

© Matthew Williams/The Conflict Archives: The Occupied Golan Heights overlooking the Quneitra (Muḥāfaẓat Al-Qunayṭrah) province.

I doubt it very much. President Assad, even if he survives the war, will be vulnerable and relatively weak. The view in Israel is that the Golan Heights will remain under Israeli control for many years to come.  

Both the IDF and the Hezbollah have expanded their military and technological capacities considerably since the 2006 Lebanon War. Do you believe a mutual deterrence of terror will be enough to stop a major conflict from breaking out between the two sides? 

This is a very good question. Both sides do not want war because they realise how destructive it will be for both of them. The danger is that a miscalculation might lead to a confrontation which both sides do not want to have. A mistake could easily lead to the big explosion. The Israeli-Lebanese front, I believe, is the most dangerous front as far as the Arab-Israeli conflict is concerned.  

How do you think the superpowers (in-particular the U.S administration) and regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, would react to an escalation between the two sides? How would they be able to prevent the conflict from breaking out? 

They cannot do much to prevent a potential conflict. As said, I believe that the real danger is that a miscalculation by either Israel or Hezbollah will lead to war. Miscalculations are difficult to prevent and if war breaks out, then the Israeli response will be massive, aimed, among other things, at creating such destruction in Lebanon that the international community feel obliged to interfere quickly to stop the destruction.   

Militarily, how would you expect a major conflict between Israel and Hizbullah to unfold? Would it be more devastating than the 1982 Lebanon war which you fought in and perhaps similar in speed to the Six Day War in 1967? 

Both sides will aim to have a short war. The Israelis cannot afford another 34-day long war [similar to the 2006 Lebanon War] and Hezbollah will not want to have lengthy bombardments of Lebanon. Hezbollah, following years of war in Syria is not a guerrilla organisation any longer, but a semi military organisation, operating in military formations. It might well be that they try to cross the border into Israel and seize some land. The Israelis will push them back – no doubt about that – but even crossing into Israel will be regarded in the Arab world as a great victory for Hezbollah, similar to the Egyptian crossing of the Suez Canal in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.  

Given that the region is already reeling from the Syrian War and another major refugee crisis, how would the third Lebanon War potentially impact the wider geo-political dynamics of the Middle East? 

I think that the main impact will be inside Lebanon proper. In 2006, Israel fought against Hezbollah [not against Lebanon]. The Third Lebanon War will be fought against Lebanon because Hezbollah is now a major player in the government of Lebanon. The sheer devastation Israel will inflict on Lebanon – bombing its roads, bridges, electric stations, airports, sea ports, and so on – will, for sure, isolate Hezbollah in Lebanon and lead to much criticism of the faction. 

What impact would the war have on Israel’s domestic politics and public discourse when Israel's wars in Lebanon has been compared to the United States' catastrophic war in Vietnam? 

It is very likely that if war breaks out between Israel and Lebanon, Israel will send soldiers into Lebanese territory. If they do the job and get out quickly then the Israeli public will accept it as a military necessity. But if Israeli forces get stuck in Lebanon – as is often the case when armies invade territories – then it will lead to criticism inside Israel. I think that future Israeli governments will attempt to replicate the United States' operation in Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War, namely do the job and get out quickly. 

How will the war between Israel and Hezbollah potentially influence the political situation in Gaza and the West Bank including the military occupation? 

If it turns out to be a clear Israeli victory over Lebanon, then the Palestinians will be careful. But if Israel fails – for instance – to stop the firing of rockets and missiles into Israeli territory, then it will encourage the Palestinians to imitate Hezbollah.  

Matthew C.K Williams

"A British freelance journalist who is complimented by an MA degree in Conflict, Security and Development at King's College London, Matthew has written for various NGOs and papers including Amnesty International, Strife, Aegis Trust, Stand Now, The Scottish Times and Osservatorio Mashrek. His current work for The Conflict Archives is focused on the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Iraq War, and insurgency across the Greater Middle East."

Publications: AHRON BREGMAN








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