Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert described what is happening in Lebanon as saying. "This is an act of war." Olmert is correct. This is war. It has been war, non-stop, since 1948. What is happening in Lebanon today is yet another chapter of bloody Middle East events that will last for generations to come, because it is impossible, after so many years of conflict, for the Israelis and Arabs to forgive and forget.
In this week’s events in Lebanon, the one set of parties, which include Syria, the Palestinians, Iran, Arab nationalists in the Middle East and North Africa, along with jihadi Muslims in the Muslim World, believe that escalation is the only solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
They claim that the Arabs tried to talk peace with the Israelis after the Palestinians signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1993, and ended up with nothing. They say that war is correct, justified morally, politically and religiously.
To them, it is legitimate self-defense. They back this argument by saying that Israel still controls the Sheba Farms, which are part of Lebanon, and still has Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails. Also, they add that the Israeli tank destroyed by Hezbollah, and the soldiers captured and killed on July 12, had trespassed into Lebanon’s side of the border with Israel.
They argue that if the Arab world cannot fight Israel, then the least Arab countries can do is permit -or facilitate – a proxy war with Israel through the Hezbollah resistance in Lebanon.
US President George W Bush, who commented on Lebanon from Germany 24 hours after violence had spiraled out of control, described the situation as "pathetic". He also expressed concern that Israel’s offensive into Lebanon could destabilize or even topple a Lebanese government that Washington supports. He made things worse and further infuriated the Arab street by expressing Israel’s "right to defend herself".
The other party (centered mainly in Lebanon) argues that Lebanon is paying a high price for a war that does not concern all Lebanese. The Christians of Lebanon, along with a majority of the Sunni Muslims, want a war-free Westernized country that thrives on tourism and sound economic policies.
The Christians in particular were never too fond of the Shi’ites of Lebanon. They treated them as an underclass in the 1950s and 1960s, allocating no more than 0.7% of the budget for construction and health care in their districts, waged war against them in the 1970s and 1980s, then tried to mend relations with them from 1990 onwards.
The Christians were worldly, well-educated and worked in business, politics, literature and the arts, while the Shi’ites were mainly laborers, farmers and ordinary citizens with limited social mobility. Even their deputies in parliament were feudal landlords who cared little for the community’s welfare.
These Christians today – despite all the unity talk heard in Lebanon – do not feel that the Hezbollah prisoners in Israeli jails concern them. Nor do the Sheba Farms. They dislike the Shi’ite south of the country in as much as the Shi’ite leaders dislike the Christian districts of Lebanon.
Therefore, they feel indifferent to the plight of Hezbollah. They do not want Lebanon to become the "Che Guevara" of Arab politics. They argue that all this military escalation does is wreck plans for Lebanon’s rebirth. On July 13 – as the Christians feared – tourism suffered tremendously after the Israelis struck at Beirut Airport. In one day, over 15,000 tourists fled Lebanon by land to Syria.
Both pro and anti-Hezbollah arguments are valid, depending on where one stands today in the Arab world.
It all started on July 12 when Israel troops were ambushed on Lebanon’s side of the border with Israel. Hezbollah, which commands the Lebanese south, immediately seized on their crossing. They arrested two Israeli soldiers, killed eight Israelis and wounded over 20 in attacks inside Israeli territory [this is disputed – most reports show that the initial attack by Lebanese fighters on Israeli soldiers was actually inside Lebanese territory].
This unleashed hell in Israel, and Olmert immediately responded by mounting a war on Lebanon. A sea, air and ground blockade was enforced on Lebanon, and a systematic destruction of Lebanon’s infrastructure was began.
Hezbollah responded by wounding 11 Israelis with Katyusha-style rockets fired on the town of Safad in northern Israel. Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah gave a press conference hours after the hostilities started. He was confident, articulate, strong and very defiant, as usual, saying that this operation aimed at getting the Israelis to release Lebanese prisoners from their jails.
Counter-operations would not release the two abducted Israeli soldiers, he pointed out. Statements by Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad al-Siniora, who wanted to distance himself from the attacks, said that his government had not authorized the Hezbollah operation.
