—   The sharp point of dissent   —

Section: Middle East
16 July 2006

Dangerous Escalation: Israel's Lebanon Blockade

They say the skies of Lebanon are burning
Those mighty cedars bleeding in heat ...

           - Paul Brady, The Island, 1985

Here we go again. Israel's impressive bombardment of Lebanon within the last 48 hours represents an alarming uptick in an already worsening security situation in the Levant. 'Disproportionate' seems to be the key word here. Much of the world's condemnation of Hezbollah's undeniable provocation has been largely pro forma because the international community appears to be far more concerned about Israel's outlandishly brutal response. For the sake of recovering two POWs, Lebanon's airport has been shelled, its fuel tanks detonated, its bridges bombed, its roads ruined. In fact, absurdly, the entire country is now under an Israeli blockade. Will this recover the two IDF men? To ask is to miss the point. For, as the Israeli historian Avi Shlaim said of Egypt's Colonel Nasser when he took the knowingly dangerous step in 1967 of closing the Straits of Tiran: 'He knew that Israel's entire defense philosophy was based on imposing its will on its enemies'.[1] And nothing has changed today: Arab upstarts simply cannot be allowed to get away within scoring even one point. Israel's savage response, therefore, can best be understood as the flailings of a regional colossus with wounded prestige.

The escalation of violence on the Lebanese front came during the siege of Gaza, a huge military incursion which had the ostensible objective of recovering a single captured soldier, Gilad Shalit. Quite how this aim was to be facilitated by the rocketing of Gaza's only power station and the subsequent cutting off of electricity to most homes in this most impoverished of the world's ghettoes was not vouchsafed. Dozens of officials belonging to the Hamas government, including several high-ranking ministers, have been arrested; and the offices of the Prime Minister Ismail Haniya were destroyed by ariel bombardment. Given Gaza's notable absence of anti-aircraft guns, the density and defenselessness of the population, and the fenced-in and compact nature of the Gaza Strip itself, this is all fish-in-a-barrel stuff for the IDF.

As for corporal Gilad, it has to be said that Israel has gotten an awful lot of mileage out of this nineteen-year-old. It's unlikely that any sane country since the Trojan wars would deploy so much might and materiél to effect the recovery of one person. The solicitude would be touching had it not been savagely cancelled by figures of dead and wounded Palestinians that now number in the hundreds. But I'm afraid I'm not so gullible as to be believe that Israel can be so spontaneous when it wants to. The Israelis plainly have had this plan sitting on the shelf for some time, and have used the missing corporal as the tiny moral aperture through which to push a savage and plainly disproportionate assault on Palestinian civilians, their infrastructure, and their elected, though unlovely, government.

Then came the surprise (and surprising) Hezbollah incursion. Following a sudden bombardment of towns in northern Israel, a Hezbollah unit crossed the border on the morning of 12 July and attacked a pair of military vehicles, capturing two Israeli soldiers and killing a total of eight (four died inside a Merkava tank when it struck a mine while apparently following Hezbollah's escape-path). Israel, naturally, was required to respond. And this - possibly - is what Hezbollah's Sheikh Nasrallah was counting on.

It's easy to be cavalier about employing vastly disproportionate force (beneath the umbra of which you also manage to slip in many arbitrary arrests) when your enemy is cornered and defenseless. After all, why not flex your military muscles and crush your antagonist emphatically when there's nothing to lose? For the last two weeks in Gaza, Israel has been giving this policy practical expression.

But having responded to an insignificant military threat with great force, Israel now finds itself obliged to always punch when pinched. It seems that nothing annoys the Israelis more than chutzpah: therefore Hezbollah could not be allowed to get off more lightly than the Gazans. By this brutal logic, Israel's response needed to be commensurately disproportionate. That is why the Beirut-Damascus highway has been cratered, ruined fuel tanks are smouldering at Hariri International Airport, Sheikh Nasrallah's home has been rocketed, and a near-total blockade has been imposed upon the state of Lebanon.

