Beirut 20 July 2006
I was in Japan with my wife when we heard the news. The memories flooded back: Israel was once again attacking Lebanon. We were frantic because our two daughters were there with their grandparents. We flew to Damascus via Dubai, and after a flurry of telephone calls and consultations with fellow travellers who had similar plans, we took a taxi and went by the recently hit but shortest route, via Zahle and Tarshish. Along the way, we passed a convoy of ambulances. When we arrived home two and a half hours later, my parents greeted us with tears in their eyes. The road we had been on was hit several times, and the ambulances destroyed.
Yesterday the Israeli military targeted water-drilling machines that lay idle on a construction site in the Christian district of Ashrafieh in the centre of Beirut. It is difficult to think of anywhere in Lebanon where Hizbullah ‘terrorists’ are less likely to be hiding. A few hours earlier the Israeli foreign minister had announced that Israel was not attacking Lebanon as such, but Hizbullah, because of its capture of two Israeli soldiers. Such claims are intended to align this war with the US ‘war on terror’, and also to quell guilt on the part of those in the West who might otherwise feel uncomfortable with the carnage. But the overwhelming majority of casualties have been civilians, and the targeting of infrastructure - the airport, ports, bridges, electricity stations, roads, factories, hospitals - is the latest instance of the long-standing Israeli policy of collective punishment of Arab civilian populations that resist Israeli dictates. The world, meanwhile, looks on.
Hizbullah’s capture of the Israeli soldiers had a specific objective: to exchange the soldiers for Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails. This was neither a new strategy nor was it unexpected. The last time Hizbullah seized Israeli soldiers, in 2004, international mediation resulted in prisoner exchanges. There are some 9,000 prisoners (including women and children) in Israeli jails, many of them detained without trial. Among these prisoners are Lebanese citizens abducted by Israel from Lebanese territory. Israel’s stated objective is to destroy Hizbullah. Its more realistic actual goal seems to be to terrorise the Lebanese people to such an extent that they collectively turn against Hizbullah and remove them from the political scene. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have been expelled from the mostly poor rural areas of southern Lebanon into the larger urban centres, particularly Beirut, which will put intolerable strain on Lebanon’s delicate social structure. Shimon Peres attempted the same tactic during the brief incursions into Lebanon of 1996, which led to the massacre of unarmed civilians taking refuge with UN peacekeepers in the village of Qana.
Another Israeli objective, perhaps less obvious to the outside world, is to reassert the reputation of the Israeli military after its humiliation in 2000 at the hands of the Lebanese resistance, which succeeded in forcing the Israeli army to withdraw under fire from southern Lebanon. The psychological effect of this dishonourable retreat on the Israeli military should not be underestimated. Israel fears Hizbullah both for its military capabilities and for its intransigence and status as a role model in the wider Arab world.
There does not appear to be any end in sight to this latest Israeli attack. The Lebanese have reluctantly accepted that the international community - that increasingly cynical euphemism for the Great Powers - have abandoned them, though France, China and Russia at least have made reassuring gestures. George Bush and Condoleezza Rice have backed Israel’s right to ‘self-defence’ and blamed Hizbullah’s very existence for the current violence. Meanwhile, Tony Blair - in an ironic reversal of the Blair Doctrine, which calls for intervention for humanitarian reasons - has called for more UN peacekeepers to be deployed in southern Lebanon ‘to protect Israel’. Together, Bush and Blair stifled the G8 call for an immediate ceasefire and have threatened to veto any Security Council resolutions calling for an end to hostilities. The consensus in Western foreign policy circles is that Hizbullah is only a proxy for Iran and/or Syria. Fear of the ‘Shia crescent’ that supposedly connects Iraq, Iran, Syria and Hizbullah also explains the unprecedented Saudi and Egyptian acquiescence to the Israeli attacks.
It is clear that Israeli and American foreign policy officials have not learned the lessons of the past couple of decades: namely, that it is their policies - and not some cultural or religious backlash - that make resistance certain and foster support for resistance groups across the Arab world. Hizbullah was itself born out of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the siege of Beirut that claimed more than 20,000 civilian lives and culminated in the massacres of Palestinians and Lebanese in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Hizbullah grew in influence and effectiveness; its popularity peaked with the forced Israeli withdrawal. The current war will not only once again increase support for Hizbullah, it could turn Hassan Nasrallah into a hero almost on a par with Nasser.
The US has made a grave mistake in lumping all Islamist organisations together as ‘terrorists’, and in associating itself so strongly with Israeli interests in the region. In the Arab world today, Israel’s activities in Gaza and Lebanon are referred to as the ‘Israeli-American’ war. John Bolton, the US ambassador to the UN, has refused to sanction a diplomatic end to the current conflict because, as he said, ‘I’d like to know when there’s been an effective ceasefire between a terrorist organisation and a state in the past.’ Such sentiments indicate a total ignorance of the politics of the region. Not everyone in Lebanon supports Hizbullah, yet, for better or worse, its reputation is growing across the Arab world as an organisation that represents Arab peoples ashamed of their corrupt and servile leaders. (In the same way, Hizbullah’s missiles are taken as a sign, again for better or worse, that the havoc caused by the Israelis in Palestine and Lebanon is having repercussions in Israel itself.)
America’s supposed efforts at democratisation have been given the lie by its backing of the Egyptian, Jordanian and Saudi regimes, which have been encouraged to crack down on their citizens’ civil rights while the democratically elected representatives of Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine are attacked. The ultimate irony is the Israeli claim that the purpose of this war is the ‘implementation’ of UN Security Council Resolution 1559 (which calls for the disarming of ‘militias’ in Lebanon): this from a country that has an unrivalled record in defying UN resolutions. Hizbullah’s response must be read as part of a political struggle against the uneven distribution of rewards in the US-dominated world order. Essentially, this is a fundamental - and very secular - resistance to the idea that Arabs must accept Israel as a regional hegemon, with all the benefits that accrue from that status, including the stockpiling of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons denied to all other states in the region.
There is a huge gap between Arab rulers and the people they govern. Islamists have understood this; Western governments have not. The neo-cons in the US have joined Israel in actively promoting sectarian conflict in the Arab world, frightening the ruling Sunni factions in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan into further repression of their own citizens in the name of ‘combating terrorism’. These Sunni leaders fear the ‘Shia crescent’, but what they fear most is any challenge to their unpopular and illegitimate rule.
The Israeli war on Lebanon will probably end in one of two ways, neither of them promising for the hawks. The first possibility is that a stalemate will be reached, after Israel realises that it cannot destroy Hizbullah because Hizbullah has support not only from the Shia but from many others across Lebanon’s sectarian spectrum. The international community will step in, making appropriate noises about the need for a ‘buffer zone’ and kick-starting the ‘peace process’ yet again. The Arab League will rubber-stamp whatever the Great Powers tell it to. Civilian deaths will be described as unfortunate collateral damage, and members of the EU will pledge technical assistance to repair damaged infrastructure. The status quo will be reimposed until the next conflict, and Israel will escape unpunished and free to continue its occupation of the Palestinian territories.
Or there is a more optimistic scenario. The US will realise that the best way to protect its people is to pursue a multilateral approach that seeks a just and equitable resolution both to this war and the larger question of Palestine. It will stop making a mockery of international law and the UN, abandon its failed ‘war on terror’ which has led only to the destruction of its credibility in the region; and use its influence to support real democracy and the rule of law. The US has a choice to make. For the Lebanese, there is no choice but to resist.
Karim Makdisi teaches at the American University of Beirut.