Each side may claim victory but who is really winning?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 August, 2006, 12:00am

Twenty days into the still-nameless war being waged across the Israel-Lebanon border neither side could as yet claim victory.

Hezbollah, a guerilla force numbering a few thousand men, has not been broken despite more than 2,000 Israeli air sorties and clashes with crack Israeli units on the ground. Its command structure continues to function, more or less intact, and its frontline fighters - both those facing Israeli troops and those firing rockets - are putting up an exemplary fight.

Israel has been unable to halt the daily dose of more than 100 rockets that have rained down on its northern cities and villages for more than two weeks.

Israel, for its part, has succeeded in knocking out a significant chunk of Hezbollah's infrastructure, destroying hundreds, if not thousands, of hidden rockets.

In doing so, it has revealed that Israeli intelligence is capable of penetrating even the disciplined ranks of the Shi'ite militia. The Israeli Air Force has destroyed much of Lebanon's infrastructure as well, partly to deprive Hezbollah and partly to punish Lebanon for permitting a militia operating from its territory to provoke war with a sovereign neighbour.

According to Israel, its ground troops have inflicted several times as many casualties on Hezbollah as they themselves have suffered.

Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, who had ordered the cross-border raid that triggered the conflict, has had his image as a brilliant leader who never makes a serious mistake tarnished by an overwhelming Israeli attack he had not anticipated.

One of Israel's most surprising achievements has been the ability of its home front to bear up to almost 2,000 rockets that have struck the northern part of the country.

The public has not been intimidated by Hezbollah's threat to employ long-range rockets capable of hitting the Tel Aviv metropolitan area.

Each side can claim that it is ahead on points. But there are two aspects which suggest that when the shooting stops it will be Israel that will be seen to have gained permanent advantage from the war.

The first is that Hezbollah has been driven back from the border area and is unlikely to return. Israel and the international community may not succeed in their demand that Hezbollah disarm, but Israel has made it a prime national goal to ensure that the militia does not again build up its military infrastructure within sight of Israel's northern villages.

The second aspect is Israel's deterrent image. It has been dangerously eroded in recent years by the pinprick assaults of Hezbollah and Palestinian militants which made Israel seem like an awkward Goliath.