| Of a deeper cause
It is unbelievable that Israel would launch such a massive ground and air onslaught only to secure the release of the two soldiers Hizbollah captured on July 12. The violence seems even more grotesquely disproportionate because thousands of Arab prisoners, including Palestinians and Lebanese, have been languishing for years in Israeli jails. Obviously, things are not what they seem in a war that is ultimately not about prisoners but land. Hizbollah seized the soldiers to draw attention again to the Arab sense of deprivation over the West Bank, Golan Heights and Jerusalem. Israel saw the capture as an opportunity to crush the most active of the claimants to the territory it seized in 1967. The United Nations security council resolution notwithstanding, peace will remain elusive until the larger quarrel is addressed and the occupied territories returned in full to their legitimate owners. Both sides have tactical reasons for adhering to Talleyrand’s maxim of speech being given to man to conceal his thoughts, and not coming clean on the fundamental dispute. Israel refuses to face up to the issue because world opinion and past UN resolutions support Arab claims. Hizbollah will not admit that the dispute is only territorial, which implies it is subject to negotiation.
Other factors complicate the stalemate. First, perception. Arabs are convinced that Israel’s dream is to extend from the Nile to the Tigris. Israelis are convinced Arabs will not rest until Israel is destroyed. Second, the internal politics of a far from united Arab world may see some dividend in keeping the pot boiling. Third, Iran in search of regional power and consolidation of Shia forces will not surrender an instrument of leverage. Fourth, as Iraq’s tragedy demonstrates, American strategic aims in west Asia, with which Israel is totally identified, are pursued at the cost of justice and stability.
To this must be added a factor that is either not always remembered or is glossed over. In the general imagination, Hizbollah, the Party of God, is an extraneous terrorist organization that has managed to get a foothold in southern Lebanon. The plain truth is that Hizbollah is Lebanese just as Hamas is Palestinian. An active participant in Lebanon’s political life and processes, it has contested every Lebanese election since 1992, winning 14 out of 128 parliamentary seats nationwide last year. With its ally Amal, it holds all 23 seats in southern Lebanon. It must be as much part of the solution as it is of the problem.
Nabih Berri, the Lebanese parliament speaker, represents Hizbollah in international negotiations, as over the UN resolution. Mohamed Fneish, also of the Hizbollah, is Lebanon’s energy and water minister. He is quoted as saying “If joining the government and parliament is a national duty, then so is defending the country.” Within Lebanon, Hizbollah is known for an impressive range of social welfare and educational services and for engaging Shia Lebanese youth in organizing grassroots political activities.
No one acknowledges this indigenous identity. It suits Fouad Siniora, Lebanon’s prime minister, to portray the Lebanese as peace-loving Maronite Christians who would have lived in amity with Israel and the US but for militant Muslim interlopers from abroad. That fiction enables Israel, the United States of America and the UN to equate Israel’s invasion with Hizbollah’s intervention, and to suggest that the former cannot withdraw unless the latter disarms. In truth, Lebanon is a deeply divided country. Historic estrangement was aggravated when, with Ariel Sharon’s complicity, encouragement and physical help, the Maronite militia slaughtered hundreds of Palestinian men, women and children in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.
Hizbollah was born in 1982 in the bitterness and humiliation of those massacres. It was the response not of all Lebanon but of Lebanese Shias to Israel’s invasion and occupation, and it represents an aspect of Lebanese life that is all the more real for not being evident in Beirut’s cafes. It will not be wished away by accusing Iran and Syria of pouring men, money and arms into the organization and branding it as another link in George W. Bush’s axis of evil. Far from being part of international Islamic terrorism, it is an expression of Arab, specifically Lebanese Shia, discontent. For that reason alone, it cannot be ignored though its rhetoric plays into the hands of Israeli and American strategists.
Reticent Israel says far less than it does while garrulous Arabs bluster far more than they even try to do. Witness the thunder of Hizbollah’s secretary-general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, that “Israel is an illegal usurper entity...and there is no chance for its survival”. But there is a yawning gap between demagoguery and action. Hizbollah would not have made specific demands on Israel if, despite its language of destruction, it did not in practice accept the reality of the Jewish state.
A UN resolution would have a better chance not of success — that would be too far-fetched — but of enjoying Arab confidence if its demand for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire is coupled with the total withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon. By implication, the present document gives Israel the right to launch defensive attacks on Lebanon if Hizbollah rocket strikes continue. Since Hizbollah insists that it will cease military operations only when Israeli troops withdraw and when the bombardment of Lebanon stops, we have in the plan an incitement to further violence. Both sides will feel entitled to claim to be acting “defensively” while further stoking the fires of the conflict. It will take only the smallest pretext to ignite the flames of another war. No wonder Walid Moallem, Syria’s foreign minister, denounced the resolution while still in draft form as “a recipe for continuing the war”. Even Condoleezza Rice admits that the war is “not going to be solved by one resolution in the Security Council”. But that is not because “these things take a while to wind down”, as she says. Time might be the great healer but it will heal nothing until the US and Israel allow the UN to address the root cause of conflict.
Just consider the statistics. In the first 28 days, Israel deployed 10,000 soldiers in southern Lebanon, flew 8,700 bombing sorties, and destroyed 146 bridges and 72 roads. Up to 30,000 tons of oil spilled into the Mediterranean after an Israeli air strike on Jieh power station. The damage to Lebanon’s infrastructure is estimated at $2 billion. In those four weeks the war killed 932 Lebanese, including 29 soldiers, and wounded 3,293 Lebanese, 45 per cent of whom were children. Over 900,000 Lebanese were displaced (300,000 children among them).
On the other side, 94 Israelis were killed and 1,867 wounded by the Hizbollah which fired 3,000 rockets. The average number of rockets fired daily in the first week of the conflict was 90 but rose later to 169. Violence of this magnitude cannot be only to rescue — or retain — two soldiers. Obviously, a deeper cause motivates both parties. Not every Western nation is as politically blind as the US about Israel’s illegal occupation of Arab land. Only recently the Swedes re-labelled some wine Israel had entered for a festival and was trying to pass off as its own. The new Swedish labels proclaimed that the wine had been made in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights. Hizbollah’s demand that Israel also return the Shebaa farms area at the junction of Lebanon, Syria and Israel appears to be west Asia’s only non-contentious issue.
Apparently, Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Olmert, might be flexible on this dispute. The Shebaa farms are a drop in the ocean of grievance. They alone will not assuage Arab anger. There may be other pretexts and other courses, but war will continue in one form or another until the Americans ensure Israel’s evacuation of the West Bank and some kind of sharing arrangement for Jerusalem.