It makes no more sense for Israel to attack Lebanon's infrastructure in a bid to force the Lebanese government to rein in Hezbollah than it would have for the British to bomb Belfast city hall in order to make the same point to the Northern Irish government following an IRA attack. The Lebanese government is a generally secular entity which feels no warmth towards a theocratic Hezbollah, and is as weak and ineffectual now as it has ever been. The government helms a country comprising no less than seventeen sects, has never had any power over its mutually antagonistic warlords, and has allowed Lebanon to exist for years as a virtual suzerain of 'Sister Syria'. Expecting Mr. Siniora's enfeebled administration to take firm measures now against a militia which it has never even tried to disarm in peacetime, much less during the present state of war, with Syria glowering like a jealous husband, is asking rather too much. The government would surely rather face punitive (but limited) Israeli airstrikes than the far more destabilising disapproval of Syria and Iran.

On both the Gazan and Lebanese fronts, then, Israel has now re-entered theatres of conflict from which it had recently withdrawn. On the face of it, Hezbollah's attack seems remarkably unwise. 'Hezbollah's motivation' commented the Sydney Morning Herald, 'remains the biggest mystery of all'.[2] Hopefully the Shiites' quick stab in Zar'it was not a move in which they were acting as a proxy for an entity with larger regional aims. The situation is certainly Heraclitean at the time of writing: events are developing briskly and the fact that Hezbollah are accused - with some justification - of being the marionettes of Damascus and Teheran has raised the spectre of an all-out regional conflict. (Iran has threatened a 'fierce response' if Syria is attacked.[3] Iran's Shahab-3 missile has a range that can reach targets within Israel. Israel, of course, is nuclear-armed.) Nevertheless, the reasons for Hezbollah's attack may be less than regional in scope. Hezbollah has always strongly sympathized with the plight of the conquered Palestinians, probably more so now that the Palestinians have given their vote to an Islamist group. (One of the first things Nasrallah did following the Israeli withdrawal in May 2000 was call for a new Intifada.[4] It came within months.) Watching the misery being inflicted on their co-religionists in Gaza, the situation for the more militant Lebanese must have been not unlike that of the more militant members of the Fianna Fáil government of Ireland in 1969, watching Catholics in Derry being burned out of their homes. Difficult, in short, to gaze passively upon. (And, like Ireland, it was all happening just over the border.)

This is, of course, Israel's fifth major attack on Lebanon. During March 1978, in Operation Litani, Israel invaded south Lebanon for the first time and set up the SLA (South Lebanon Army), a Christian militia under General Saad Haddad, creating for Israel a 'security zone' inside another country which would act as a bulwark against the PLO. In 1982, Israel, despite a well-maintained PLO ceasefire in South Lebanon, responded to Abu Nidal's attempted assassination of Israeli ambassador Shlomo Argov in London by launching a full-scale invasion of Lebanon. (At the time, British journalist Robert Fisk dryly asked: 'How could a truce agreement along the Litani river ... possibly cover the pavement outside the Dorchester Hotel?'[5]) Within days Israeli tanks and guns had surrounded the PLO in west Beirut, flattening the cities of Sidon and Tyre en route. During the subsequent siege the Israelis began by cutting off the electricity and water supply, then denied that they had cut it off, then denied that they had denied this.[6] Ariel Sharon's subsequent saturation-bombing involved the use of phosphorous bombs (which create unextinguishable fires and untreatable wounds) and 'highly sophisticated U.S. weapons, including "shells and bombs designed to penetrate through the buildings before they explode," collapsing buildings inwards' - weapons which had a particularly devastating effect on a skyline of high-rise apartments such as that of Beirut's.[7] In the end, the PLO had to go, but even their absence did not prevent further Israeli-supervised massacres when the Phalange militia (trained, armed and uniformed by the IDF) were sent into the Sabra-Chatilla refugee camps where they notoriously butchered hundreds of Palestinian civilians while the IDF corralled off the area and fired flares at night to assist them in locating their quarry. Not surprisingly, the UN report into the IDF's conduct during the invasion concluded that Israel was 'guilty of aggression of the sovereignty of Lebanon and the rights of the Palestinian people' and that 'such aggression has taken place contrary to the provisions of the Charter of the UN and other fundamental principles of international law'.[8]

