Nothing new, but exactly right

July 24, 2006

In News

by Patrick Seale

Israel is waging a war of extermination in Lebanon. Without regard to the civilian population, it is seeking to destroy Hizballah, much as it has attempted over the past six months to destroy Hamas in the occupied Palestinian territories. It wants to root out these movements altogether.

Its strategy in Lebanon seems to be to empty the south of its population, driving the Shi’ites out of their traditional homeland, where they have lived for centuries, in much the same way as it continues its pitiless onslaught on Gaza. In Lebanon, some 600,000 people have already been displaced, while the entire country is being brutalized and strangled.

Why this Israeli savagery? By their cross-border raids and the capture of three Israeli soldiers, Hizballah and Hamas humiliated the Israeli army and dented its deterrent capability. In Israeli eyes, this cannot go unpunished. It is determined to bring home to the Arabs the tremendous cost of daring to attack Israel.

The Israeli army has a score to settle with Hizballah, which, by guerrilla harassment, drove it out of Lebanon in 2000, ending its 22-year occupation of the south. With this success, Hizballah demonstrated to the whole Arab world — and to the Palestinians in particular — that Israel was not invincible. Now Israel is trying to set the record straight.

No doubt some Israeli hawks, like chief of staff Dan Halutz, regret the “unfinished business” of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon when, having killed 17,000 Lebanese and Palestinians, it failed to secure the political reward of bringing a submissive Lebanon into its orbit.

This time, too, Israel may find that its war aim of destroying Hizballah and Hamas is unattainable. These are popular movements enjoying mass support. If crushed in the short-term, they will eventually spring back to life and seek revenge. To win, Israel would have to kill, not just hundreds, but hundreds of thousands, of people.

Hizballah’s leader, Shaikh Hassan Nasrallah — Israel’s Enemy Number One — has repeatedly warned Israel to expect surprises. The missile attacks on Haifa, Israel’s third largest city, and the disabling of one of Israel’s most advanced warships, were certainly painful surprises. They carried the war into Israel’s home territory, posing a severe challenge to Israel’s strategic doctrine, which has always been to fight its wars on Arab territory.

The greatest surprise Hizballah might still have up its sleeve would be to survive the present crisis, bloody but unbowed. The longer Hizballah holds out, the greater Israel’s problems with the international community, and the greater the pressure of Arab opinion on those Arab regimes that have so far stood shiftily on the sidelines.

Israel has always relied on brute force to ensure its security. Since its creation in 1948, it has sought to dominate the region by military means. This doctrine rests on the belief that the Arabs will never be strong enough, or capable enough, to challenge it. This is a fundamentally racist attitude.

But beneath the bluster and the muscle-flexing lies a deep-seated paranoia and insecurity, reflected in the conviction, shared by many of Israel’s citizens, that the Arabs want to kill them and that they face a permanent existential threat. The choice, they seem to believe, is between killing or being killed. This dark view of their environment — something of a self-fulfilling prophecy — goes some way to explaining the extravagantly disproportionate nature of Israel’s attacks and its blatant disregard for international legality and any semblance of morality.

Israel is able to behave in this way because it has been given extraordinary immunity by the United States. A striking aspect of the crisis is, indeed, America’s total political, diplomatic and strategic support for Israel — even to the point of rushing to give it $300 million of aviation fuel with which to continue smashing Lebanon.

America’s gross bias has paralysed the Security Council, the G8 and the European Union. So great is American pressure that none of these bodies has been able to insist on an immediate end to the Israeli onslaught. Britain dutifully followed its American Big Brother in repeating the mantra that “Israel has the right to defend itself,” while even France, Lebanon’s traditional protector, has tended to put the blame on Hizballah, rather than Israel, for the massive destruction and loss of life.

Terrorism is usually defined as the indiscriminate killing of civilians in pursuit of political goals. Is this not what Israel is doing in both Lebanon and Gaza? It is killing large numbers of Lebanese and Palestinian civilians in pursuit of its political aim of annihilating Hizballah and Hamas. By any objective standard, Israel is guilty of state terrorism.

But killing Arabs in this wanton manner and smashing their countries must inevitably have negative consequences for Israel’s own security. Israel’s terrorist behaviour legitimizes the terrorism of its enemies. And America’s uncritical support for Israel legitimises terrorism against the United States itself. That is what 9/11 was all about, although to this day the United States has not faced up to why it was attacked. The United States and Israel are sowing the wind and will reap the whirlwind.

Washington’s unconditional backing for Israel highlights the fact that this is not simply a war between Israel and Hizballah. By seeking to bomb Lebanon into submission, Israel intends to strike a blow at the Iran-Syria-Hizballah axis, which has challenged US-Israeli dominance in the region. The key issue is whose will is to prevail in this vital part of the world.

If the conflict had been a purely local one, Israel might have agreed to an exchange of prisoners, as both Hizballah and Hamas demanded, and as has taken place a number of times in the past. Some 10,000 Palestinian prisoners still languish in Israeli jails. To secure their release is a major Palestinian objective.

But the war has a wider dimension. The United States has given Israel a free rein because it is confronted with the probability of two highly disagreeable developments: a nuclear-armed Iran and a humiliating defeat in Iraq. It urgently needs to regain the initiative in the wider Middle East and has persuaded itself – or been persuaded by Israel’s friends inside and outside the Administration — that Israel can help it do so. The pro-Israeli neocons in the United States have been trumpeting that a victory for Israel in Lebanon will be a victory for the United States, and a defeat for Israel will be a defeat for the United States.

This is the essential background to Israel’s war, which had clearly been long planned in concert with the United States, and with the encouragement of some Christian Lebanese extremists, not unhappy to see Israel do the dirty work for them in breaking Hizballah.

The situation is complicated by a further layer of conflict. The Arab oil producers in the Gulf dread an upset in the regional power balance. They want to continue enjoying their great wealth under the umbrella of American protection. These Gulf regimes fear a dominant Iran and an assertive Shi‘ism. This may explain their astonishing passivity in the face of Israel’s aggression. But by failing forcefully to condemn Israel’s brutality or spring to the defence of beleaguered Lebanon and Gaza, they expose themselves to the anger of the Arab public.

The explosive impact on Arab opinion of the war in Lebanon and the martyrdom of the Palestinians should not be under-estimated, particularly in view of the graphic media coverage of Israeli atrocities, provided by Al-Jazeera and Hizballah’s satellite channel, Al-Manar,

Israel’s indifference to Arab life risks convincing many young Arabs that long-term coexistence with Israel is not possible. Arab intellectuals are increasingly expressing the view that Israel is a colonial state, which must eventually disappear, as Europe’s colonial empires did in their time.

At their summit meeting in Beirut in March 2002, all the Arab states declared their readiness to establish normal peaceful relations with Israel within its 1967 borders. But Israel, intent on expanding its borders, rejected the offer. It must surely be time for Israel to think again. The offer may still be on the table.

Only by withdrawing from Palestinian territories, respecting Lebanon’s sovereignty and returning the Golan to Syria will Israel live in peace.

Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East, and the author of The Struggle for Syria; also, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East; and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.

© 2006 Patrick Seale