The 2006 Lebanon War: Hezbollah’s expensive ‘victory’ ten years on

Far from destroying or degrading Hezbollah, the 2006 war emboldened Israel’s old foe and entrenched it into the fabric of Lebanon

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Beirut - On the morning of July 12, 2006 Hezbollah commandos launched a cross-border raid on an Israeli armored patrol, killing two soldiers and taking two hostages.

The act would, over the next few days, escalate into the devastating 34-day conflict between Israel and Lebanon’s powerful Shiite military-political force.

The 2006 war came at a huge price, especially for Lebanon. Some 1,200 Lebanese died, the vast majority of them civilians and an estimated one third of them children. It also caused the displacement of a third of the country’s 4.5 million people. Almost every bridge in the country and thousands of buildings, vital infrastructure, transport hubs, and industrial buildings were damaged or destroyed. Indeed, the Lebanese government estimated the bill for reconstruction was $2.8 billion.

Meanwhile, 43 Israeli civilians died – mostly in indiscriminate rocket fire from Hezbollah –and 117 IDF soldiers were killed in the conflict.

While both sides declared victory, most observers agree Israel failed in almost all its strategic objectives. Far from destroying or degrading Hezbollah, the 2006 war emboldened Israel’s old foe and entrenched it into the fabric of Lebanon. On top of this, Israel also failed to retrieve the two kidnapped soldiers alive.

“Israel didn’t achieve what it wanted militarily. Hezbollah stood up to them and didn’t lose,” said Timur Goksel, who served as spokesperson and advisor for UNIFIL – the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon – for 24 years. “The metric [of victory for Hezbollah] was the end result: Israel didn’t achieve its military ends and they caused friction and debate in Israel. You just can’t use the classic metrics of success.”

A victory?

This idea was echoed by Thanassis Cambanis, a fellow at the Century Foundation and author of a book on Hezbollah, ‘A Privilege to Die.’

“Hezbollah had a clear strategy from the beginning to frame the conflict as a victory if they simply survived,” he told Al Arabiya English. “This was a very smart strategy, it’s hard to have imagined a situation in which Hezbollah was totally destroyed.”

Cambanis also highlighted that Israel’s approach of overwhelming air bombardment – which became known as the Dahiya Doctrine after the Hezbollah stronghold of south Beirut – also helped bolster support for the ‘Party of God’. “At the beginning in Lebanon there was a feeling that Hezbollah provoked this suffering, but when Israel’s bombing gathered force it silenced any blame,” he explained.

On the ground throughout the conflict, Hezbollah’s well-prepared guerrilla campaign against Israel allowed them a decisive advantage to choose where and when to engage. Indeed, many of Hezbollah’s most iconic moments of the conflict played out more like a dramatic action movie than a desperate battle for survival.

On July 15, 2006, during one of Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah’s almost nightly television addresses, he referred to an Israeli warship off the Lebanese coast. "Look at the warship that has attacked Beirut, while it burns and sinks before your very eyes," he declared, before the camera cut to a transmission of the ship being struck by a powerful blast.

The ship in question, the INS Hanit, was only partially damaged but on a number of levels it was a master stroke of messaging and projection, a clear propaganda victory for Hezbollah.

It exemplified the group’s victory strategy. They didn’t need to win on the battlefield or drive the IDF out of Lebanon to claim victory, they simply needed to bleed the Israeli war machine with high propaganda value attacks.

The story of the INS Hanit itself has become almost mythicized for many Lebanese as a symbol of Hezbollah’s ability to project power – both for opponents and supporters of the organization.

“Hezbollah made a lot of PR, only 300-400 Hezbollah fighters were killed and the complete military infrastructure was intact at the end of the conflict. They showed that no matter how much you bomb you cannot crack this established force,” explained Cambanis.

Sealing Hezbollah’s dominance

However, on the Lebanese nation the conflict exerted a huge cost. Not just in lives and destruction but also political terms. Cambanis highlighted how the war sealed Hezbollah’s dominance as a political-military force in the county at the expense of the nation at large, which was still recovering from 30 years of war and Syrian occupation.

“For Lebanon, it was a catastrophe. The country already started off diminished as it was recovering from the civil war, but it was dealt a fatal blow. The national unity project had a real possibility that is just impossible today - the chance of economic development, of politics actually taking place,” he explained.

Cambanis speculated that the price of another war hasn’t been totally out of Nasrallah’s mind. It was costly in many ways for both sides, which he believes has done a lot to preserve the stability in south Lebanon over the last 10 years.

“They have gingerly kept the peace, and it seems that the horrifyingly disproportionate war crimes described in the Dahiya Doctrine do seem to be effective,” said Cambanis. “Neither side seems interested in conflict.”

However, Goksel is less sure that the stability can be maintained. “With UNIFIL unlike 30 years ago there are no small skirmishes – 10 rounds here, 10 rounds there – but the next war will be big, this is very scary. Israel will go after Lebanon not just Hezbollah, but it will come at an extremely high price.”