The Guardian – 24 July 2006
Two myths are taking root as the carnage mounts in Israel and Lebanon. The first is that, while Israel is doing its best to target “terrorists” and fight a clean war, Hizbullah is interested only in killing Israeli civilians with its rockets and in endangering Lebanese innocents by hiding among them. The second myth claims that Israel’s current bombardment was triggered not simply by Hizbullah’s attack on an army post on July 12, in which three soldiers were killed and two captured, but by an unprovoked barrage of rockets from the Shiite militia on Israeli towns.
Both ideas are shaping the British government’s understanding of current events, including that of Foreign Office minister Kim Howells as he tours the region. However, there is little evidence that Hizbullah is acting any worse, or better, than Israel in the confrontation between them.
Regarding the first proposition, the casualty figures alone should be grounds for refuting claims by Israel that it is taking the moral high ground. The bombardment of Lebanon has been paid for mostly in the blood of Lebanese civilians, not Hizbullah fighters. If Mr Howells’ suggestion yesterday is right that Hizbullah is hiding among the Lebanese population, why then are civilians the ones being found amid the rubble left by Israeli air strikes?
Examining the same statistics, one might infer, conversely, that Hizbullah, not Israel, is trying to keep the war on a military footing. For every Israeli civilian killed in a rocket strike, an Israeli soldier is paying with his life on the battlefield. But in truth, the two sides have almost identical objectives. Both are seeking to weaken the other side by targeting its economic and military assets, with careless disregard for the toll on civilians. Israel is doing a better job on all counts because it has far superior firepower.
The fact that Hizbullah’s rockets are not precision-guided should not lead us to conclude that they are entirely inaccurate or random. It is clear from the main targets Hizbullah is selecting that its priority is to hit sensitive sites: Haifa, the economic hub of the north, its satellite towns, as well as military installations that are dotted across the Galilee.
In a limited sense, that strategy has been successful: many Israelis have fled Haifa, forcing the closure of its port and commercial and financial centres for more than a week, as well as other northern cities like Karmiel, Safed and Nahariya. That is a significant dent to the Israeli economy, though not on the scale of the damage inflicted on Lebanon.
Even the most problematic Hizbullah strike, one that killed two Muslim children in the Israeli Arab city of Nazareth last week, is not quite as it appears. Although it was of little consolation to the residents here, Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah used a rare televised appearance immediately afterwards to apologise for the deaths.
Not only did his words of regret confound those commentators, including the Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, who have claimed that the Shiite militia wants to kill Christians in the Holy Land – Nasrallah, unlike many in our media, knows the city is mainly Muslim – but the apology also confirmed that the strike was intended for a target other than Nazareth.
Local inhabitants did not doubt that. They understand too that Israeli media reports that Hizbullah has repeatedly hit areas near Nazareth’s neighbour, the mixed Jewish and Arab city of Upper Nazareth, are glossing over the facts. Close by both Nazareths is a major weapons factory that Hizbullah has clearly identified and is trying to strike. Many of the other sites Hizbullah has been targeting on a regular basis are military. Its chances of damaging these fortified positions are low, but it is striking at them nonetheless. It may be hoping to send a deterrent signal that, if it knows where Israel’s military Achilles’ heels are to be found, so do its patrons, Syria and Iran.
No doubt in the balance of terror it aspires to with Israel, Hizbullah is happy to trumpet the death toll it is inflicting on its southern neighbour. But there is no reason to assume Nasrallah’s tactics are any more ignoble than Israel’s. In another irony, Israel has located many of its military installations in the north close to population centres, including Arab towns and villages. Mr Howells, it should be noted, is not suggesting that the Israeli army is “hiding” its arsenals among Israeli civilians.
As for the second claim, there appears to be a growing confusion about the chronology of this war. Observers forget that Hizbullah did not begin by firing on the distant targets of Haifa, Tiberias and Afula. It was Israel that started the pounding of civilian areas in Lebanon. Israel’s severe response was launched on the same day, July 12, that Hizbullah killed three soldiers and captured two more, and arranged a brief rocket attack on border areas that the Israeli army characterised at the time as a “diversionary tactic”. (A further five soldiers died shortly afterwards in fighting when they entered Lebanese territory in pursuit of Hizbullah.)
The reorganised timetable of war is preventing proper scrutiny of Israel’s later justifications. It seems Israeli officials quickly calculated that the deaths of so many Lebanese civilians, nearly 400 so far, would be difficult to defend as a “proportionate” response to the capture of its two soldiers – whose release Hizbullah says it will agree to in return for some of the thousands of Lebanese and Palestinian detainees in Israeli jails. As the Israeli historian Tom Segev observed of Lebanon’s devastation at the weekend: “The kidnapping of two soldiers does not justify it.”
On the other hand, Israel’s claims of indiscriminate and unprovoked rocket fire by Hizbullah on civilians provide a far more convincing pretext for the launch of military operations. But, if we cast our minds back, it was Israel that began the bombardment of civilian areas with its savage attacks on south Lebanon and on Beirut in the immediate wake of the soldiers’ capture. Hizbullah responded with limited fire on border communities like Kiryat Shemona, Safed and Nahariya, all of which have faced Hizbullah attacks before and are well protected.
Only as Israel extended and intensified its attacks on Lebanon, and in particular began targeting Beirut’s main airport, roads, bridges and power stations, did Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah order his guns turned on Haifa. In what looked more like a warning than an escalation, Hizbullah launched a small volley of rockets at Haifa late on July 13 that caused no injuries. When Israel continued its onslaught, Nasrallah waited three days before upping the ante by aiming his fire at the city again, with one rocket killing eight workers in a railway depot.
No one should have been surprised. Nasrallah was doing exactly what he had threatened to do if Israel refused to negotiate and chose the path of war instead. Although the international media quoted his ominous televised warning that “Haifa is just the beginning”, Nasrallah in fact made his threat conditional on Israel’s continuing strikes against Lebanon.
It is worth citing another line from the same speech: “As long as the enemy pursues its aggression without limits and red lines, we will pursue the confrontation without limits and red lines.” Nasrallah will doubtless see Israel’s limited ground invasions as the crossing of a further red line. What red lines Hizbullah will cross in response are not yet clear.