Al-Ahram Weekly – 3 – 9 August 2006
Issue No. 806
Seconds after the air raid siren fell silent, it came. A deep rumble shook windows and doors and made the earth tremble. This was nothing like the familiar crump of a Katyusha rocket.
At the weekend Hizbullah fired for the first time what it calls a Khaibar missile into Israel, creating a deep crater and setting fire to woodland outside Nazareth. According to reports in the Israeli media, the shell was packed with 100 kilogrammes of explosives. The missile can apparently reach up to 90 kilometres; given that Nazareth is only a third of that distance from the border, it was probably fired from deep inside Lebanon.
I have been living within range of Hizbullah’s rockets for two weeks but this is the first time I have felt unnerved. You have to be very unlucky to be killed by a Katyusha if you are inside your home. Its lethal effects are usually felt by victims caught out in the open, where there is no protection from the spray of shrapnel. That partly explains the small number of Israeli civilians killed by the 2,500 rockets, most of them Katyushas, which have landed so far. (In addition, though mostly unreported, Hizbullah appears to have been aiming a substantial proportion of its rockets at military installations hidden in the Galilee’s hills, including two close by Nazareth.)
But the Khaibar is different. The blast from 100 kilogrammes of explosives can tear away the protection of walls, exposing anyone inside to its destructive force. For the first time I have a small insight into what it must be like living in Lebanon under the Israeli bombardment, of what terror the 50 or more civilians sheltering in a basement in Qana on Sunday morning must have felt as they heard the first blasts of the missiles that were about to kill them.
Hizbullah’s launching of more fearsome weapons, however, does not strengthen my resolve, as it does most Israeli Jews, that Lebanon should be hit harder. It makes me — and, according to polls, a majority of Israel’s Arab citizens — certain that if anyone should be held to account for this cruel, senseless war, and if only one side should be blamed for abusing the rules of such a war, then Israel not Hizbullah must be found at fault.
That Khaibar rocket, and the many others presumably in Hizbullah’s arsenal, could have been fired at any time in more than two weeks of fighting, as Lebanon burned under the onslaught from Israeli warplanes and as the death toll of Lebanese civilians climbed from the dozens into the hundreds. But it wasn’t. For more than a fortnight Hizbullah held off from using the most terrifying weapons in its possession (assuming it doesn’t have worse), just as earlier it held off for days before turning its fire on Israel’s northern economic hub of Haifa.
Hizbullah’s raid across the border on 12 July, its capture of two Israeli soldiers and its killing of three more, was an extreme provocation, although too often observers overlook Israel’s many equal provocations since its withdrawal from South Lebanon in May 2000, from its repeated violations of Lebanese airspace to its shooting of Lebanese civilians from border observation posts.
But since that cross-border operation, Israel has flouted the rules of war with far greater abandon than Hizbullah, as the record of war shows.
Let’s not forget that, as Israel bombed Lebanon’s roads, bridges, airport and power stations, Hizbullah was demanding a prisoner swap to secure the release of a handful of Lebanese detainees and some of the thousands of Palestinians in Israel’s jails, many of them held without trial, in return for the two soldiers. It also wants back from Israel a small corridor of land, known as the Shebaa Farms, it considers Lebanese, as well as maps of minefields planted in South Lebanon by Israel during its occupation.
Let’s not forget that, as Israeli “surgical” strikes tore down residential buildings in apparent disregard for whether they were inhabited by civilians or fighters, or shot at convoys of fleeing Lebanese after leaflet drops had told them to leave their villages, Hizbullah was firing only at Israel’s border areas, at towns like Nahariya and Kiryat Shemona, where the residents had been warned of what was coming and had either fled to safety or were well protected in underground bunkers.
Let’s not forget that Hizbullah paused five days, while Israel wrecked Lebanon with aerial bombardment, fulfilling its promise to “turn the clock back 20 years”, before raining down its rockets on Haifa. Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah repeatedly warned that Israel’s third largest city would be attacked if the Israeli offensive on Lebanon continued.
And finally let’s not forget that Hizbullah waited more than two weeks, a time in which Israel made refugees of hundreds of thousands of Lebanese in the country’s south, including the large Shia community to which Hizbullah’s fighters belong, before firing that first Khaibar missile into Israel. The rocket was launched following a speech from Nasrallah in which he warned that a new, harsher phase of the conflict “is being forced upon us” by Israel.
None of this behaviour fits with the picture we are being sold of Nasrallah as a religious fanatic hell bent on jihad against Israel and the West. Rather, it suggests that Nasrallah is a politician, even if an Islamic one, and the leader of a movement ready to negotiate and compromise on its agenda — or to act “responsibly and flexibly” as Nasrallah put it in another recent speech.
Following reports in the American media about a plan prepared by Israel at least a year ago to strike against Lebanon, Israel, not Hizbullah, looks like the side set on the path of premeditated war.
Equally, claims that Hizbullah’s leadership amassed its arsenal of weapons with the intention of destroying the nuclear-armed State of Israel sound less than plausible. Far more likely, Hizbullah believed its hoard of rockets would act as a deterrent, even if an inadequate one, against repeated Israeli aggression. Hizbullah appears to be trying to create a “balance of terror”, presumably in the hope — forlorn though it probably is — of dissuading Israel from occupying Lebanon once more.
This weekend Nasrallah again warned Israel that if it continued attacking Lebanon he would strike “beyond Haifa” with even more powerful rockets — a promise he most probably will feel forced to honour given the new massacre at Qana.
Nasrallah could have lashed out with his Khaibar missiles from day one. Before Israel’s ground invasion a few days ago, when Hizbullah rocket launchers were pushed northwards, it is possible these missiles could have reached Tel Aviv. But, whatever we are being told, destroying Israel — or even terrorising it — does not seem to be Nasrallah’s aim. Maybe when he says he wants to negotiate, he really means it. Maybe the problem isn’t fanatical Hizbullah, but the unilateral arrogance of Israel.