Meet the Lebanese Press: Gazing towards Gaza

Like much of the world press, Israel’s war on Gaza dominates the headlines in Lebanon. Massive protests in Beirut, particularly at the Egyptian embassy, took place. In an address to the tens of thousands of demonstrators, Hizballah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah called, among other things, for ordinary Egyptians to open up the crossing at the Egypt-Gaza border by force and in defiance of government security forces. Nasrallah’s explicit condemnation of the Egyptian regime and the stern response by Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit reflects the long-term impact of the Gaza war on the dynamics of regional alliances playing out in Lebanon.

Depending on the outcome of the Israeli operation, it might have a magnified effect on Lebanese politics as far as the future of the strategic positioning of several Lebanese political actors vis a vis regional and international powers. The fragility of peace along the northern border of Israel was highlighted after the discovery and dismantling of eight rocket launchers tucked in the orchards of south Lebanon, aimed southward, days prior to Gaza assault. The assault has also come at a time of heightened focus on Lebanon’s options regarding a national defense strategy. A third round of national dialogue dedicated to discussing this issue was held last week, and news of a possible Israeli-Syrian round of direct negotiations triggered speculation as to what the future of Lebanon’s position would be under such a development. The war on Gaza will probably mean putting on hold any such direct talks in the near future. This will give Hizballah and other groups who oppose any such negotiations but ally themselves with Syria a respite from having to take a clear stand on the subject. Yet, the war will also determine the limit to which Lebanese groups can support Gaza’s resistance efforts.

Ibrahim al-Amine of Al-Akhbar discusses the Egyptian role in precipitating a heavy loss of police officers at outset of the Israeli attack, referring to unidentified sources, and suggests that Hamas still has a lot of cards to play. Fawwaz Traboulsi explores the unclear future of Lebanon’s defense strategy in light of peace negotiations between Israel and Syria (his analysis was written prior to launch of attack on Gaza). He cites the latest attempt by a Lebanese politician, Samir Geagea, to weigh in on the best possible model for such a strategy. An excerpt of Geagea’s proposal is translated below.

Al-Akhbar, 29 December 2008, Ibrahim Al-Amine, “This is how Omar Suleiman conspired against Hamas”:

After Israel’s foreign minister Tzipi Livni visited Cairo [two days before Israel launched its Gaza onslaught], her declarations were clear regarding the intentions and decision to launch a real war on Gaza. On the other side, resistance factions in the Strip, in particular Hamas, behaved on the basis of an imminent confrontation. Estimates of the extent and nature of this aggression varied. But steps taken on the ground, as well as the apprehension and alarm of a potential strike were strongly present, and all the locations and homes where the political and military leaders of Hamas seek refuge were evacuated. Even the movement of these leaders was subject to measures aimed at avoiding strikes by Israel. The leadership of Hamas has acknowledged that these leaders were the primary targets of strikes if they were to happen. And yet, precautionary measures included all sectors, including the police leadership, in which Hamas enjoys a lot of influence. But the degree of those measures when it came to rank and file police was not as strict, considering that the police is a quasi-civilian entity and looks after daily citizenry-related issues.

But even under these more relaxed measures for the security forces, the police were ordered not to hold a graduation ceremony for several officers in fear of being attacked by Israel. And when Livni returned to Tel Aviv, Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahhar called a high-ranking Egyptian official to protest allowing Livni to declare the intention of waging a war at an official Egyptian podium. But al-Zahhar was told that what Livni said did not necessarily reflect the reality of Israel’s decision and that there are a lot of threats uttered by Israel in the course of an election campaign. Later on, following consultation among the leadership of Hamas … when the issue of the graduating officers was brought up, more talks took place and some fell into the trap into misinterpreting additional signals coming from Israel, namely the opening of border crossings, all of which was interpreted as signaling an unlikelihood of an impending aggression …