But it took Israel another eighteen years before it was to completely evacuate Lebanon. And during that time, it launched in July 1993 Operation Accountability, a savage bombardment of occupied south Lebanon which, over the space of a week, drove a wave of hundreds of thousands of refugees north. Precisely the same manoeuvre was performed during the April 1996 Operation Grapes of Wrath, which created yet another wave of flight of around 400,000 people. The aim of both operations was to create a domestic refugee crisis which would put pressure on the government in Beirut to rein in Hezbollah's attacks along the Israeli border. (Israel's destruction this week of Lebanon's infrastructure has precisely the same intent.) Thus 400,000 civilians were used as a human billiard-ball to strike a blow at Beirut and the ever-enfeebled government located there. 2,000 air-raids and 25,000 shells were deployed against 300 full-time Hezbollah fighters. The policy was, as Israeli historian Avi Shlaim memorably described it, 'the equivalent of using a bulldozer to weed a garden'.[9] Worst of all, the attack culminated in the massacre at Qana, during which over 100 civilians sheltering in a UN compound were blown to pieces by an Israeli shell. The Israelis claimed that they had not deliberately shelled the compound, and denied that there was an Israeli 'drone' aircraft flying over the scene at the time. But subsequent video evidence furnished by a conscientious UN soldier to journalist Robert Fisk put the lie to their claim.[10] Moreover it's notable that 'Human Rights Watch compiled a sample of incidents from July 1993 to the launching of "Grapes of Wrath." All Hizbollah attacks on Israel in the sample are retaliatory.'[11] And the figures behind this pattern are revealing. According to Hala Jaber: 'Hezbollah claimed that Israel breached the truce and attacked civilian targets 231 times between 1993 and 1996. In return, the Party of God says it retaliated with Katyushas against settlements in northern Israel on thirteen occasions. Both UN military and western diplomatic sources in Lebanon confirmed Hezbollah's allegations.'[12]

The Lebanese, in summary, have seen more than their share of Israeli brutality. And for all the ferocity poured down on Lebanon over the years, Israel's balance sheet looks poor indeed. Yitzhak Rabin himself appeared to acknowledge as much when he said that 'If, as a result to the war in Lebanon, we relace PLO terrorism with Shiite terrorism, we have done the worst thing in our war against terrorism.'[13] 'Terrorists, terrorists, terrorists', remarked a jaded Robert Fisk during his coverage of the pre-1978 period in Lebanon. 'The word was ubiquitous, obsessive, cancerous in its own special way. ... The Israelis used the word in every broadcast, almost every sentence.'[14] And little has changed since. The noun is a vital ideological weapon, and over the years Israel has subjected it to a relentless campaign of semantic inflation. (The most outlandish example of this came in August 2004 when 1500 Palestinian prisoners being held under 'administrative detention' in Israeli jails went on hunger strike in protest and the Sydney Morning Herald reported that 'the Security Minister, Tzachi Hanegbi, said that to give in [to their demands] would be to surrender to terrorism: "The prisoners can strike for a day, a month, even starve to death, as far as I am concerned."'[15] And just to demonstrate what a class act the Israeli authorities can be at times, plans were mooted to cook delicious meals in front of the starving detainees.)

