Events in July and August 2006 reminded observers that the Arab – Israeli conflict is not restricted to confrontations between Israelis and Palestinians. On 12 July 2006, Lebanese-based Shia Hezbollah militants killed three Israeli soldiers patrolling the Israeli side of the border fence in the north of Israel and captured two others. The Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, a 46-year-old cleric, stated that the reason for the attack was that Israel had broken a previous deal to release Hezbollah prisoners, and he recklessly and disingenuously claimed that, since diplomacy had failed, violence was the only remaining option. Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert described the seizure of the soldiers as an ‘act of war’ by the sovereign country of Lebanon. Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora denied any knowledge of the raid and stated that he did not condone it.
Israel responded with massive airstrikes and artillery fire on targets in Lebanon including Beirut’s International Airport (which Israel alleged Hezbollah used to import weapons and supplies), an air and naval blockade, and a ground invasion of southern Lebanon. Hezbollah then launched more rockets into northern Israel and engaged the IDF in guerrilla warfare from hardened positions.
This unexpected outbreak of war engendered worldwide concerns over infrastructure damage to Lebanon and the risks of escalation of the crisis. Hezbollah and Israel both received mixed support and criticism. President Bush declared the conflict to be part of the War on Terrorism. On 20 July 2006 Congress voted overwhelmingly to support Israel’s right to defend itself and authorized Israel’s request for expedited shipment of precision-guided bombs, but did not announce the decision publicly. Among neighbouring Middle Eastern nations, Iran, Syria and Yemen voiced strong support for Hezbollah, while the Arab League, Egypt and Jordan issued statements criticizing the organization’s actions, and declared support for the Lebanese government.
The war against Lebanon continued until a United Nations-brokered ceasefire went into effect in the morning on 14 August. It formally ended on 8 September, when Israel lifted its naval blockade of Lebanon. Many Lebanese accused Washington of stalling the Security Council ceasefire resolution until it became clear that Hezbollah would not be easily defeated. US representative to the UN, John Bolton, confirmed that the US and UK, with support from several Arab leaders, had in fact delayed the process. The Lebanese and Israeli governments accepted the UN resolution, which called for disarmament of Hezbollah, for Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, and for the deployment of Lebanese soldiers and an enlarged United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in southern Lebanon. The Lebanese army began deploying in southern Lebanon on 17 August; by 1 October most Israeli troops had withdrawn across the border. The Lebanese government, Syria and Hezbollah later agreed that the military group would not be disarmed.
Iran and Syria proclaimed a victory for Hezbollah while the Israeli and United States administrations declared that the group had lost the conflict. On 22 September, some eight hundred thousand Hezbollah supporters gathered in Beirut for a ‘victory rally’. Nasrallah then said that Hezbollah should celebrate the ‘divine and strategic victory’. The majority of Israelis believed that no one won. Olmert admitted to the Knesset that there were mistakes in the war. In response to media and public disquiet over Israel’s handling of what was now called the Second Lebanese War, and the conduct of the armed forces, military and political enquiries were set up in mid-August. By 25 August, 63 per cent of Israelis polled wanted Olmert to resign due to his handling of the war. The total cost of the war to Israel was estimated at around US$3.3 billion. In the wake of the war two Israeli senior military commanders resigned, and on 17 January 2007 the head of Israel’s armed forces, Lt Gen. Dan Halutz, quit after internal investigations pointed to his responsibility for Israel’s conduct during the invasion.
Some estimated that Hezbollah had 13,000 missiles at the beginning of the conflict, supplied by Syria, Iran, Russia and China. During the campaign Israel’s air force flew more than 12,000 combat missions, its navy fired 2,500 shells, and its army fired over 100,000 shells. Large parts of the Lebanese civilian infrastructure were destroyed, including 400 miles (640 km) of roads, 73 bridges and 31 other targets, such as Beirut’s international airport, ports, water and sewage treatment plants, electrical facilities, 25 fuel stations, 900 commercial structures, up to 350 schools and two hospitals, and 15,000 homes. Some 130,000 more homes were damaged. The hostilities killed more than a thousand people, mostly Lebanese civilians, and displaced approximately one million Lebanese and around 300,000 Israelis. After the ceasefire, some parts of Southern Lebanon remained uninhabitable due to unexploded cluster bomblets.
Following its attack on Lebanon, Israel withdrew its forces from Gaza on 25 July 2006, although air and artillery attacks continued. During July 150 Palestinians (the majority civilians) were killed, including 26 children. Palestinians (mostly Sunni Muslims) rallied in support of the Shi’ite Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israeli attacks on Gaza Strip targets continued in August. In the following month Prime Minister Olmert authorized the construction of 600 houses in the West Bank. Tension rose between Hamas and Fatah. Because Hamas refused to recognize Israel, the PA was unable to pay its employees; Israel and the international community had demanded that Hamas recognize Israel as a prerequisite to passing on tax revenues and providing international funding. PA employees went on strike in early September.
On 11 September senior Hamas and Fatah leaders announced they had reached a tentative agreement to form a national-unity government. Addressing the UN General Assembly in New York on 21 September, President Abbas stated that the new unity government would recognize Israel. The following day, however, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh stated that his party would agree to less than full recognition. Tension over the PA’S strike action broke into fighting between Hamas forces and Fatah protestors in the Gaza Strip on 1 October, bringing an end to talks on a unity government. At least eight people were killed and more than fifty wounded in the civil unrest. The UN World Food Programme announced that 70 per cent of the Gaza population could not meet their family’s food needs.