With the launching of the operations, it was clear that Israel wanted to re-enact the early phases of its [2006] operation in Lebanon, and so jet fighters took part in an intensive raid on 42 targets identified by Israeli military intelligence as the primary centers of command and control and warehouses of long-range missiles and ammunition as well as supposed headquarters of political and military authorities. And it seems that there are those in Israel who are convinced that the raids on Gaza have accomplished their goals …

But the truth of the matter will emerge in due course, given that Hamas has managed in the past few years to boost its military arsenal. There are measures that have been taken and others on the way as part of preparing for a more difficult phase of confrontation. These measures include launching rockets of a different caliber towards new regions of Israel and a resumption of martyrdom operations in any place that Hamas members can reach that had been suspended. But more important than all of this is that the conflict may not remain limited to one front or in one place or with one party.

As-Safir, 24 December 2008, Fawwaz Traboulsi, “Lebanon in the windward of peace”:

It is no exaggeration to say that after the convening of the fourth session [of national dialogue] dedicated to discussing a defense strategy, we are no closer to understanding how we are to avoid a war or wage one or picking the best possible form of arming and national recruitment for national defense. Nor did we advance by a single step towards understanding how to benefit from the two defense forces that Lebanon possesses: its organized army and its armed “resistance” managed by the military wing of Hizballah.

It took a convening of the sixth round of indirect Israeli-Syrian negotiations … for our politicians to realize that there is a possibility, other than war, that touches on the issue of a defense strategy, namely the possibility of settlement and peace. This is an occasion to ask the following question: what are the elements of a Lebanese defense strategy in the event of launching direct talks between Israel and Syria? Preliminary responses reveals hastiness and a triviality of opinions.

Parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri declared his opposition to holding Israeli-Lebanese peace negotiations. General Michel Aoun supported such talks if Syria took part as well. Meanwhile, Hizballah minister Muhammad Fniesh said such negotiations are unthinkable because such negotiations will inevitable lead to concessions.

Such is our strategic state on the eve of a year in which Lebanon is likely to be in the eye of storms on many levels. We have barely abandoned the scandalous claim that “Lebanon’s strength is in its weakness” to find ourselves unable to deal with the remnants of the philosophy of “sidelining Lebanon.”

The Lebanese Forces proposal for a defense strategy, as published on an official March 14 bloc website (translated excerpt):

Political Ideology:
  • The defense strategy is based on an objective outlook regarding Lebanon’s demographic and economic reality and its sectarian and confessional make-up, its political and geographical location; and taking into consideration historical experiences and the nature and locus of expectation threats the country is destined to face.
  • The defense strategy seeks indirect means [of defense] capable of aborting a foreign aggression prior to facing it. This is because a military confrontation using traditional means with surrounding armies is bound to cost Lebanon immense losses due to the military and logistical superiority that these armies exhibit compared with Lebanon’s humble capabilities.
  • The exemplary historical experience that furnished a country with maximum and unique immunity in the face of external threats is that of Switzerland … Switzerland’s success in distancing itself from the conflicts and bloody wars that hit adjacent countries is first and foremost due to its abidance by the principle of neutrality. Lebanon, due to its plural social make-up, and its geopolitical position in the heat of the east in between Syria and Israel, and its economic capabilities, is considered the closest model to the Swiss one.
  • The defense strategy limits all military, planning, practical, tactical and communicative decisions, in addition to the principle of leadership and control, in the hands of legitimate military forces.
  • Lebanon’s adoption of a neutral policy doesn’t mean at all its abandonment of Arab causes, top among them the Palestinian cause. Under such a policy, Lebanon would not be absolved of its responsibilities to support any endeavor to produce and just and fair solution to the Palestinian cause, and leads to the return of Palestinian refugees in the Diaspora to their homes. The ideal political framework for solving this issue is in the Arab League and the resolutions of the United Nations.

Meet the Lebanese Press is The Electronic Intifada’s regular review of what is making the rounds in the Lebanese press and the pundits’ take on it. Hicham Safieddine is a Lebanese Canadian journalist.

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