Israel should seek wise enemies

13 July 2006

martyred-child.jpg

Palestinians carry the body of Khaled Abdel Kareem, one and a half years old, during his funeral in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah July 11, 2006. He died of injuries caused by an Israeli air strike. (MaanImages/Hatem Omar)


“A wise enemy is better than a foolish friend,” says the old adage. It is one that Israel should heed. In its historic conflict with the Arabs, Israel got used to easy victories and was always tempted for more. It won wars on several fronts in 1947-48, 1967 and in 1973. In 1956, Israel spearheaded the tripartite Anglo-French-Israeli aggression on Egypt and in record speed defeated the Egyptian army, occupied the Gaza Strip and the entire Sinai up to the shores of the Suez Canal. A major part of Israel’s political planning was to build right from the beginning a military force strong enough to ensure superiority in all its confrontations with its neighbours.

But things started to go badly wrong in 1982 after Israel invaded Lebanon. There again military victory was easily achieved against PLO fighters and the Syrian army, while officially the Lebanese army stood aside, aware it could do little to stop an Israeli advance. Though the human cost was enormous, Israel ended that war with no political gains. It departed Lebanon after two decades of occupying the south having achieved none of its goals, and having helped give rise to Hizbollah — a determined resistance movement that was able to meet Israel’s challenge on the battlefield.

By 1983, Hizbollah’s resistance had succeeded in forcing the Israeli invaders out of Lebanon, except for a 10-mile-wide strip of territory along the entire Lebanese side of the border, claimed to be a security buffer zone, manned by the Israeli-sponsored South Lebanon Army (SLA). Hizbollah continued, however, to harass both the Israelis and their proxy forces until, in May 2000, Israel was once more forced to hastily end its presence in Lebanon. Abandoned, and without Israel’s direct support, the SLA quickly disintegrated and thousands of collaborators fled Lebanon behind their former Israeli sponsors.

Having failed to defeat Hizbollah militarily, Israel has placed that group, as well as its supporters in Syria and Iran, at the top of its diplomatic and political hit list. Under Israeli pressure, Hizbollah was branded a “terrorist” organisation. An international campaign to force Hizbollah to disarm is part of an effort to recast all armed resistance to Israel as illegitimate.

Israel, rather than learning any lessons from its bitter entanglement with Lebanon, decided to repeat its errors even closer to home. The only comfort in watching Israel commit its cruel Lebanon-inspired follies in Gaza is hearing courageous voices within Israel excoriating the country’s continued reliance on brute military force as its only tool of policy. It is remarkable that there is a much greater willingness to deal with military and political realities within at least a small segment of Israeli society than anywhere in the mainstream US media.

The only comfort in watching Israel commit its cruel Lebanon-inspired follies in Gaza is hearing courageous voices within Israel excoriating the country’s continued reliance on brute military force as its only tool of policy. It is remarkable that there is a much greater willingness to deal with military and political realities within at least a small segment of Israeli society than anywhere in the mainstream US media.

Aluf Benn, a prominent commentator for Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, observed that “Hizbollah is doing a better job maintaining quiet in the Galilee than the pro-Israeli SLA”. (July 7) Benn adds: “We need a Nasrallah” in Gaza since in Lebanon, “a stable balance of deterrence was created on both sides of the border; and the withdrawal from the South was made possible not by the daring of [former Israeli prime minister Ehud] Barak but thanks to Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah” who conducts a policy of “one law one weapon” on the other side.

What Benn is saying in effect is that Israel’s declared worst enemy — Hizbollah — is actually a much better friend to Israel than all of Israel’s unquestioning supporters who arm it militarily and diplomatically. Hizbollah got Israel to stop committing in Lebanon the kind of madness it continues in the occupied Palestinian territories today with the full connivance of Western powers.

In Israel’s stunningly limited vision, the Oslo accords were supposed to produce in the West Bank and Gaza a version of what failed in Lebanon — a proxy army dressed up as a local authority, policing a subject people on behalf of the Israeli occupier. One would expect that occupation should end before a national authority would take over, but Oslo arranged for the two to exist at the same time, with the “liberators” joining the occupation instead of removing it.

Israel never saw the Palestinian Authority as an alternative to its own rule in the occupied territories, but simply as an extension of its rule, subcontracting as many of the risks and costs to someone else.

The fundamental difference between the occupied Palestinian territories and Lebanon is that withdrawal from Lebanon was relatively simple once Israel was forced to swallow its ideology of total domination; there were no settlers in south Lebanon. But that, too, is an interesting point. It is not hard to imagine that if Hizbollah had not existed, there would now be perhaps twenty or thirty thousand Israeli settlers cultivating wine and apples in south Lebanon, claiming that it was part of the land promised to them by God. Now it is a prominent Israeli writer who is telling us that it is legitimate resistance, not the “international community” that has been successful in checking Israeli expansionism, thus helping Israel to serve its interests in a much better way.

The calm that followed the Lebanon withdrawal may have misled Israel into believing that it could produce the same effect by pulling its settlers out of Gaza as it did last year. That decision was inevitable because the Palestinians’ rejection of the settlements and resistance to them had raised the cost of keeping them beyond a level Israelis could bear. The miscalculation, however, was to believe that Israel could conduct a policy of withdrawal in Gaza while continuing to colonise the West Bank. Israel wrongly believed that the Palestinian people could be divided, and the interests of Gaza played off versus the West Bank.

Instead, the Gaza withdrawal proved disastrous from an Israeli perspective. It once again showed that the West Bank and Gaza are one unit, and that partial withdrawal from one part cannot buy calm or cover for Israel’s continued violations in another.

The problem for Israeli policy makers who bet everything on the Gaza “disengagement” model is that it promises to turn the proposed disengagement lines in the West Bank into new battle lines with Qassam rockets flying over and commandos tunnelling under every wall into every settlement.

The hysteria which befell the Israeli military establishment following the capture of the Israeli soldier two weeks ago simply reflects loss of direction and bewilderment. No amount of force and blind brutality is going to make the Palestinians surrender. But without using force, since Israel has ruled out all other options, the occupier will never feel secure. Violence will therefore continue to escalate, and will continue to generate tougher resistance, until this vicious cycle is broken.

If Israel was deceived by the unrestricted appeasement and the indifference of its many friends, i.e., all those who either supported its unending territorial ambitions and violations or meekly acquiesced to settle for almost nothing, such as the Palestinian Authority, it is time that they consider Benn’s advice. It is better to deal with a strong enemy who acts with clarity and dignity rather than stray in the wilderness of fantasy and unreality. If your bank offers you unending facilities and finances your reckless spending, you end up bankrupt.

Israel stands politically bankrupt because it unwisely wasted all its political assets.

EI contributor Hasan Abu Nimah is the former permanent representative of Jordan at the United Nations. This article first appeared in The Jordan Times.

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