The Daily Star – 17 July 2006
The parallels between Israel’s military assaults on Lebanon and Gaza are striking. It is not so much the unconvincing claim by Israel that both attacks were triggered by the capture of its soldiers as the similarities in the nature and goals of each response. What is presented as righteous Israeli indignation on two fronts is more truthfully war-mongering according to a prepared script.
The first point to note is that Israel has preferred “shock and awe” tactics in Gaza and Lebanon familiar from the United States’ assault on Iraq. It is in the nature of these kind of bombing campaigns that they inflict their heaviest toll on civilians.
For every Qassam and Katyusha strike, Israel is raining down a barrage of its latest military hardware, wrecking civilian infrastructure and human lives. This is not only “disproportionate,” in the mealy-mouthed words of Western governments, it is collective punishment and – as if it needs repeating – a war crime. But we should expect no more from an army that talks about “bombing Gaza into the Stone Age” and “turning the clock back 20 years in Lebanon.”
In both cases the damage being inflicted is achieving the same goal: severe disruption to the lives of the local civilian population and its isolation from the outside world. The pretext is that destroyed bridges, airports, refineries, power stations, water supplies and phone networks are one way to stop captured Israeli soldiers from being moved about. But it is difficult to believe this brutal overreaction in Lebanon and Gaza will yield the desired results. In all the chaos, Hizbullah and Hamas will find it easier to conceal the soldiers – if they have not smuggled them to other countries.
Another clear parallel is the fact that Israel is now directly confronting enemies it helped to create years ago. Hamas and Hizbullah, both essentially Islamic militias, were the byproducts of Israeli interference in the affairs of its neighbors through military occupation.
In the past Israel even indirectly bolstered Hamas, hoping it would be an effective counterweight to a secular Palestinian nationalism on its borders that it feared far more. Israel believed that by Islamizing its regional conflicts it would delegitimize them in the eyes of Western allies and could cultivate sectarianism as a way of further weakening the social cohesiveness of its neighbors. Recently it encouraged the slide deeper into Islamic extremism through its policies of unilateralism and its refusal to negotiate.
The withdrawal from South Lebanon six years ago was undertaken without coordination with either the Lebanese government or Hizbullah, leaving two open sores: missing Lebanese citizens Hizbullah accuses Israel of holding; and a border dispute over the Shebaa Farms.
Israel’s Gaza disengagement last year was also implemented without a partner – neither the Palestinian Authority nor Hamas – meaning the occupation was simply re-crafted. Gaza’s borders and airspace are still tightly controlled by Israel; no connection is allowed with the West Bank; and none of the thousands of Palestinians held by Israel, many without charge, has been freed.
Israel’s unilateral withdrawals from Lebanese and Palestinian territory contributed, whether intentionally or not, to the strengthening of these Islamic resistance groups. Hizbullah was able to boast that its fighters had forced the Israeli army to leave South Lebanon; and Hamas claimed much the same last year during the disengagement.
If Israel needs an example of where its current refusal to negotiate with Hizbullah and Hamas over a trade in prisoners might lead, it should look to these precedents.
Another notable similarity is Israel’s threat in both Lebanon and Gaza to “disarm the terrorists” and destroy the “infrastructure of terror.” In practice, however, it is not the militants who are suffering from these assaults as much as the governments and the institutional frameworks that underpin their legitimacy.
By rounding up a third of the Palestinian Cabinet in the West Bank Israel is not destroying terror; it is clipping the political wings of Hamas, those among its leaders who are quickly learning the arts of government and searching for a space in which to negotiate with Israel. In doing so, Israel is undoubtedly confirming the doubts of those in the military wing who argue Israel will always act in bad faith. Israel is certainly wrecking the ability of the Palestinian Authority to govern Gaza.
Similarly in Lebanon, Israel is holding Hizbullah far less to account with its attacks than it is the Lebanese government, despite the latter’s transparently shaky grip on the country. Israel’s military strikes polarize opinion in Lebanon, weaken Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and his ministers, and threaten to push Lebanon over the brink into another civil war.
Israel is talking about “changing the balance of power” in Gaza and Lebanon, implying that it is trying to strengthen “democrats” against “terrorists.” But this impression is entirely false. Israeli actions are destroying what little balance of power exists in Gaza and Lebanon so that they become ungovernable. In Gaza Israel has been engineering a debilitating struggle for power between Fatah and Hamas, while in Lebanon whatever hollow shell of national unity exists is in danger of cracking under the strain of the Israeli onslaught.
Which brings us to the final parallel. As things threaten to escalate out of control in both Gaza and Lebanon, Israel is keen to implicate outside actors.
In the case of Gaza it points to Syria as a safe haven for the exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, to Hizbullah and Iran as sponsors of Hamas “terror,” and even to a new Al-Qaeda presence. In the case of Lebanon, Israel additionally identifies the strong ties between Hizbullah and Damascus and Tehran. However legitimate these concerns, Israeli actions in Gaza, the West Bank and now Lebanon – combined with America’s occupation of Iraq, keenly backed by Israel – have been intensifying these links, not loosening them.
Israel’s purpose seems clear: to create an impression of a single implacable enemy, Islam, fighting a global war of terror in which plucky Israel is on the front line.
The aim of Israeli policymakers is not too difficult to divine either. They want their American paymaster dragged deeper into the mire of the Middle East as a junior partner rather than as an honest broker, giving Israel cover while it carves up yet more Palestinian land for annexation, puts further pressure on the Palestinians to leave their homeland, and destabilizes its regional enemies so that they are powerless to offer protest or resistance.
For some time US President George W. Bush has found himself in no position to criticize Israeli actions when Israel claims to be doing no more to the Palestinians than the US is doing to the Iraqis. If the US allows itself to be handcuffed to Israel’s “war on terror,” the consequences will be dire not just for the Palestinians but for the whole region.