His claim, however, fell on deaf ears in Israel. Damaging his credibility was a statement by Lebanon’s ambassador to the United States, Farid Abbud, who spoke on CNN and demanded a prisoner exchange between Hezbollah and Israel, adding that Israel must return the occupied Sheba Farms to Lebanon.
His statements gave the impression that the Lebanese government, which he was officially representing, approved of the kidnapping and was echoing the demands of Nasrallah. As a result, he was recalled to Lebanon.
Undaunted by Siniora distancing himself from the Hezbollah operation, Israel responded by bombing Rafik al-Harriri International Airport in Beirut, bringing all aviation to a halt, and bombing two other airports in northern and southern Lebanon.
These airports, Israel claimed, were being used to channel money and arms to Hezbollah. One of the party’s offices in the suburb of Beirut was bombed, and so was a post in the ancient city of Baalbak. And Israel battered roads, flyovers and fuel tanks in Lebanon early on Friday.
A division of 12,000 troops has been stationed on the Lebanese-Israeli border. The Israeli Ministry of Defense has threatened to bomb the Damascus-Beirut highway. If this happens, Lebanon would become completely isolated, with no ground route to Syria, and its other outlets by sea and air blocked by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).
Hezbollah threatened that if more attacks ensued, it would target Haifa, the third-largest city inside Israel (which it then did), but Israel military commanders said that no targets in Lebanon were safe from reprisal attacks so long as the two Israeli soldiers were still held hostage in Lebanon.
Israeli chief-of-staff Dan Halutz said that the operations would continue "to restore calm to northern Israel". These responsibilities, he added "particularly bombings by air and artillery, target Lebanon itself and Hezbollah. They will continue as long as necessary until our objectives are reached."
Israel military commanders have pledged to plunge Lebanon back 20 years if hostilities did not end immediately. Bridges inside Lebanon, near the city of Sidon and throughout the south, were also destroyed. The death toll, at the time of writing, is over 50 Lebanese killed. Another 103 have been wounded.
Meanwhile, according to the IDF, 90 people had been injured inside Israel. This is the largest Israeli offensive in Lebanon since the IDF invaded and occupied Beirut to defeat the Palestinian Army of Yasser Arafat in 1982.
Apart from all of these facts, everything gets muddled in Lebanon. Israel announced on July 13 that two rockets had landed on Haifa from Lebanon, as Hezbollah had promised, but Hezbollah denied the accusation.
If Hezbollah did not fire the rockets, however, who did? Is it a fabricated story being used by Israel to launch more offensives into Lebanon, because minutes after the story was revealed, and despite Hezbollah’s denial, Israel jets raided fuel tanks at Beirut airport.
The question on everybody’s mind is: why is all of this happening now? Apart from the soaring emotions and reminders of trumpeting Arab nationalism of the 1960s, it is sheer madness for anyone to believe that Hezbollah would be able to defeat, or even inflict maximum pain, on Israel – and get away with it.
Too much is at stake inside Israel for Olmert to let the offensive pass without transforming it into all-out war. In October 2000, right at the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising in Jerusalem, Hezbollah did a similar stunt by kidnapping Israelis in Lebanon.
At the time, prime minister Ehud Barak refused to seriously push for their release, fearing that opening another front against Lebanon, while the Israelis were busy combating the Palestinians at home, would only endanger Israeli lives. Five months later, Barak was voted out of office, in March 2001, for a variety of reasons, prime among them being his passive response to Hezbollah.
So, is anybody influencing Hezbollah to dramatically escalate the conflict? Has Hezbollah coordinated these attacks with Hamas inside Palestine, believing that the time was ripe since relatively new and inexperienced leaders were now in power in Israel (in reference to Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Olmert)?
Never before has Hezbollah carried out such a massive offensive, not even during the heydays of the Syrian presence in Lebanon in the 1990s when most of south Lebanon was still occupied.
