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LEBANON: Was Hezbollah imitating Israel?

May 23, 2008 | 10:11 am

The Shiite militia Hezbollah's audacious takeover of West Beirut earlier this month remains puzzling to many observers. The group launched an unprecedented attack targeting very specific locales. They came with guns blazing, in full force, showing some of their key assets.

Watch the extraordinary video of Hezbollah driving through West Beirut below.

Hezbollah said it was responding to two government decisions targeting its telecommunications and intelligence assets around the country and at Beirut's international airport.

But most believe the government would have no way to get an army sympathetic to Hezbollah to enforce those decisions. And it probably could have gotten them set aside or ignored without so extreme a reaction as occupying downtown Beirut and fanning the flames of the country's long-burning sectarian and religious hatreds in violence that left scores dead.

After years of fighting against Israel, did Hezbollah end up emulating its own enemy?

Whenever I've asked Hezbollah officials over last few months about whether they are armed or trained by Iran , they say they actually think the Iranians are not that good at war. They boast that they train the Iranians. And they insist they learn about warcraft from the greatest army in the Middle East, one of the greatest militaries in the world: They learn from Israel.

Indeed, if you look at the nature of the Hezbollah offensive, it very much resembled an Israeli or even a U.S. operation in both its successes and excesses.

First off, just like Israel's strategy to respond to the kidnapping and killing of soldiers along its northern frontier by launching a full-scale war in 2006, Hezbollah used the slightest provocation to launch an offensive and accomplish key strategic goals it had long been eyeing.

Ignore Hezbollah’s claims that it launched the offensive in response to rowdy Sunnis in the streets of West Beirut causing trouble. In reality, Hezbollah wanted to crush the budding Sunni militia movement loyal to lawmaker Saad Hariri. It likely feared that the groups, though weak now, could turn into a fifth column should Hezbollah ever enter into another war with Israel.

Like Israel in 2006 and the U.S. in it's invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Hezbollah employed the tactic of "shock and awe," using tremendous and disproportionate firepower to quickly subdue the enemy and minimize civilian casualties.

Like Israel in 2006 and the U.S. in toppling Saddam Hussein, Hezbollah quickly went after its enemy's media outlets, snipping key cables at Hariri's television station to keep it off the air for at least a few days.

Clearly Hezbollah had also done a lot of intelligence preparation for the operation. They knew where they were going and whom they were seeking. They immediately went after key players in the Future Movement’s budding militia, which was centered at the offices of a private security company called Secure Plus. When the Secure Plus guys weren’t at their offices, they went to their homes, disarmed them and handed them over to the army, effectively taking them out of the battle.

Like Israel  and the U.S, they operated at night. Many of the real Hezbollah fighters (not the thuggish Amal guys, but the disciplined and sometimes uniformed Hezbollah combatants) had night-vision scopes attached to their weapons.

But the conflict also revealed Hezbollah's limits. Going after the more hardened, better experienced and more motivated fighters in the Druze mountain villages proved a disaster, and Hezbollah lost perhaps a dozen fighters or more without gaining any territory or seizing the weapons cache it apparently sought to remove.

In the end Hezbollah pulled back, just as the Israelis opted to pull back rather than continue to fight after a disastrous ground incursion in the 2006 war. Maybe Hezbollah could have eventually beaten the Druze fighters, but at a tremendous political and military cost.

Borzou Daragahi in Beirut

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