It was a bit reassuring to hear that the Israeli Air Force (IAF) has resumed air strikes in south Lebanon, less than 24 hours after announcing a halt to the bombing. The announced pause was in response to that deadly Israeli attack in the Lebanese village of Qana, which reportedly killed 34 children and 12 women. However, Israel reserved the right to resume the attacks to support its troops on the ground, or in the event that the inquiry was concluded early.
From an objective, military perspective, there really isn’t much to conclude. Qana has been a Hizballah stronghold for decades, and a site for “manufactured” collateral damage incidents in the past. In 1996, an Israeli artillery strike on the village (in response to Hizballah provocations) killed at least 100 “civilians.” Unfortunately, that term can be applied only loosely in regards to Hizballah and its followers. While the western press was careful to highlight the suffering of women and children in Qana, Lebanese officials offered no breakout of the dead civilians, to include the number of fighting-age males that may have been among those killed. Careful readers will note that the number of dead women and children are mentioned in most media accounts; yet the number killed at Qana totaled 57. Who were those other, eleven victims. I’d also like to know how many of the dead were buried with Hizballah funds, another indicator of the number of fighters and sympathizers who may have died in the strike. While innocents were likely killed at Qana, there is also no doubt that the village was a legitimate military target and Hizballah’s use of the town as an operational base invited the Israeli attack.
Then, there’s the question of why it took so long for the building to fall and what may have (ultimately) caused the strucutre to collapse. According to the IDF, the IAF strike in Qana took place between midnight and one a.m., local time; the building collapsed almost eight hours later, possibly because of exploding Hizballah ammunition that was stored in the building. IDF spokesmen note that the Israeli air strike was directed at targets more than 400 meters from the building that collapsed. I’m not a weaponeer, and certainly the “shock” from heavy bombs could have caused minor damage to the building, but it’s difficult to see how those explosions caused the structure to fall more than eight hours later.
Also unanswered is the issue of why so many civilians were present in the building. The IAF had dropped leaflets in the area for several days prior, urging non-combatants to flee, and warning that strikes would follow. Given that warning, it seems quite possible that the victims were Hizballah supporters who elected to stay in place, or civilians who were ordered to stay behind by the terrorists. On FNC this morning, a Fox reporter interviewed a Meronite Christian from South Lebanon whose brother was forced from his home when Hizballah decided to use it as a rocket launch position. A few hours later, the home was destroyed by an Israeli air strike–after Hizballah had moved on–leaving the Meronite and his family homeless. Based on these accounts–and that curious sequence of events in Qana–it seems quite likely that Hizballah is up to its old tricks, manufacturing collateral damage incidents for the benefit of the western press, and hoping to generate enough public outrage to force Israel into a cease-fire.
This strategy was hardly unexpected. That’s why it was surprising when Israel (briefly) blinked and announced a temporary halt to the bombing. That announcement likely triggered some heated exchanges at the cabinet level, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some Israeli ministers and senior IDF officer offered their resignations if the bombing pause wasn’t modified.
On the other hand, there’s also the remote possibility that the halt was something of a ruse, used by the IDF to (a) diffuse the public relations crisis triggered by the Qana incident; (b) reassess its bombing campaign, and (c) gear up for the next phase of the offensive. By calling a temporary halt (and showing some degee of regret for “civilian” casualties), the Israelis were able to dampen some of the international outrage over the incident, making it easier (in turn) for the U.S. to veto anti-Israel measures at the U.N., and give the IDF more time to continue its mission.
The pause also gave the IAF a bit of a breather to rest its crews, work on its aircraft, and marshal munitions for the next phase of the air campaign. The Israeli Air Force has been on a combat footing for more than three weeks, with some aicraft flying four (or more sorties) a day. While the IAF can sustain high-tempo operations for some time, that level of effort comes at a price, in terms of increased maintenance problems and exhausted pilots and ground crews. Scaling back ops for even 24 hours can have a catharic effect on line squadrons and their maintenance units, giving personnel a chance to rest, and giving ground crews a chance to get more jets back in service.
Additionally, the limited pause will allow the IDF to reassess the effects of its bombing campaign in south Lebanon. There is a perception in the west that the Israeli air effort (so far) has focused more on bean-counting than operational effectiveness. When the IAF struck a Hizballah command bunker in the early stages of the war, IDF spokesmen were quick to trot out statistics on the tons of bombs dropped on the complex. Trouble was, the bunker was largely vacant by the time the IAF arrived; senior Hizballah leaders had fled, a tactic that has repeated itself across southern Lebanon. In fact, the IAF reportedly ran out of “fixed” Hizballah targets days ago. The IAF is now concentrating on “pop-up” targets that emerge (and disappear) quickly in a fluid battlefield environment. The brief respite after the Qana incident will give the IAF a little time to determine what’s working (and isn’t working) in its efforts to destroy fleeting terrorist targets. The IAF will emerge from the “pause” with more jets in the sky and refined tactics for going after Hizballah; the Israeli pilots can only hope that their political leaders don’t blink again, before the job is done.