What makes it believe that this time – with the tense international situation – it can get away with it? Ultra-nationalists in Hamas, like the Damascus-based Khaled Meshal, have certainly supported the Lebanese group, injecting them with confidence and prompting them into "defiance" mode.
Meshal, who leads the anti-pragmatism fold in Hamas that still wants to destroy the Jewish state, is not satisfied by the overtures of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyya towards Israel. Haniyya, voted into office early this year, wants to run a country and is suffering from an international boycott on food, medicine and money into the Palestinian territories.
Wages have not been paid in Palestine since February. Haniyya made several gestures of goodwill toward Israel (much to the displeasure of Meshal), to prove that he was not in power to combat Israel but to improve the livelihood of the Palestinians.
Meshal had other plans for the Hamas-led government, which contradicted with what Haniyya was seeing on the ground in Palestine. The two men drifted apart on how to lead the government, and split when three resistance groups in Palestine, apparently coordinating with Meshal’s team, kidnapped the 19-year old Israeli soldier on June 25.
This sent shockwaves throughout Israel, and Olmert responded with grand force, re-occupying Gaza and killing, to date, an estimated 75 Palestinians in revenge. Electricity was destroyed in Gaza, and currently 1.5 million inhabitants live in darkness. Israel struck at buildings, an Islamic university and official buildings, including that of Haniyya and his Foreign Minister Mahmud al-Zahhar (which was destroyed on July 13).
Ministers have been arrested, along with parliamentary deputies, and brought before military courts clad in chains to their feet and hands. Haniyya, who sees the state he is heading crumbling before his very eyes, wanted to solve the crisis politically, claiming that all the Palestinians living under his control were suffering from Israel’s military response. The resistance groups demanded a prisoner swap where 1,000 Palestinians would be released from Israeli jails, in exchange for the young Israeli soldier. Israel has refused.
Haniyya is closer to a solution that releases the Israeli soldier in exchange for Israel releasing Palestinian funds (frozen since Hamas came to power in January, and its authorization to bring clean drinking water, food and medicine into the Occupied Territories. Both solutions have not yet materialized, and in the middle of all the chaos and war, came the Hezbollah operation.
Men of war
This is where the Meshal-Nasrallah connection comes into play. Both leaders are clearly not interested in peace with Israel. Their views are mirrored with their two allies in Tehran and Damascus. Both leaders are unimpressed by Arab regimes that call for peace and dialogue – prime on the list being Mahmud Abbas in Palestine.
They are being aggressive with Israel so Israel can respond with similar aggressiveness – killing whatever dreams Arabs peacemakers have in mind. The same formula applies inside Israel, where many do not want room for moderation in Israeli-Arab relations.
They want to root out the moderates to justify aggression against the Palestinians and Lebanese. Meshal would very much love to see Hamas out of the political process. It would then be restored to the fold of the resistance, and freed from the burden of government, able to focus on military operations once again.
The same applies to Nasrallah. If Israeli leaves the Sheba Farms and frees all Lebanese prisoners from its jails, there would no longer be a need for Hezbollah. The reason behind such calculations, however, and the dramatic side-effects such adventures have on Palestinian and Lebanese lives, are colossal.
They believe, however, that war on two fronts would achieve one of two things. Either it would get Israel to show aggression, justifying their own aggression against the Israelis. Or a best-case scenario would be that a two-side war would break Israel. Either outcome, Hezbollah and Hamas are the victors.
The final argument – based on conspiracy theories – in the war of Lebanon is that somebody convinced Hezbollah of this offensive with the purpose of destroying Hezbollah, forcing them to commit "political suicide". This "somebody" has given Hezbollah enough rope to hang itself, making it believe that it could turn the tables on Israel by capturing two Israeli soldiers.
The reason for this argument is that Hezbollah, for the past two years, has been a topic of international concern. Everybody wants Hezbollah to disarm (except Syria and Iran) but do not have the means to make them lay down their weapons. It certainly is not working by dialogue – because Hezbollah would not hear a word of it, and, therefore, has to be done by force through a foreign power. The only power able and willing to inflict a deadly blow on Hezbollah is Israel.