* * *

As for Hezbollah, they are Israel's most implacable ideological enemy next to Iran. Hezbollah leaders do not even accord Israel the legitimacy of its name, for that would be to pretend that it is a country like any other. 'Israel' is thus sometimes cumbersomely referred to as the 'Zionist entity'. Hezbollah's onetime spiritual leader Sheikh Fadlallah explained the movement's position in a December 1985 interview:
Israel cannot be viewed as a state with a right to security and peace just like any other state in the region. We cannot see Israel as a legal presence, considering that it is a conglomeration of people who came from all parts of the world to live in Palestine on the ruins of another people.[16]
And a manifesto published by Hezbollah elucidated with some bragaddocio that:
... our confrontation with this entity [Israel] should end only when and after it has totally been eliminated from existence. Based on this we do not admit to nor abide by any cease-fire decision against it nor do we adhere to any peace treaty with it.[17]
Small wonder therefore, that such an organisation finds itself chummy with Iran's Ahmadinejad, who has made similarly lurid remarks about the disposability of Israel.

As 'terrorism' goes, however, the Israeli/US picture of Hezbollah as the ruthless practitioners thereof is shot through with hypocrisy. In March 1985, the month after Hezbollah had made its official debut, a massive bomb exploded outside Sheikh Fadlallah's house in Beirut. The blast killed eighty-five people and wounded over two hundred while completely missing the target, Fadlallah himself. The bomb had been planted by the CIA with the help of Saudi intelligence and specifically that of Saudi ambassador to Washington Prince Bandar. To prevent counter-attacks, the US had to bribe Fadlallah to the tune of $2 million in humanitarian aid.[18] (The Saudis are possessed by their own ideological hatred of Shiites, who comprise a persecuted minority within their own borders, frequently perceived (and treated) as a fifth column whenever Shiite Iran begins to rattle its sabre.[19] The strangulation of Shiite militias such as Hezbollah (who would extend Iran's already well-projected Shiite power in the region and thus foment unrest among downtrodden Saudi Shiites) was an important consideration for the Saudi oligarchy.) This event is notable in that it was not an example of state terrorism such as that of the merciless shelling of west Beirut in 1982: rather it was an act of conventional terrorism executed with all the subterfuge of an underground movement. (Imagine reaction to the same death toll in the streets of Tel Aviv following an analogous attempt to eliminate, say, Ariel Sharon, who rained far more indiscriminate destruction down on Lebanon in 1982 than Fadlallah could ever have ever had dreamed of subjecting Israel to.)

The Israelis are undoubtedly not pleased to find over 200,000 of their own citizens sleeping in bomb shelters up north, with some fleeing to the relative safety of Jerusalem (now that Haifa has been struck by Hezbollah's Katyushas).[20] But it's unlikely that the Israeli populace has any stomach for a re-invasion and especially a re-occupation of the notoriously troublesome south Lebanon after having twenty-two years of the same with only a rising body count to show for it. Much posturing is going on: Hezbollah has adopted the ludicrously pufferfish position of stating that it is ready for 'open war' with the world's fourth largest military power. IDF chief of staff Dan Halutz, with eerie echoes of General Le May's threat to 'bomb Vietnam back to the stone age' has threatened to 'turn Lebanon's clock back twenty years'. (Halutz was the general who dropped a one-tonne bomb on a Gaza apartment block in August 2002 in order to effect the 'targetted killing' of Hamas commander Salah Shehadeh. This act produced the 'untargetted killing' of 17 civilians - 9 of them children - and the wounding of 140 others. Ariel Sharon notoriously described the operation as a 'great success' and Halutz himself declared that he had 'not lost a minute's sleep' over the incident. [21] Halutz, along with Moshe Yaalon, has since been advised by the government not to travel to the UK for fear of being arrested for war crimes.[22])

But even with northern Israel under an (albeit atypical) attack, would the Israelis really consider re-invading and re-occupying south Lebanon to re-create a 'security zone' to act as a buffer against Hezbollah? If they are capable of learning from precedents, they should not dream of it. As explained by Avi Shlaim in 2000:
Hizbullah's success in winning hearts and minds in the Shiite villages in the south called into question the entire rationale behind the security zone. The strangest thing about the zone was that one could rarely spot the "enemy", but its very invisibility was a measure of Hizbullah's effectiveness. Its hit-and-run tactics were particularly effective against the SLA. Consequently, the Israelis had to do what their protégés could no longer do for them. They doubled their strength in the zone to 2,000 men, taking over some SLA positions. They spent $10 million improving these - yet they could not stem the bloodletting inflicted by Hizbullah's more sophisticated weapons and more daring tactics. Hizbullah was estimated to have only 400 fighters, but it was strongly supported by Iran, its morale was high, and it was confident in its ability to drive the Israeli intruders out of Lebanon.[23]
And how right they were. (And surely, would be again.)

