The roots of the 2006 escalation of the Arab-Israeli conflict can be traced to Israel’s withdrawal of its military forces from southern Lebanon, a Hezbollah stronghold, and from the Gaza Strip, dominated by Hamas.
The withdrawal from southern Lebanon took place in May 2000. Israel had maintained a military presence there since 1982, when it first deployed troops as a means of combating terrorist groups that were using the region as a launching pad for artillery attacks against northern Israeli towns. During its occupation of south Lebanon, Israel repeatedly stressed that it had no territorial ambitions within the borders of its northern neighbor, and that it sought only to protect its own people from further attack. In a 1985 effort to encourage peaceful coexistence, Israel largely withdrew from Lebanon, keeping only a small 1,000-man military force in a strip of territory extending eight miles into that country’s southern region. Israel pledged that it would withdraw those troops as well, in return for a stable security situation on its northern border.
When this final withdrawal eventually occurred in May 2000, Hezbollah depicted the event as a great victory for the Muslim “resistance” and vowed to continue its effort to destroy Israel. During the ensuing years, Hezbollah worked to undermine Israel by establishing a terrorist infrastructure inside Israel and in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip; smuggling weapons and terrorists across Israel’s borders; and giving financial support to militant Palestinian organizations. Moreover, between 2000 and 2006 Hezbollah armed itself with at least 10,000 military rockets (with ranges of 12 to 40 miles), supplied by Syria and Iran, which it fired at Israeli cities.
The other major Israeli withdrawal from Arab territory took place in September 2005, when the Jewish state pulled all its troops and civilian settlers out of Gaza, again in hopes of fostering peaceful coexistence with its Palestinian neighbors. But this withdrawal was likewise received with defiant claims of victory by Hamas, which claimed that the “Zionist enemy” had suffered a humiliating “defeat,” and went on to announce that it would continue to pursue its own goal of destroying Israel. For its perceived role in driving Israel out of the area, Hamas gained immense popularity in Gaza and quickly became the region’s major political force, effectively taking control of the Palestinian government with landslide electoral victories in 2006.
From September 2005 to July 2006, some 800 Qassam rockets were fired from Hamas-controlled Gaza into Israeli towns and cities, most notably Sderot, located just three miles from the Palestinian border. On June 11, 2006, Hamas spokemsan Abu Oviyada candidly declared, “We have decided to turn Sderot into a ghost town and we will not stop the rocket fire until the residents leave.” Such attacks were nothing new in Sderot; between 2001 and 2005, Gaza terrorists had already fired more than 2,000 Qassams into the Israeli town.
In addition to the rocket attacks, Gaza’s Palestinians in the post-September 2005 era also targeted Israelis via vehicle bombings, suicide bombings, sniper attacks, stabbings, stonings, open gunfire in crowded places, the development of chemical weapons, and the smuggling of TNT and mine components into Israel.
On May 28, 2006, Hezbollah launched a barrage of large Katyusha rockets from Lebanon into an Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) base in northern Israel, igniting cross-border clashes and Israeli Air Force retaliation. According to Lebanon’s Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, “Agents working for the axis of Tehran and Damascus arranged the rocket volley [against Israel] to create instability in Lebanon and bring conflict to our borders. … They are trying to prevent the Lebanese army from implementing authority in [areas controlled by Hezbollah.] Also Syria has an economic goal in that it wants to stop investments into Lebanon by making our country unstable.”
Israel directed tens of thousands of its border-town residents into bomb shelters as it carried out retaliatory air strikes against two bases used by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which maintains close ties to Hezbollah and the Syrian government. United Nations peacekeepers quickly brokered a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah.
Then on May 30, Israel sent commando units deep into the northern Gaza Strip to repel the rocket-firing squads whose attacks on Israeli towns were continuing unabated. On June 28, Israeli troops and tanks entered the southern Gaza Strip in an incursion intended to force the release of an Israeli soldier who had been kidnapped three days earlier by Palestinian militants who had sneaked into an Israeli army outpost through a tunnel under the Israel-Gaza border.
On July 12, 2006, Hezbollah decisively opened a second front in the Arab war against Israel when it conducted a surprise raid on a border post in northern Israel, taking two IDF soldiers captive and wounding eleven others. The abductions, which Israel called an act of war, prompted an Israeli military campaign against Lebanon, to which Hezbollah responded by firing, over the next month, more than 4,000 rockets across the Lebanese border and into Israeli cities. Hezbollah launched its rockets from civilian areas in Lebanon, making it impossible for Israel to retaliate without causing civilian casualties, which Hezbollah then exploited for propaganda purposes.
On July 14, Hezbollah struck an Israeli Saar 5-class missile ship and an Egyptian-crewed cargo ship with highly sophisticated C-802 anti-ship missiles. Manufactured in China, these missiles require highly trained operators to crew them — a function that most likely was performed by Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops. On July 15, Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said in a speech that his organization was prepared for “open war” with Israel. “… We are ready for it — war, war on every level.” By the night of July 17, fully one million Israelis were spending the night in bomb shelters.
“It’s not coincidental that we had these two attacks and they’re pretty much coordinated — in the south with Hamas and with Hizballah in the north,” Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. Daniel Ayalon said, noting that both groups are supported by Tehran and Damascus.
Both Hamas and Hezbollah said that they would release their Israeli captives only in exchange for thousands of their own members who were then serving time in Israeli prisons. Israel said that it would not engage in any prisoner exchanges, and that it would cease its bombardment of terrorist strongholds only if Hamas and Hezbollah agreed to suspend all rocket attacks into Israel and unconditionally released the Israeli soldiers.
In August 2006, after a month of combat, Israel and Hezbollah agreed to a cease-fire under the terms of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, which called for “the immediate cessation by Hezbollah of all attacks and the immediate cessation by Israel of all offensive military operations.”
The Resolution called for the release of the abducted Israeli soldiers only in the preamble, while also citing the need to “settl[e] the issue of the Lebanese prisoners detained in Israel.” It further called “on the international community to take immediate steps to extend its financial and humanitarian assistance to the Lebanese people, including through facilitating the safe return of displaced persons and … also to consider further assistance in the future to contribute to the reconstruction and development of Lebanon”; there was no mention of reconstructing any damaged or demolished structures in Israel. Moreover, the Resolution stipulated that the government of Lebanon and UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) would “deploy their forces together throughout the south,” while Israel would “withdraw all of its forces from southern Lebanon in parallel.”
Israel’s battle against Hamas, meanwhile, had no formal ending but simply de-escalated. Before long, Hamas and other Gazan terrorists resumed their practice of firing rockets aimlessly, and with impunity, into southern Israel.