Having the Americans pressure Hezbollah to disarm would be considered aggression on the Shi’ite community as whole. It would enrage Iran and alienate whatever support the Americans still had left among the Shi’ite community in Iraq. The leaders of Lebanon, who came to power after the Syrian troop withdrawal in April 2005, wanted to court Hezbollah. They believed that by making them shoulder responsibility for government, Hezbollah would show more reason in dealing with Israel.
The same reasoning applied to the Americans when they brought the Sunnis to power in Iraq, hoping that this would help end the Sunni insurgency. The Lebanese, headed by Siniora, reasoned that with seats in parliament and government ministries allocated to Hezbollah, the resistance group would not possibly engage in war with Israel.
Apparently, they were wrong.
Many wrongly believed that once the Syrian army left Lebanon, Hezbollah would be weakened, gradually losing its influence in the country. This turned out to be nonsense, since contrary to what is commonly portrayed in the Western media, Hezbollah is a party that is totally independent in Lebanon from control of the Syrians.
They used to work under Syria’s umbrella under former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad in the 1990s, needing his support to keep their arms in the post-war era, but since their victory in liberating south Lebanon in 2000, they have become independent of Syrian control.
They still confer with the Syrians, seek their advice and coordinate with Syria but they do not take orders, money or arms from Damascus. For example, they had four parliamentary seats in 1992, and four for their allies, a total of only eight, and this in the heyday of Syrian hegemony in Lebanon. Today, with Syria out, they have 14 seats.
This explains why Hezbollah remained pro-Syrian until curtain-fall. Nasrallah never relied on the Syrians for his power base, nor did any member of Hezbollah. Also in Hezbollah’s favor now is the victory of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who has shown strong support for the Shi’ite Lebanese resistance. Ahmadinejad clearly believes in the vision of Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, to promote Shi’ite Islam and help emancipate the Shi’ites of Lebanon.
Ahmadinejad said on Thursday any Israeli strike on Syria would be considered an attack on the whole Islamic world that would bring a "fierce response", state television reported.
Relevant to all that is happening in Lebanon today is the degree of support Hezbollah and Nasrallah have in the Shi’ite community – and the amount of animosity in non-Shi’ite districts. One reason the Shi’ites support Hezbollah is religion. It is not the only one, however, because a study conducted by Dr Judith Harik, a professor at the American University of Beirut in 1996, showed that 70% of Hezbollah’s supporters saw themselves only as moderately religious, and 23% said they were religious only out of obligation.
Pragmatism, nationalism and charity networks, rather than Muslim ideology, are the secrets of Hezbollah’s success. Hezbollah enjoys authority and commands unwavering loyalty among Shi’ites because it always appears to be a confident political party that is doing an honorable job in fighting Israel. Adding to the nationalist aspect is the social one, which is that many people in the Shi’ite community, mainly at the grass-root level, rely on Hezbollah for charity and welfare.
Hezbollah has succeeded in promoting itself through the media, igniting confidence, safety and security among the 10 million viewers of al-Manar television, for example. Many of those viewers are Shi’ites. Not once does al-Manar, for example, show viewers a member of Hezbollah defeated. Rather, it shows pictures of dead Israelis, real footage of Hezbollah operations and programs highlighting Hezbollah’s charity organizations. Hezbollah is a movement inspired by nationalism rather than religiousness.
Precisely for these reasons it would be difficult for anyone to tackle Hezbollah. The only way to disarm is for the Shi’ite group to wait until the Israelis leave Sheba, then free all prisoners. They would then have to modify their agenda, after quiet discussions with everybody in Lebanon, and transform themselves from a military party into a political one.
That would have been the logical response, but Nasrallah proved otherwise. What he has done in the past few days is show the world that if he so wishes, he can create havoc in Lebanon and the entire Middle East.
Nasrallah is sending a message to the world – and to his opponents inside Lebanon – that he is still strong and a force to be reckoned with. He is also sending a message to the United States, Israel and the Lebanese that the Shi’ites are still there – still strong, still a force and still visible to the rest of the world.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.
*reprinted from Asia Times