By Syed Saleem Shahzad
SOUTH LEBANON - The US ruling political elite failed to understand (or deliberately ignored) the real pulse of the post-September 11, 2001, situation when they decided to invade Iraq in 2003, despite repeated opposition from top Pentagon and intelligence officials.
The ongoing chaos in Iraq is evidence enough of the dire consequences of this miscalculation.
Now, Asia Times Online has learned from contacts both in Lebanon and in the region that Israel, too, has embarked on a military adventure in defiance of warnings from within its establishment of the need for caution.
As with Iraq, the consequences could be dire.
An alliance of hawkish Israeli politicians and military top brass is determined to eradicate Hezbollah once and for all from Lebanon, despite warnings from Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, Asia Times Online is told.
Those arguing for restraint say that the Iraqi war has changed the dynamics and mood in the Middle East. The region is no longer the same as when Israel could flex its muscles with impunity: there is now a groundswell of anti-Israeli and anti-US sentiment.
And Israeli intelligence admitted to the ruling establishment before the war began that it had failed to penetrate the tightly knit folds of the ideologically and religiously motivated cadre and leadership of Hezbollah. Therefore, they opposed the war until their proxy network could gather more information on Hezbollah's military strength, manpower, logistics and positions.
Israeli intelligence dispatches warned that Hezbollah, with Iranian backing, had grown way beyond a small resistance group like Hamas in Palestine and would fight with much more than small weapons and suicide attacks.
The dispatches cautioned that before going into any large-scale war, it was essential to measure the full extent of Hezbollah's war machine, otherwise it could turn into a military catastrophe.
On Tuesday, Israel sent 10,000 troops in armored personnel carriers and backed by tanks into south Lebanon, Israeli defense officials said. Thousands more were gathering at staging areas on the Israeli side of the border. Israel called up 30,000 reservists over the weekend.
At least 539 Lebanese have been killed in three weeks of air and missile attacks, including 468 civilians and 25 Lebanese soldiers and at least 46 Hezbollah guerrillas, although Israel claims that Hezbollah casualties are much higher.
A total of 51 Israelis have been killed since the start of the military campaign, 33 of them soldiers, according to Israeli figures. Hezbollah claims to have killed more soldiers than stated.
Given the Israeli escalation, and Hezbollah's fierce resistance, it is clear that the massive aerial bombing (about 30 raids a day) has not inflicted too serious a loss on Hezbollah. Israel targeted the traditional strongholds of Hezbollah, such as offices and mosques administered by them in south Lebanon.
Mossad, according to Asia Times Online contacts, warned of an extensive network of underground tunnels and bunkers that Hezbollah could use to stockpile arms in preparation for a long guerrilla war. The problem was that it was not able to identify their whereabouts accurately.
A boiling anger
During this correspondent's travels in south Lebanon over the past few days, the indications have been that dozens of Fallujahs could be in the making, as in the Iraqi town that put up strong resistance to US-led forces.
After Israel bombed the border town of Qana on Sunday, causing more than 50 civilian deaths, a mass evacuation to the north has been under way. Many of the empty houses in any number of villages have now been occupied by young men.
They are not Hezbollah, but they definitely are sympathizers. They wear different-colored shirts, but all have similar green trousers. They call themselves "volunteers" and avoid any long conversations.
In Sarafan, a small town between Tyre and Sidon, Asia Times Online spoke to a shopkeeper, Ahmad Basbishi.
"Almost 60% of the population has left the area," he said. "We are here for two reasons. We do not have relatives out of this town and so do not want to be roaming around like beggars with our families in other cities. And second, we do not want to give the Israelis easy access to our land. Whatever strength we have and whatever firepower we have, we will put it in place and resist Israel if they try to occupy south Lebanon again."
A group of Palestinian refugees in Tyre put it in even stronger terms.
"Let the Israeli forces come on the ground and you will see how we sacrifice our lives and butcher them. They have snatched everything from us, and now they do not even want us to stay alive," said Shadi Ibrahim, one of the refugees.
"This is not a question of Hamas, Islamic Jihad or Hezbollah. Neither is it a question of [Hamas leader] Khaled Mishal or Sheikh Osama [bin Laden] or [Hezbollah leader] Hassan Nasrallah. This is a question of do or die. And whoever leads the battle, we will be with them."
Dr Jawad Mahmood Najam, who runs a hospital near Tyre and Qana, gave another perspective.
"During the mid-1990s civil war and Israeli raids, all of our doctors ran away. Nobody was ready to handle the casualties. But this time things surprisingly turned out differently. Not only have doctors and nurses refused to go to safe places, they are also working around the clock, even without monetary compensation. I think this is because everybody is now measuring the situation from a new angle and understand that this is a serious battle."
In Iraq, after the US-led invasion, people decided at the neighborhood level to form bands of resistance. These turned into Islamic groups, which in turn melted into the broader resistance.
The Lebanese street, certainly in the south, appears much the same. But a trustworthy organization - Hezbollah - is already on the ground and people only need to join forces with this broad resistance.
The next step, therefore, is for this resistance of Lebanon to become a part of the international anti-US Islamic movement. The Israelis were warned.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Pakistan Bureau Chief for Asia Times Online. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org