* * *

This week, the exchange of bombs in the regional arena was swiftly followed by the exchange of bromides in the international one. The word 'terrorism' has been hurled about with the usual promiscuity (as though Hezbollah's commando attack on Israeli soldiers, though an unmistakable act of aggression, was the equivalent of placing a bomb in a café), and the Syrian Ba'ath Party hyperbolically condemned 'barbaric Israeli aggression and its crimes'.[24] The US, of course, led the platitudes with the dependably abstract averment that 'Israel has the right to defend itself' - precisely the response the White House gave to the world's press in March 2004 when Sheik Ahmed Yassin was blown to kingdom come following a standoff between his wheelchair and a US-supplied helicopter gunship. The wilfully bland, lowest-common-denominator 'entitled to defend' argument - always issued in a manner careful to avoid adding any qualifications - features among Washington's most insidious weasel-wording. If a kid kicks you in the shins, you're entitled to defend youself, but not to the point of breaking all the child's limbs. Again, disproportion is the key word, which is why it is an unmentionable in polite company.

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Notes:

1 Avi Shlaim, The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World, Allen Lane, London, 2000, p. 237
2 Ed O'Loughlin, 'Blast from the past hits Beirut', Sydney Morning Herald, 15-16 July 2006.
3 Yoav Stern, 'IDF officer: Israel has no plans to attack Syria', Ha'aretz, 15 July 2006
4 Jim Cusack, 'Hizbullah leader calls for renewal of Intifada by exiles', Irish Times, 27 May 2000
5 Robert Fisk, Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War, (Third edition) Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2001, p. 205
6 Ibid., p. 289
7 See Noam Chomsky, Fateful Triangle: the United States, Israel and the Palestinians (Updated edition), Pluto Press, London, 1999, p. 218; Fisk, p. 211, 277
8 Sean MacBride et al, Israel in Lebanon, Ithaca Press, 1983, p. 187
9 Shlaim, Ibid., p. 560
10 See Fisk, Ibid., Ch. 18
11 Chomsky, Ibid., p. 529
12 Hala Jaber, Hezbollah: Born with a Vengeance, Columbia University Press, New York, 1997., p. 173
13 Ibid., p. 213
14 Fisk, Ibid., p. 127
15 Ed O'Loughlin, 'Palestinian hunger strikers face ordeal by food', Sydney Morning Herald, 17 August 2004.
16 Quoted in Jaber, Ibid., p. 60
17 Ibid., p. 59
18 Ibid., p. 69; Richard Zoglin, 'Did a dead man tell no tales?', Time, 12 October 1987. Both writers credit the source of this information to Bob Woodward's book Veil: the Secret Wars of the CIA 1981-1987.
19 See As'ad Abukhalil, The Battle for Saudi Arabia: Royalty, Fundamentalism and Global Power, Seven Stories Press, New York, 2004, pp. 51, 56, 63-4, 111, 118, 208
20 Jonathan Pearlman, 'Jerusalem becomes a haven', Sydney Morning Herald, 15-16 July 2006
21 See David Hirst, The Gun and the Olive Branch: The Roots of Violence in the Middle East, (Third Edition), Nation Books, New York, 2003, p. 73
22 Chris McGreal, 'Retired Israeli general cancels London trip', Guardian Weekly, 23-29 September, 2005
23 Shlaim, Ibid., p. 593
24 Quoted in Khaled Yacoub Oweis, 'Syria will back Hezbollah: Baath Party' Melbourne Herald-Sun, 15 July 2006.