Day 19 of its offensive against Hezbollah has not brought the Israel Defense Forces much closer to the goal of removing the threat of Hezbollah's Iranian-supplied missiles. What it did bring, however, was a dreadful scene at the town of Qana, where more than 60 civilians, over half of them children, died in an IDF attack. This horrific incident will no doubt increase international pressure for an immediate ceasefire or some sort of quick political solution, which will almost certainly include the deployment of a Stabilization Force to Southern Lebanon. Israel's 48-hour cessation of air strikes is intended to blunt such pressure (though it may prove difficult to resume attacks after this suspension).
Both a ceasefire and a diplomatic quick fix would leave the fundamental problem untouched, however, unless it came as part of a comprehensive Mideast settlement, which looks as remote as ever. But inserting peacekeepers into an ambiguous situation is a recipe for disaster as brash actions to alleviate suffering tend to have unintended consequences. Consider the declaration by the UN's Bosnia commander, General Philippe Morillon, that Srebrenica was under UN protection after desperate locals prevented him from leaving the town in 1993. His gesture multiplied the pressure on the Security Council to establish safe areas, which it duly did. "But there was never any intention," according to reporters Laura Silber and Allan Little, "in practical terms, to render them safe, since this would have involved the UN abandoning its position of neutrality." Indeed, two years later Serb forces overran the enclave with the UN barely firing a shot. By contrast, when the final Serb outrage -- the shelling of the Sarajevo marketplace in August 1995 -- occurred, it set in motion a plan for the endgame that the then commander, General Rupert Smith, had carefully calibrated to the prevailing strategic situation, a plan which for that reason managed to end the war.
For Israel, the core issue that defines strategic success or failure is the missile threat to Israeli towns and cities. Any end to hostilities that leaves intact Hezbollah's capability to lob missiles into Israel will be a defeat. This is exactly what may happen, however, given the humanitarian and, hence, political imperative to stop the fighting, coupled with the IDF's inability to deal a swift but deadly blow to Hezbollah. Very few countries apart from its sponsors Iran and Syria would have objected to a short and sharp campaign destroying most of Hezbollah's arsenal. Egypt and Saudi Arabia openly criticized Hezbollah's brash raid on an IDF post that started the current mayhem; neither regime would have shed a tear about the destruction of a group they see as a mortal enemy -- provided that destruction took only a limited time and limited casualties.
Turns out that Hezbollah is not just a capable guerilla force using speed, stealth, and deceit against the IDF's overwhelming superiority in hardware and manpower; it is also a capable defender of strongholds such as Bint Jbeil, which the Israelis have failed to take. (An IDF statement said that the IDF withdrew from Bint Jbeil "having completed operations there." This is an odd understanding of the term "complete.") Part traditional guerilla force, part conventional infantry army: the Israelis may have underestimated the potency of Hezbollah's strategic mix.
Indeed, if there's one adjective that captures Hezbollah's military posture, it's "adaptable." It pioneered the use of suicide attacks when it sent massive truck bombs into the headquarters of U.S. and French peacekeepers in Beirut in 1983, killing more than 300. It was also behind a spate of abductions of Westerners in Beirut in the mid-1980s. But then it transformed itself into something more traditional that was altogether more revolutionary in its totality: a movement consisting of a political party, a social-services division, and an armed wing that oscillated between terrorist group, insurgency, and regular army.
Political parties with attached militias are nothing new in Lebanon. Neither are militias with some sort of service arm: after all, once you hold territory you need to administer it. But Hezbollah understood that in order to generate legitimacy for its revolutionary vision, it needed to create coherence between its program and its activities by doing each of these things very well -- and it did. Where entire communities had experienced "the state" as in turn completely absent or predatory, Hezbollah consistently provided education, health care, political representation, and infrastructure to Lebanon's neglected Shia community, shunned for decades by the urban sophisticates who tend to be Sunni or Christian.
Hezbollah thrived after the IDF had routed the PLO from Lebanon. But unlike the PLO, who were largely unwanted guests in Lebanon, Hezbollah was defending its core territory, the Shia strongholds of Southern Lebanon and South Beirut. That may explain some of the group's tenacity in the face of the IDF's overwhelming firepower.
The other part of the explanation is the very nature of Hezbollah: a tough, disciplined, and well-run force with political and service branches and a military wing that, in stark contrast to Hamas in Gaza, actually fights instead of parading its hardware in the streets. When the Iranians set up Hezbollah in the early 1980s, they weren't interested in pageantry: they wanted to harness the pent-up frustrations of Lebanon's Shia to carry the Islamic Revolution abroad.
Now, between the hammer of the IDF and the anvil of Hezbollah, thousands of civilians in Southern Lebanon have been reduced to unspeakable misery and horror, generating strong pressure for hostilities to cease. But a ceasefire will be difficult for Israel to accept unless it is first given time to achieve its strategic goal, which on current evidence would take months. The only alternative would be some sort of robust guarantees, backed up by an international Stabilization Force, that Hezbollah would disarm eventually, or at the very least refrain from striking out.
The Europeans seemed to be rather taken by the idea of a peacekeeping force at first: it would alleviate the intolerable humanitarian situation in Southern Lebanon while preserving the illusion that "Europe" mattered in the diplomatic search for a durable solution. (Sending the EU's lightweight foreign-policy chief Javier Solana to the region was probably counterproductive on that last count.)
But now that the prospect of international peacekeepers is becoming more tangible, the idea is looking less attractive by the day, and the European governments that would probably have to provide the bulk of such a force are getting nervous. The Stabilization Force would either have to do what the IDF haven't managed to do -- disarm Hezbollah -- or serve as a buffer between two armed adversaries, which would just delay the day of reckoning. In the first case, they risk becoming enforcers of Israeli policy in a hostile environment; in the second, they might be able to keep friendly relations with the locals but would fail to prevent the next outbreak of violence.
Hezbollah is emerging as the most formidable military challenge Israel has ever met. For that very reason, it may not have a military solution. Hezbollah's strategy of integrated delivery of security, social services, and patronage to its constituents means that it will be loath to relinquish control over any one of these instruments. It is holding all of Lebanon hostage in its bid for power, and Israel is obliging by hitting hard at targets that have only a tenuous link to the Party of God. But any idea that the Lebanese government, whose army is split down the middle along sectarian lines, could have taken on Hezbollah as foreseen in UN Security Council Resolution 1559 is naive. It may turn out to be equally naive to expect French, Italian, German, or Turkish peacekeepers to succeed, in the absence of a political settlement, where the IDF and the Lebanese army have failed.
The author is a South-East Europe editor with Transitions Online (www.tol.org), a newsweekly covering the post-Communist world. He has written for the Wall Street Journal Europe, the International Herald Tribune, and the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.