In the first week of November 2006 Israel launched a major assault around Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip, killing at least 30 Palestinians. Thirteen members of one family were killed because of a ‘technical failure’, according to Israel, and an investigation was ordered into the incident. In mid-November Arab states promised economic aid to the PA. Abbas negotiated a ceasefire at the end of November and Israeli troops withdrew. On 29 December an Israeli human rights group reported that Israeli occupation forces had killed 660 Palestinians in 2006 – three times higher than the number killed in 2005.
Between December 2006 and February 2007, rival factions Fatah and Hamas continued fierce street gun-fighting in Gaza, agreeing and breaking temporary truces in what closely resembled a civil war. Israel and the US made no secret of which side they were on, and the Americans armed Fatah’s security forces and financed their training and equipment. On 23 December President George W. Bush signed a law blocking US aid to the Hamas-led Palestinian government and banning contact with the ruling party. The Israeli government handed over US$100 million in frozen tax funds to the PA on 19 January 2007 as part of Israel’s bid to boost President Abbas in his power struggle with Hamas.
In late February 2007 Israeli forces entered Nablus and imposed a curfew in the centre of the city in what the army said was an open-ended operation aimed at searching for weapons caches and arresting Palestinian resistance fighters responsible for carrying out attacks against Israeli targets. More than 50,000 Palestinian residents remained confined to their homes as the Israeli army pressed on with one of its biggest military campaigns in the West Bank.
In early March, Prime Minister Olmert admitted before the Winograd Commission, the government inquiry investigating the 30-day war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, that the strategy adopted in Israel’s military offensive was drawn up months in advance of the capture of two Israeli soldiers. Olmert’s testimony contradicted claims that the military campaign on 12 July 2006 was launched by Israel in response to Hezbollah’s action. One newspaper opinion poll suggested that the prime minister was trusted by only 2 per cent of the Israeli public. At the end of April the commission released an interim report highly critical of Olmert; however, he resisted pressure to resign.
In mid-March 2007, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh unveiled a new national-unity cabinet after months of negotiations between his ruling Hamas party and the Fatah movement of President Abbas. Under the terms of the deal, Hamas was allocated twelve cabinet posts and Fatah six, with the rest going to either independents or small parties. On 8 February Fatah and Hamas had signed a historic unity deal, ‘The Declaration of Mecca’, at a ceremony hosted by Saudi King Abdullah to end their bitter power struggle. The Hamas cabinet resigned on 15 February to allow the formation of the new national-unity government. Nevertheless tension remained high between the two factions, and a number of civilians were killed and injured in gunfights in May as Fatah sought to take over security for the Gaza Strip.
Jerusalem’s city council took advantage of the factional fighting among Palestinians to announce in May that it intended to build 20,000 new apartments around Jerusalem to link with existing settlements in the West Bank. On 21 May the first Israeli in six months to die owing to a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip was killed in Sderot. Israel assisted Fatah with a number of air strikes on Hamas targets and by arresting 33 Hamas politicians and detaining Hamas legislators across the West Bank on 24 May.
In mid-June 2007, after fierce and bitter fighting against Fatah soldiers in which more than 55 people were killed, Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip. President Abbas dissolved the Hamas-led national-unity government and declared a state of emergency. After summarily suspending clauses in the basic law that called for legislative approval for the new government, he swore in a new emergency government. The president also outlawed the militias of Hamas. Israel and the US quickly endorsed Abbas’s actions; Israel released frozen taxes, and the US and EU ended their economic embargos of the PA. There were now, in effect, two Palestinian territories, each with its own government. Almost all border crossings into the Gaza Strip were closed. On 27 June Israel launched attacks in the Gaza Strip killing twelve people. In an effort to play a role in breaking the cycle of violence, the EU announced it had appointed Tony Blair, the recently resigned British prime minister, as its representative to work for peace in the Arab – Israeli conflict.
In mid-August the US and Israel signed a US$30 billion military aid package. The aid deal signed in a ceremony in Jerusalem represented a 25 per cent rise in US military aid to Israel, from a current US$2.4 billion each year to US$3 billion a year over ten years. Abbas continued his meetings with Olmert throughout the autumn, and Israel released more than 300 Palestinian West Bank prisoners. In late October 2007 Israel tightened its blockade of the Gaza Strip, announcing it would restrict the flow of food, medical and fuel supplies into the area. The Middle East peace conference first suggested by President Bush in July was held at Annapolis, Maryland, on 27 November, attended by the leaders of Israel, the PA, the us, the EU, the UN, Syria, the Arab League and the G8 countries. A ‘joint-understanding’ was reached whereby Olmert and Abbas agreed to negotiate a peace agreement by the end of 2008. In a joint statement read by President Bush at the end of the conference, both leaders expressed their support for a two-state solution. Both agreed that: ‘The final peace settlement will establish Palestine as a homeland for the Palestinian people just as Israel is the homeland for Jewish people.’ However, extremists on both sides voiced their dissent.
Seeking to maintain – or, more accurately, create – some momentum in the ‘peace process’, in early January 2008 George Bush arrived in Israel at the start of a nine-day tour of the Middle East. The US president said there was a ‘new opportunity’ for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, whose would-be state he also visited. He went on to Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Despite international calls for a freeze on settlement activity, in mid-April 2008 the Israeli housing ministry invited tenders for the construction of 100 new homes at the settlements of Ariel and El Kana in the northern-occupied West Bank. The Israeli group ‘Peace Now’ reported that between November 2007 and April 2008 tenders had been issued for 750 homes in the East Jerusalem settlements. Meanwhile, destruction of Palestinian homes in the West Bank, especially those in the vicinity of the West Bank barrier, continued. Despite all the negotiations, promises and bloodshed, little seemed to have changed.