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'The Islamist axis'

Special Report: America needs to understand why Israel is 'losing' in Gaza.

A convoy of Israeli tanks moves towards the border as smoke rises from across the border in the northern Gaza Strip Jan. 15, 2009. (Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

AYTA AL SHAAB, Lebanon — The hue and furor over the humanitarian cost of the Gaza conflict have obscured the matter on which Israel’s campaign against Hamas ultimately will turn: Can military force really alter the course of a populist Islamist movement?

Long after the terms of a cease-fire are hammered out, the answer to this underlying and persistent question will determine whether the offensive was successful for Israel and fatal for Hamas.

President Obama’s foreign policy team is grappling with the same nagging quandary as it shifts the U.S. military's focus from Iraq to Afghanistan: How to wage an effective struggle against groups that often employ terrorist tactics? Obama’s White House seems to have abandoned a conventional one-size-fits-all military approach, but it must confront an array of militants that includes Al Qaeda, the Mahdi Army in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

They’ll be looking for lessons from Israel’s latest conflicts. And they’ll find a warning of sorts in the thriving and resurgent community of Hezbollah supporters on Israel’s northern border. The state of Hezbollah, two-and-a-half years after its own punishing encounter with the hard end of Israel’s military, offers a cautionary tale for those who hope to thwart the emboldened axis of Islamist, anti-Israel militant movements through brute strength.

As it has just attempted to do in Gaza, Israel tried in 2006 to emasculate Hezbollah, the militant Shiite Islamist group that has since come to dominate Lebanese politics. Then, Israel hoped to sap popular support for the group by bombing infrastructure targets, as well as to decapitate the leadership and decimate Hezbollah’s military infrastructure.

On all those counts, most military analysts would agree Israel ultimately failed. Less than three years after the war, observers say Hezbollah wields a more formidable military arsenal than in 2006, including anti-aircraft batteries that could reduce Israel’s battlefield advantage. The group has secured more political influence than ever before, including veto power over all Lebanese government decisions. And the increasingly radicalized rank-and-file Shiites, Christians and Palestinians who support Hezbollah are exhibiting a startling thirst for a new confrontation with Israel.

All this despite a war in 2006 that ravaged Lebanon’s infrastructure, killed hundreds of Hezbollah fighters, and by traditional measures of military success was a victory for Israel.

Hezbollah's most important asset

A military balance sheet of the war fails to take into account Hezbollah’s most important asset: the fervent ideological support of its Shiite base, motivated in equal measure by the cause of anti-Israeli resistance and by religious devotion.

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s supreme leader, says he is in regular contact with his backers in Iran, and with Hamas — presumably swapping ideas on tactics, strategy and ideology. It’s hard to imagine that Hamas isn’t drawing on Hezbollah’s 2006 playbook.

Hezbollah’s brightest tactical move in 2006 was to declare at the outbreak of conflict that all it had to do to win was to survive. With its decentralized hierarchy, bevy of technocrats, and a million or more supporters, Hezbollah is likely to persist after an armed conflict, no matter how bruising. So on its own terms, it can’t be defeated no matter what losses it sustains. Hamas seems to have adopted a similar rhetorical stance in its fight with Israel.

Israel might have waged these campaigns against Hamas and Hezbollah, but in the Muslim world and among many of America's allies, Washington is perceived as inextricably linked to them. The United States rushed extra bombs to Israel during its 2006 war with Lebanon. And in one of its final foreign policy acts the Bush Administration gave the green light to the aerial bombardment of Gaza. Israeli officials rushed to execute the offensive in Gaza before Bush left office in part because they weren’t confident that an Obama White House would approve such military moves.

Contemplating the wreckage in Gaza and the failure to de-fang Islamist movements across the Middle East, Obama’s team, like Israeli policy-makers, will have to forge a new, strategic, comprehensive approach. Smart power, perhaps; smart bombs, not so much.

But more to the point in terms of lessons learned — and more chilling for Obama’s policy team and military planners — is how Hezbollah capitalized on the 2006 war to recruit new members and redouble the