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2006-08-14,12:41 PM

It’s not just an ordinary war

Behind The Headlines
By Bunn Nagara

GONE are the days when local resistance fighters in the Third World relied on their trusty old AK47s against more powerful foreign occupying forces. Although Kalashnikovs still rank with M16s as the classic assault rifles of their time, that time is past.

In Afghanistan, Iraq and especially Lebanon today, British, American and Israeli forces increasingly find that local resistance is getting pluckier with surprisingly sophisticated methods and weapons. This is only to be expected given the combination of two factors: the urgency of defending one’s homeland, and the arms trade being the most profitable legal industry in the world.

The obvious result is that the superior force of large countries is no longer the predictable key to a military victory.

In trying to match some of the firepower of foreign occupiers or their proxies, local fighters begin to show their edge in the discipline and determination that national liberation movements have always shown.

By necessity rather than choice, resistance forces set against more powerful armies have had to rely on irregular fighting that practically defines guerilla activity.

Among their other “special weapons” are knowledge of the local terrain, the instinct for survival of their units, their community and their country, and the hearts and minds of the people.

This had become a standard feature in the developing world in the decolonisation period in the second half of the 20th century. It was an experience that Europe itself had seen before, as in the voluntary French and Spanish resistance fighters against Nazi Germany and Franco’s forces.

The clearest example of this today is the resistance put up by Lebanon’s Hezbollah fighters. Israel calls them terrorists for targeting civilian areas, an act more than matched by Israel as casualty figures show – while taking a cue from Western allied forces’ carpet-bombing of Dresden and Indochina, besides the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

On the battlefield, Israel’s uniqueness expresses itself in its priorities and tactics. As a small country of seven million people, set up on land producing more oranges than oil, it has poured substantial national resources into weapons until its military is the fifth-most powerful in the world.

Besides receiving sophisticated weapons systems from the United States, Israel has also developed an advanced weapons industry of its own. Among its combat criteria are projecting maximum deadly force while sustaining minimal casualties.

The premier product of its labours is thus the Merkava Mk IV tank, possibly the most advanced of its kind in terms of massive body armour and crew survivability.

As a “force multiplier” for Israel’s infantry divisions as they plunge deeper into more neighbouring Arab territory, the Merkava is a formidable platform and the army’s icon of lethal confidence.

At least, that was the theory and belief until just a few weeks ago. Hezbollah forces are now able to disable or destroy Merkava tanks with some of their hand-held weapons, to the shock and dismay of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF).

The Merkava has thus become a double-edged sword for the Israeli army. Until recently its pride and joy, every Merkava setback now represents a morale deficit which Hezbollah celebrates as a morale boost.

Israeli military sources admit that the majority of casualties suffered have resulted from these smaller anti-tank missiles. Hezbollah evidently has more than the truck-launched Katyusha rockets, which Western media still harp on, and whose Soviet design is really of World War II origins.

Meanwhile, the same Western news media tend to focus on the claim that Syria has been supplying Hezbollah with weapons, with more than a little help from Iran. This fits neatly into the Washington-London consensus that demonises these countries, possibly in their next step in the “war on terror” to serve ulterior motives.

The facts are that Hezbollah’s arsenal is of more varied origin than Israel’s, while also being less lethal and destructive than the IDF’s. Irregular fighters cannot be choosers.

Besides the Russian-made Metis-M1 anti-tank guided missile system, another handy compact item, Hezbollah has RPG-29 launchers firing rocket-grenades or anti-personnel warheads. Part of the latter’s mechanism is French, which is also used by Israel.

Then there are the Milan missiles of European heritage, principally of French-German parentage. And another guided missile system with Hezbollah is the C-802, of Chinese design but with a limited Iranian variant.

While much has been made of Hezbollah’s supposedly new long-range missiles, these are largely the Fajr-3 variant of Katyushas. Hezbollah’s arsenal has progressed far beyond AK47s, but upsetting Merkava tanks still does not equate with beating the IDF.

Israel still has far more superior weapons, up to and including nuclear missiles. In a strictly military sense, Hezbollah is no match for Israel.

However, the conflict in southern Lebanon is very much an asymmetric war. Among other things, that also means that victory or defeat is not judged in strictly military terms.

It is said that anything short of total victory by Israel, which is most unlikely, will be seen as victory for Hezbollah by all of Israel’s opponents. And that does not even begin to consider the moral defeat for Israel as seen by much of the world.

Impressive as Hezbollah’s efforts may already be in stopping several Merkava tanks, they also have “non-combat” weapons that include the moral support of compatriots and brothers-in-arms.

Who needs “weapons of mass destruction” other than those who seek a pretext for unnecessary wars? Israel, as the only nuclear power in West Asia, belongs to a fast-receding age as surely as the thinking behind the Merkava’s supposed invincibility is retro.

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