The car bomb assassination in Damascus of Imad Mughniyeh has created a heightened state of tension in the region. Almost every commentator, no matter what perspective he/she comes from, expects the killing to spark a fresh round of deadly violence; as if the region had room for more.
It is hard to speculate on the outcome of this serious development, but it is very unlikely that it will pass without dire consequences, for Lebanon and the region.
Unfortunately, neither tension nor violence is unusual in our part of the world. Wars, active or dormant, are the norm between Israel and its neighbors. This state of affairs was once described as “no war no peace,” but in fact it is an unstable state of “war and peace” at the same time.
Israel is in an active and deadly war against the Palestinians, and at “peace” with them at the same time. Every day, Israeli occupation forces and settlers inflict brutal violence on the Palestinians, killing and kidnapping innocent people, destroying houses and confiscating land for colonization.
Just two days after the assassination in Damascus, another resistance leader from Islamic Jihad was killed by a huge explosion in Gaza along with three of his children, his wife and three of his neighbors. Dozens of other people, including many children, were injured, some very seriously.
As I write, it is not clear if his house, which was entirely demolished, and six neighboring houses also severely damaged, were bombed by an Israeli F-16 from the sky, as initially reported, or by another method. That makes no difference. The carnage is daily and continuing.
By any account, this is a very high human toll in only one incident in a day that may include many others on the Palestinian theatre alone. The Palestinians have retaliated by firing barrages of Qassam rockets on Israeli targets, but because they are “futile,” they cause few injuries. No day passes without injuries, deaths and attacks. Israel has denied its involvement in this murder, as it did in the one that had earlier taken place in Damascus.
While this brutal war goes on, cordial (though utterly sterile) negotiations and daily contacts are conducted with Palestinian “leaders” in Ramallah as if they were the best of allies and friends. Not once did the leaders of the Israeli-recognized Palestinian Authority refrain from attending meetings with their Israeli counterparts in protest over Israeli state terrorism against other Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza, or in protest at the continuation of settlement activity and land theft. It is a state of war and peace with the Palestinians at the same time.
In a wider context, Israel has peace treaties with some Arab countries, such as Egypt and Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority if the Oslo accords, or what is left of them, count as one. It has diplomatic relations and other formal ties with Mauritania and some Gulf states, but it remains at war with other Arab countries, such as Syria, whose land Israel has occupied in 1967.
Israel’s position vis-a-vis the other Arab countries could either be a state of “war and peace” or “no war no peace”; it makes no difference. More broadly, Israel’s visibly cordial relations with some willing Palestinians and Arabs are designed to spread the impression that it has resolved its problems with the Palestinians and the Arabs and that the determined resistance to its continued occupation, racism and aggression is unjustifiable “extremism,” not the natural reaction to its policies.
In the case of Lebanon, part of the country is not necessarily aligned with Israel, but shares its hostility to Hizballah, which millions of Lebanese see as both a legitimate resistance movement until all the land of Lebanon is freed from occupation and a political party. Playing on these divisions, external powers have tried to forge a de facto alliance between Israel and those they define as “moderates” in the region. This meddling in Lebanon is driving the country further apart and, some fear, a renewed civil war.
The assassination of Mughniyeh could tip the Israeli-Lebanese front into open war, just as it could fuel the tension in Lebanon.
Hizballah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, despite Israeli denial of any involvement, has promised to avenge Mughniyeh’s killing vowing “open war.” Israel is putting its entire military potential on high alert to “retaliate” to any retaliation. The United States, which normally claims to oppose terrorism, openly celebrated the killing of Mughniyeh, something that might reinforce the impression that it only opposes terrorism directed at itself or its friends. Israel will see this open US support as a green light for further provocations, irrespective of whether it was responsible for killing Mughniyeh or not. That is extremely dangerous, particularly in view of the fact that the assassination violated Syrian sovereignty, regardless of the target’s classification.
It is a frightening situation which, one hopes, will not escalate. But in view of the fact that both Hizballah and Israel seem to be desperate for another round in a war that neither side considers finished, this may be the opportunity. Israel is still reeling from its failed attempt to destroy Hizballah in 2006 and the humiliating aftermath that demolished the myth of an all-powerful Israeli army. Israeli strategists do not want that defeat to be the last word and may want to erase its bitter memory either with another war on Lebanon or with a large-scale attack on Gaza to try to remove Hamas.
For its part, Hizballah is unlikely to allow Mughniyeh’s murder to go without retaliation. What is unclear is how it will respond. Even if the organization avoids a straightforward repeat of the July 2006 incident, when the abduction of two Israeli soldiers and the killing of others provided Israel with the pretext for its devastating assault on Lebanon’s infrastructure and civilian population, there is no guarantee that Israel will not repeat its approach of indiscriminate and massive violence. In confrontations such as these, one can try to play a “safe” game, without being sure that the opponent will abide by the same rules.
The Mughniyeh killing, much like the abduction of two Israeli soldiers in July 2006, will go down in the records of history as the cause of any violence that may rage after, with the implied assumption that it would have been avoided if there had been no killing. That is unfortunately not true. With such a highly charged situation, ignition sparks can happen any time from many sources. It is no more a hidden fact that the 2006 Israeli attack on Lebanon was planned long before the abduction of the soldiers.
Hasan Abu Nimah is the former permanent representative of Jordan at the United Nations. This article first appeared in The Jordan Times and is reprinted with the author’s permission.