An Israeli military jeep patrolling near the Israeli-Lebanese border, near the village of Shtula July 12, 2006. (MaanImages/Inbal Rose)
If you are not rain, my love
Sated with fertility, be tree
If you are not tree, my love
Saturated with humidity, be stone
If you are not stone, my love
In the dream of the beloved woman, be moon
(So spoke a woman to her son at his funeral)
From the poem, “Under Siege,” by Mahmoud Darwish
The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have named their relentless military operation in Gaza “Summer Rain” (gishmei ha-qeitz in Hebrew), which is cruel and sarcastic given the political, historical, and environmental context of the Eastern Mediterranean. It does not rain in the summer in this region. From early May to mid-September, one can expect clear skies and no precipitation. What is raining, though, is fire and metal, along with leaflets bearing chillingly familiar threats.
Any Palestinian in Gaza, or indeed anyone who knows what happened in Lebanon one scorching summer 24 years ago, will be appropriately terrified by those leaflets warning people of the firestorms to come. The metal rains of the summer of 1982 in Beirut were heavy and deadly. No one stopped the IDF then from committing massive crimes, directed against an Arab capital crowded with civilians. And sadly, no one will stop them now. Thursday morning, President G.W. Bush and the newly elected German leader Angela Merkel reiterated that Israel has the “right to defend herself.”
Institutionalized Israeli impunity is an amazing sociopolitical phenomenon: The capture of one Israeli soldier, taken as a bargaining chip to ransom hundreds of Palestinian men, women and children held in administrative detention in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, now provides the unquestioned and self-righteous pretext for massive violations of international humanitarian law. Given the mainstream media’s depiction of Palestinians as cruel, heartless terrorists, and Hamas as the most evil organization ever to exist, the IDF can safely assume they’ll get away with crimes this summer that will rival those committed in 1982, when 17,000 civilians lost their lives in Lebanon and Beirut was put to a brutal siege during the hottest months of the year.
Institutionalized Israeli impunity is an amazing sociopolitical phenomenon: The capture of one Israeli soldier, taken as a bargaining chip to ransom hundreds of Palestinian men, women and children held in administrative detention in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, now provides the unquestioned and self-righteous pretext for massive violations of international humanitarian law.
Israeli Prime Minister Olmert declared last week that he wanted no one in Gaza to sleep. With the dramatic bombings of buildings and accumulating corpses in Gaza the last two nights (among them seven children in the last 24 hours), he need not worry that anyone is dozing, oblivious of the might of the IDF. As for losing sleep at night, you don’t have to be in Gaza to be tossing and turning. The dynamic interaction of recent events in the region, and beyond, augur for one of the hottest summers on record.
For the last three years, I have wondered if the Middle East is at a turning point or a breaking point. The former would entail a denouement, a last-minute deliverance from horror. It would require, more than anything else, wise leadership on all sides, strong moral vision, courage, and compassion. The indices of a turning point, sadly, are not in evidence. The failure of leadership in Israel, the US, the Arab world, the UN and the EU is obscene.
A breaking point would entail a cataclysmic but contained explosion or implosion, bringing a long and bloody chapter of modern history to a violent but decisive end. This, too, seems unlikely, because the region has reached another, far more dangerous stage: a tipping point that poses lethal threats and dramatic changes to communities far from the alleys of Gaza and the marble halls of the Knesset.
A tipping point constitutes the critical point in an evolving situation that leads to a new and irreversible development. Small changes which, seen in isolation, may appear insignificant, build up to a critical mass, such that the next small change may suddenly change everything in unpredictable and dramatic ways.
For those attentive to small changes and their interrelationships, indices of a tipping point in the Middle East are now coming into terrifying focus: Escalating intercommunal violence and outright ethnic cleansing in Iraq and the revelation that US troops have committed murder and rape in cold blood, not to mention a chilling report in the New York Times on July 7th that “a decade after the Pentagon declared a zero-tolerance policy for racist hate groups, recruiting shortfalls caused by the war in Iraq have allowed large numbers of neo-Nazis and skinhead extremists to infiltrate the military.”
The report, by John Kifner, cited accounts by neo-Nazis of their infiltration of the military, including a discussion on the white supremacist Web site Stormfront: “There are others among you in the forces,” one participant wrote. “You are never alone.” These guys will come home one day – well organized, trained, and very knowledgeable about weapons and urban warfare tactics. They view their army training as preparation for a coming race war in American cities. Such soldiers pose a more lethal threat to American society, and indeed the US government, than does Al-Qaida.
Meanwhile, the “War on Terror” is looking bleak further east, with this week’s announcement that the UK is sending reinforcements to Afghanistan, where the Taliban are clearly, and predictably, pursuing a strategy to take back the cities. Pakistan, a member of the nuclear club, is also home to Taliban and Al-Qaida forces, who might one day be able to control the levers of the state and military. But this week came news that US intelligence services are no longer concerned with Al-Qaida in the Middle East, but rather, are redirecting their attention to Al-Qaida v.2 in Europe, London, and in the US.
If Israel carries through with its threats to “turn back the clock 30 years in Lebanon,” it should surprise no one if this exacerbates growing Sunni-Shi’a tensions in the region, particularly in Iraq, and also leads to violence and chaos in countries throughout the region, all with unpredictable effects.
And yesterday, the fires of the hot summer of 2006 spread to Lebanon. The Israeli Government just declared that entire country a legitimate target for massive air strikes following the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers by Hizbullah members who crossed the border into Israel in a daring raid, an illegal and unwise action that may well not have happened had the IDF’s punishment of the Gaza Strip not been so cruel and the world’s silence in the face of Israel’s war crimes so deafening.
Hizbullah, like Palestinians, wants illegally imprisoned friends and relatives to be freed and returned. Diplomatic and multilateral mechanisms for attaining this end have halted, so perhaps this is the last resort: taking Israeli soldiers as bargaining chips.
If Israel carries through with its threats to “turn back the clock 30 years in Lebanon,” it should surprise no one if this exacerbates growing anti-Western sentiments as well as Sunni-Shi’a tensions in the region, particularly in Iraq, and results in a conflagration of violence and chaos in countries throughout the region, all with unpredictable effects. If this scenario plays out, expect to see attempts to destabilize Jordan and Saudi Arabia in the coming weeks.
The Middle East is in dire need of the refreshing rains of law, justice, sanity, and wisdom. The clouds on the horizon, though, are full of fire and death, not life-giving water.
A hard rain’s gonna fall, clanging like metal on concrete and bone. It did not have to come to this, but the tipping point is here, and few will be able to sleep peacefully through the coming storms.
Laurie King is a co-founder of the Electronic Intifada. She has lived and worked in Israel, Palestine and Lebanon and is currently living in Washington, DC.