Last week Lebanon celebrated the liberation of the south from Israeli military occupation. Eighteen years have passed since the unilateral Israeli withdrawal that ended an era of conflict over the land of Lebanon and contributed to the restoration of Lebanon's sovereignty and control over its land. However, it did not help establish a firm and solid foundation for true calm and stability along the southern Lebanese border.
The most prominent evidence of this is the ignition of the July war six years after this withdrawal, the continued Israeli threats to Lebanon because of Hezbollah's rocket arsenal, and the constant threat of a devastating war on Lebanon if Hezbollah guerrillas dare attack Israeli targets from Lebanon or Syria. In addition to this there is the fear within Lebanon of fighting developing between Israel and Iran in Syria, which could escalate into a large-scale military confrontation in which Hezbollah is a key party, thus forcing Lebanon to once again pay the price of this ongoing confrontation.
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Lebanon's restoration of its sovereignty over its borders has not given it the desired internal stability due to the imbalance of internal forces and the feeling that Lebanese political life is dependent on the surplus of Hezbollah's military power and its political influence within state institutions. This is especially the case after the results of the recent parliamentary elections. Today, the decision to wage war and peace in Lebanon is now in the hands of Hezbollah and its regional allies.
While the Lebanese people's sense of pride in their liberation is mixed with a sense of concern and fear of future Israeli attacks, Israel's feelings towards this anniversary is extreme bitterness and of a missed opportunity. This is clearly reflected in several books about the war, which author Matti Friedman called "the forgotten war". It is also highlighted in Israeli articles and commentaries that addressed the event 18 years later.
The main reason for Israeli bitterness may be that this unilateral withdrawal marked the precedent of a unilateral withdrawal of no less importance, i.e. Ariel Sharon's unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2005. When the Israelis look today at the results of the two withdrawals they find a bleak picture that does not serve their interests. In May 2000 Hezbollah, which was a small militia, became a semi-regular army and became a state within a state.
According to Western reports, it has become one of the richest organisations in the world, with an income of more than $1 billion a year. It also possesses 130,000 rockets, which is more than that possessed by large Western countries, and is a key component in the Iranian-led Shia axis in the region. As for the withdrawal from Gaza, it turned the Gaza Strip into a "hostile entity", according to Israel, and a hotbed of tension and military confrontation after Hamas gained control of the area.
No less important than all of this is the fact that the unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 or the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 marked the beginning of the rise of Iran's influence.
One of the notable lessons of Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 is the ability of mass popular protest movements to influence decision-makers and the Israeli society's rejection of long wars, especially those with the loss of human lives. The role of the Four Mothers Movement, which was founded in the wake of the collision of two Israeli helicopters transporting soldiers to Lebanon in February 1997, is highlighted in this regard. The movement became a popular means of pressure against Israel's continued occupation of the security zone in Lebanon. The demand was adopted by then-Labour Party leader, Ehud Barak, and he made it the main focus of his electoral campaign. The first thing Barak did after winning the elections was to implement his promise of withdrawing from Lebanon. Despite all Israeli reservations regarding the results of the withdrawal, Barak is proud of his actions and believes they were necessary.
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The other bitter experience is the tragic fate met by Israel's allies in Lebanon, especially members of the South Lebanon Army and their families, by both those who fled to Israel and those who remained in Lebanon and were persecuted, tried and ostracised.
Another Israeli conclusion is the limited effectiveness of the international resolutions adopted after the unilateral withdrawal in 2000, even those adopted after the July 2006 war. These resolutions failed to achieve what Israel couldn't militarily in Lebanon, i.e. removing Hezbollah fighters from the southern border and the curbing of its increased military strength.
The long-term implications of the unilateral withdrawals demonstrate that they do not constitute a radical solution to the conflict, as much as they delay such a solution and prolong the conflict, with varying degrees of intensity, indefinitely.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 2 June 2018
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.