What: Israel waged aerial, ground and naval war on Lebanon’s Hezbollah
Where: Southern Lebanon and northern Israel
When: 12 July – 14 August 2006
Between 12 July and 14 August 2006, Israel waged war on Hezbollah positions in southern Lebanon and the Lebanese capital Beirut, by land, air and sea. Over the 34 days of the conflict, Israel carried out thousands of air strikes, while Hezbollah fired missiles into northern Israel. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), “The conflict resulted in at least 1,109 Lebanese deaths, the vast majority of whom were civilians, 4,399 injured, and an estimated one million displaced.” HRW also found that 43 Israeli civilians and 12 IDF soldiers were killed during the war.
The conflict was sparked-off when, on 12 July 2006, Hezbollah operatives crossed the Israel-Lebanon border to ambush an Israeli military vehicle that was on patrol. Three Israeli soldiers were killed and two were captured. When Israel sent a rescue mission into Lebanon in an attempt to find the captives, five more soldiers were killed.
Hezbollah demanded the release of Lebanese prisoners being held in Israel in return for the release of the two soldiers. Israel refused. Instead, it launched large-scale ground and air attacks on Lebanon. It also imposed an air and naval blockade on the country.
Israeli air strikes targeted Hezbollah military positions as well as extensive civilian infrastructure, including Beirut airport, TV and radio stations and schools. HRW reported that, “Israeli warplanes launched some 7,000 bomb and missile strikes in Lebanon.”
In retaliation, Hezbollah fired missiles into Israel, most of which were Katyusha missiles first used by the Soviet Union in World War II. On 16 July, eight Israel Railways employees were killed by rockets which hit the Haifa train depot. Other northern Israeli cities were also hit, including Safed, Nazareth and Afula.
On 30 July, the Israeli Air Force bombed the village of Qana in southern Lebanon, killing 28 civilians, of which 16 were children; 13 people were reported missing. This was the second time that Israel had opened fire on Qana with deadly consequences. In April 1996, Israel targeted a UN compound in which civilians had sought shelter. At least 106 people were killed on that occasion, with 116 civilians and four Fijian soldiers serving with the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) wounded. An international outcry followed the 2006 attack, with Israel coming under extensive criticism from the international community for its targeting of civilians. On 2 August, Human Rights Watch accused Israel of committing war crimes.
The 2006 war came six years after Israel withdrew from its 18-year occupation of Southern Lebanon, which it had maintained since it invaded the country in 1982. That’s when Israel besieged Beirut in a bid to root out Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which was eventually pushed into exile in Tunisia.
What happened next?
On 11 August 2006, the UN Security Council unanimously approved Security Council Resolution 1701 to end the hostilities. Hezbollah’s Secretary-General, Hassan Nasrallah, said that he would observe the ceasefire and Israel’s cabinet voted in favour of the resolution. The ceasefire came into effect on 14 August. Israel eventually lifted the naval blockade on Lebanon on 8 September 2006.
Initially, both Israel and Hezbollah claimed victory in the war, with Nasrallah declaring that Hezbollah had achieved a “divine, historic and strategic victory”. Some international observers saw the fact that Hezbollah had survived the Israeli assault, despite the asymmetrical power balance, as a PR victory for the group. According to Reuters, the Lebanese government estimated direct war damage at $2.8 billion, and lost output and income for 2006 at $2.2 billion. The economy also shrank five per cent, with tourism effectively halted.
In Israel, the war has since come to be seen as a military failure for its inability to disarm or destroy Hezbollah. A commission of inquiry subsequently appointed by the Israeli government, the Winograd Commission, labelled the war a “missed opportunity” and revealed shortcomings in Israel’s decision-making processes.
It is also believed that the war contributed to the downfall of Ehud Olmert, Israel’s prime minister at the time. Olmert has been seen by Israeli commentators as the last centre-left leader, whose failure in Lebanon revived Benjamin Netanyahu’s political career and indirectly spurred his return to power two years later. The Israeli left remains in disarray, and Netanyahu has been prime minister since 2009.