"Do you think we would support them if they fired from our houses?"

August 30, 2006

In News

Obliterating city blocks is not self-defence, argues Lara Marlowe, who was in Lebanon for much of the war

As a fragile ceasefire between Hizbullah and the Israeli Defence Forces began to take hold yesterday, the inevitable question arose: who won?

The ferocity with which both sides fought until the last minute proved that neither was conquered militarily. In the most literal sense, Hizbullah won, simply by surviving, since Israel had declared its annihilation to be the main war aim. The guerrilla group distributed T-shirts praising its own “divine victory” yesterday.

Hizbullah’s Iranian mentors concluded that “the myth of the invincibility of the Zionist regime has been destroyed”. The Party of God will continue to play a prominent role in Lebanon, even if, as the Israeli prime minister threatened, its leaders are hunted and forced to live underground.

Iranian and US arms manufacturers had a field day testing weapons. Iran’s Fajr II surface-to-sea missile performed well. So did Israel’s drones – unmanned aircraft that deliver death by remote control. An operator in an air-conditioned command centre, far from the battlefield, just pushes the button that fires the rockets. The technology is such that US drones in Afghanistan are piloted from a base in Florida.

Wishful thinking among Hizbullah’s opponents predicts the group’s supporters will turn against it when the full extent of the catastrophe it brought upon Lebanon sinks in. But dozens of Shia victims of the 33-day war told me they were grateful to Hizbullah for “protecting” them. They need to continue to hate Israel and believe in Hizbullah; otherwise, their wounds, lost homes and loved ones will have been in vain.

In Israel, Ehud Olmert can boast of having created a new security regime south of the Litani river, of destroying Hizbullah’s “capital” in Beirut’s southern suburbs and making southern Lebanon look like Stalingrad. But his government is under attack for its management of the war, for the more than 110 Israeli soldiers and 40 civilians killed.

Lebanon is certainly the biggest loser, with close to 1,200 people dead, 3,700 wounded – many of them maimed for life – and a quarter of its population displaced. Lebanon expected one million tourists this summer; it has a million refugees instead. The material destruction is worse than at the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.

Multilateralism is also a loser. For more than a month, the UN and EU wrung its hands. “The Security Council decided to stop the war,” the French foreign minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said, prompting the obvious question: if the UN had the power to stop the war, why didn’t it do so sooner? “If we defeat Israel, we defeat America,” a militiaman in the village of Qana told me. In one sense, he was right. This war has destroyed the last shreds of US credibility in the Middle East.

US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice had achieved her only semblance of success in the Bush administration’s professed drive to “spread democracy” throughout the region last year, when Beirut’s street demonstrations forced Syrian troops to leave and precipitated the victory of the pro-western bloc in parliamentary elections.

“I personally believed that Lebanon was to be promoted as a model of democratic change,” says Jihad Zein, the opinion editor of An-Nahar, Lebanon’s leading newspaper. “I was surprised like a child to see the way they let Israel destroy this country. I have lost all my illusions about America.”

In the past, when Israel laid waste to the occupied territories and Lebanon, US administrations at least went through the motions of calling for “restraint”. But the Bush administration repeatedly said it wasn’t yet time for a ceasefire, and lent a sympathetic ear to Israel’s urgent request for cluster bombs. Washington sat back while its Israeli proteges repeatedly attacked refugee convoys, ambulances and funerals, buried the children of Qana alive, obliterated villages, whole city blocks and Lebanon’s infrastructure.

This is what war is like in George Bush’s new world disorder. Forget about the Geneva Convention, humanitarian law, respect for civilian life. The US set the precedent in the 1999 war against Serbia, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Not only were roads, bridges, telephone exchanges, power plants and television stations deemed legitimate targets in those wars, Serbian and Iraqi civilians far outnumbered military casualties.

Now Israel has taken war against civilians to new lengths. Why was Israel not able to hit Hizbullah? Israel has weapons that can read licence plate numbers, and we are meant to believe they don’t know when they’re hitting civilians? Did the world’s fourth most powerful army really have to target refugees, fruit pickers, lorry drivers and moped riders to get at Hizbullah?

Western media helped foster public indifference to the massacre of the Lebanese Shia. The clich s hammered out by the Israelis – that they were attacking “Hizbullah positions” and “Hizbullah infrastructure” – were repeated by television networks and wire agencies. Unifil said there were some “Hizbullah positions” and “Hizbullah infrastructure” along the border, but the devastation I saw was of civilian life and property.

Israeli officials complained to a correspondent in Jerusalem for one of the main American dailies that her newspaper was not giving the same coverage to the suffering of Israeli civilians who were displaced, wounded and killed by Hizbullah rockets as that devoted to Lebanese civilians. “It’s not comparable,” she rightly responded.

Amnesty International travelled through the war zone searching for evidence that Israel destroyed weapons storage facilities, and found none. Nor does the Israeli excuse that Hizbullah fires rockets from villages stand up to examination. “They never, never fired weapons from our village,” a housewife from Abbassiya told me in Tyre, where she had taken refuge with her family. “Do you think we would support them if they fired from our houses?” I heard similar statements in several villages, yet Israel’s assertion that Hizbullah “hides behind civilians” is taken for granted.

Hizbullah is widely blamed for starting the war by capturing two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12th, though there is evidence both sides began preparing for this war years ago. Hizbullah supporters are convinced the two soldiers were a pretext. They point out that Israel has been making raids into Lebanon to kidnap Lebanese people for decades. But our sense of indignation kicks in only when Hizbullah does the kidnapping.

If any other country did what Israel has done in Lebanon for the past 33 days, it would be labelled a terrorist state. Yet politicians, diplomats and media bosses so fear being called “anti-Semitic” that they continue to chant the mantra that “Israel has the right to defend itself”.

What happened in Lebanon between July 12th and yesterday was not self-defence. It was mass murder.

© The Irish Times