July 22, 2006

In News

By William Bryk

Last week, Israel opened a second front in the widening Middle East crisis, attacking targets in Lebanon reportedly in pursuit of two Israeli soldiers seized by the Iran-supported Palestinian guerrilla organization Hezbollah (the Party of God). Major news organizations reported the Israeli belief that the captives are being smuggled to Iran as hostages for Israeli-held Palestinians. Shalom Aronson, a Hebrew University professor of political science interviewed by The Jewish Telegraph Agency, plausibly suggested that Hezbollah’s actions stem from Iran’s resentment of international criticism for its nuclear development program and that these disorders are a warning to the world of the trouble Iran can make in the region.

As of Sunday, July 16, Hezbollah was returning fire with improved rockets, at least two of which have reached 30 kilometers south of the Lebanese border to hit the Israeli seaport of Haifa. This may not end for a while: Aljazeera reports a Hezbollah arsenal of some 10,000 rockets with ranges up to 70 kilometers.

The most interesting technological advancement so far, however, was a radar-guided drone or missile that struck and damaged an Israeli warship, killing four sailors. Israel initially claimed it was Iranian-made, then that it was Syrian-made to an Iranian design; the Iranians deny everything. Obviously, some Hezbollah blacksmith didn’t hammer it together in a back alley souk. The short-term results have been Israeli air assaults on Beirut’s port facilities, which they claim were used to guide the attack, and a seaside resort where eight Canadian tourists, trapped in the country since the Israelis bombed the airports, were killed. No one has yet suggested that the Canadians had anything to do with Hezbollah.

Meanwhile, off to the south, Israel is pounding the Gaza Strip with air strikes, artillery, armor and infantry in search of another soldier seized on June 25 by Hamas, yet another Palestinian guerilla organization. The Palestinian Authority has disclaimed responsibility for the seizure and its president has condemned it. Nevertheless, Hamas, which controls the Authority’s parliament and forms its government, executed the kidnapping. It’s the kind of distinction without a difference for which now no one who isn’t actually Palestinian has patience.

The overwhelming Israeli military response to the capture of their men is more than understandable. It’s part of a military tradition at least as old as Xenophon, the Athenian mercenary commander who fought in the hire of Iran back when it was called Persia. What soldiers really fight for, once they’re on the ground, are one another: we all go home or die trying. Nor can the Israelis be faulted for responding to force with force, particularly when their opponents have repeatedly expressed their hatred for them as Jews. Ideas are important in and of themselves, and the last century proved—as far as anti-Semitism goes—that sometimes the word is father to the deed. The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, repeatedly discredited in the West, still fly from Arab presses. Saudi Arabia’s kings once promoted and now tolerate rabid anti-Semitism in their country’s media and educational system. And such virulent Jew-hatred is not new: back when the British ruled Palestine under a League of Nations mandate, the Mufti of Jerusalem (an Islamic religious judge) proudly declaimed, “Kill all the Jews, wherever you find them. This is good in the sight of God, mankind and history.”

Much of this might never have happened if Lebanon was not dysfunctional. Though possessing all the appurtenances of a modern state—elections, a parliament, a government, an army, and gasbag politicians—Lebanon is very weakly governed, largely due to the physical and moral destruction wrought during its 1975-1990 civil war. That left behind the habit of political violence, and its statesmen’s dependency on foreign powers for their money. Until last year, Syrian forces occupied much of Lebanon, maintaining some degree of order while keeping out the Iranians. Though the American government condemns Syria as part of an Axis of Evil, Syria isn’t a major power: unlike Iran, it doesn’t possess a nuclear weapons program.

Its departure from Lebanon left a power vacuum, a thing as abhorrent in politics as in nature. Apparently the Iranians have filled it through Hezbollah, which effectively governs Southern Lebanon. The streets are filled with its posters of mullahs; the hills roar with its rockets aimed at Israeli towns. The recent kidnappings raised the stakes, and Israel called the bluff.

Unhappily, the American ambassador to Syria was withdrawn last year over alleged Syrian involvement in a Lebanese politician’s assassination. This meant that, as of last weekend, we had no one talking for us in Damascus. Much to the distress of any serious peace lover, the United Nations is sending a negotiating team. God knows how many will die before they finish arranging their hotel accommodations.

* * *

Some truths about foreign policy cannot be repeated too often. Foreign policy has nothing to do with friendship, ethnic ties or morality. The only question is power: what you can get away with without paying for it. In the Middle East—for the moment—Israel can lick any other kid on the block. The Arab states know this: they haven’t sent regular forces against the Israelis in over 30 years. Rather, the fighting has all involved guerrillas, directly or indirectly funded by Syria, Iran and various wealthy Saudis. For a long time, nominally leftwing secularists like Al-Fatah did the fighting before they were corrupted by cynicism, money and power. Now, Israel’s major enemy on the ground is the much more dangerous religious right, motivated by its dream of a mythical future: social justice founded on a totalitarian theocracy, doing the will of God as determined by a group of old men.

As usual, the Israelis will not negotiate with the guerillas until they disarm. This means no negotiations. The Israelis have learned from the century-long British experience with the Irish Republican Army. The violent, if they can only endure until their opponents begin negotiations, will set the agenda even if they can’t win the fight. That alone can be victory. At the moment, the strategic agenda for Israel is survival; for the guerrillas, Israel’s annihilation. This leaves no common ground for negotiation. And the guerrillas’ tactical agenda seems limited to making the Israelis do anything against their will, which at the moment is merely swapping prisoners.

Amidst all this, nearly 100 Lebanese civilians, whom no one has yet argued had anything to do with politics—let alone Hezbollah—have so far been killed by Israeli fire. Killing Lebanese civilians because their politicians can’t control their own borders isn’t just a cost of doing business. They no more asked for death than did our own countrymen on 9/11, and no more deserved it.

The military implementation of Israeli policy by destroying civilian infrastructure—and incidentally killing un-involved civilians—reminds us of Mao, who wrote that the guerrilla must move among the people as a fish swims in the sea. While Mao went on to argue that the people would eventually support the revolution, the image means in a practical sense that the guerrilla draws logistical support—food and shelter, for instance—from any kind of stable, though indifferent, social structure. In response, some military theoreticians have argued that eradicating guerrillas requires drying up the sea. Making that image reality, however, requires killing many people who have nothing to do with politics because they are merely going about their day-to-day lives.

Killing guerrillas by means so broad-brushed as to kill civilians, and destroying civilian infrastructure—bridges, roads, waterworks and electric power plants—may impair Hezbollah and Hamas. It hasn’t stopped the rocket attacks, which have become progressively more effective. But it renders life unbearable for civilians who have had war imposed upon them. And those who survive amidst the ruins of their lives are unlikely to have sympathy for Israel or its allies, the Americans.

As the Laotians say, when elephants fight, only the grass suffers.

Volume 19, Issue 29

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