For Arabs, Lebanon war smashes Israeli army image

BEIRUT, Aug 14 (Reuters) – Guerrillas fire rockets and Israeli soldiers weep. Hizbollah’s television station tries to convince viewers that the Middle East’s strongest army is far from invincible.

For many Arabs, the claim is more than propaganda. They see Israeli casualties in south Lebanon as evidence of the weaknesses in an army long held in awe by its neighbours.

At least 116 Israeli soldiers have been killed in more than a month of fighting between Hizbollah and the Jewish state, which has poured thousands of troops into Lebanon to drive the guerrillas from the border and stop rocket fire into Israel.

Israel says its army has killed about 520 of their fighters. Hizbollah has said 80 have been killed.

Israeli forces for weeks faced fierce battles with Hizbollah fighters in the south, in some places just a few kilometres from the border, and could not stop the guerrillas’ rocket fire.

“They have overcome fear of the Israelis, which is very common in the Middle East and is a part of the Israeli military doctrine,” Timur Goksel, former spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping force in south Lebanon, told Reuters.

Israel’s capture of the Sinai peninsula, the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in six days in 1967 showed the Jewish state’s military supremacy over its neighbours. The war is still known by Arabs as “The Naksa”, or “The Setback”.

Some Arab media have called the Lebanon conflict the sixth Arab-Israeli war, although it is different from previous conflicts because Israel is fighting a guerrilla group.

Although Israel could beat any Arab army in a conventional war, the Lebanon conflict has exposed weakness in a guerrilla war, analysts say.

“BLED WITH TIME”

“There’s no doubt that the impression for the Arab public is that Israel is not a legendary power and it can be bled with time,” said retired Egyptian general and military analyst Kadry Said.

Israeli army officers have said they were held back, while Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit has criticised Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for producing “humiliating defeat”.

Hizbollah attacks helped drive Israel from south Lebanon in 2000 after 22 years of occupation. That withdrawal encouraged Palestinians to take up arms later that year in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, analysts say.

“2000 is seen as a Hizbollah campaign that succeeded and this will be seen more as an Israeli campaign that failed,” said International Crisis Group Senior Middle East analyst Mouin Rabbani. “This was a war in which Hizbollah was supposed to be devastated and wiped out and look where we are now.”

Hizbollah’s strength this time will also give a morale boost to Palestinians. But more important could be its impact on the wider Arab world, especially in Egypt and Jordan, where some sections of public opinion oppose peace deals made by their governments with Israel, Rabbani said.

“People will look at this and say if this group, which is blacklisted on half the planet is able to do this, then how come our own leaders who possess actual states with real militaries, are not even prepared to do one percent of this,” Rabbani said.

“It will show that it is possible to say no to Israel and the U.S. and to emerge stronger rather weaker.”

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