As Israel’s ferocious and relentless destruction of Lebanon’s infrastructure continues, veteran Mideast observers are experiencing a dismaying sense of déjà vu.
In early June, 1982, the Reagan Administration in Washington gave Israel’s then defense minister, Ariel Sharon, a green light to invade Lebanon. The inept US Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, told Sharon he could invade Lebanon, turn it into an Israeli protectorate, and crush the PLO once he had a suitable pretext.
The pretext came in the form of retaliation for the attempted assassination of Israel’s ambassador in London by the Abu Nidal group (which had nothing to do with the PLO). Sharon’s real agenda was to crush the PLO and thus any hopes of a Palestinian state.
Twenty-four years later, the Bush Administration and Israel have provided the world — and this writer — a remarkable feeling of déjà vu as Israeli forces ravage Lebanon and threaten to once again invade its southern portion. Once again, a president totally ignorant of Mideast realities, a craven US Congress, and an incompetent secretary of state have created a disaster in Lebanon.
Americans have never been told by their government-guided media that in a speech, Osama bin Laden asserted that the 9/11 attacks on the US were payback for Israel’s cruel destruction of Beirut with artillery and bombs in which up to 18,000 Lebanese and Palestinian civilians died.
Ironically, we now see what may become a repeat of the 1982 invasion, regarded by all involved, including Israel, as a disaster. With further irony, we are now watching the democratically elected Hamas and Hizbullah governments battling Israel’s democratic government.
According to George Bush, wasn’t democracy supposed to solve the Mideast’s problems and end its violence?
In 1975, I arrived in Beirut for the first day of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war. Seven years later, I accompanied Israeli troops as they invaded Lebanon, and was with an Israeli armored unit in Nabatiyah when it shot its way through a procession of Shia worshipers marking Ashura. This notorious event, and brutal behavior by Israeli occupation troops, turned Shia’s against the Israelis and sparked the birth of Hizbullah.
Trained by Iran and aided by Syria, Hizbullah’s tough fighters became the only Arab military force ever to defeat Israel and shatter its record of military invincibility. Israel swore revenge. Hizbullah’s kidnapping of the Israeli soldiers provided the pretext for Israel’s new, untested government to unleash a long-planned campaign to destroy Hizbullah and try to draw into the confrontation its sponsor, Iran.
Claims by the US, Israel, and some Arab states that the abduction of two Israel troops at Shebaa Farms — land that belongs to Syria but is occupied by Israel — was organized by Iran and ally Syria to divert attention from Tehran’s nuclear programs may have some merit. But Hizbullah is no mere cat’s paw of Tehran and often operates independently of its allies.
Sheik Hussein Nasrallah made clear that Hizbullah’s border operation, which also killed eight other Israeli soldiers, was done for two reasons. First, to support embattled Palestinians in Gaza, who are being ravaged by Israeli air, land, and sea attacks. Second, to secure release of some of the hundreds of Hizbullah hostages and 10,000 Palestinian political prisoners being held by Israel.
So far, Hizbullah is the only Arab force that has taken any concrete action to help the Palestinians suffering devastating collective punishment by Israel. Such collective punishment, now also being inflicted by Israel on a national scale on Lebanon, is a crime under international law and the Geneva Conventions. Switzerland, the repository and guardian of the conventions, recently accused Israel of violating them by its collective punishment of the Palestinian territories.
Hizbullah made its point by the border operation. Firing hundreds of inaccurate rockets into northern Israel was militarily and politically pointless as well as a violation of the Geneva Conventions. So, equally, was the firing of homemade rockets by Palestinian militants into Israel. Both acts gave Israel a perfect excuse to vent its fury and try to destroy Hizbullah and Hamas. Killing Israeli civilians only further enflames Israel. As Tallyrand said, `it was a crime; worse, it was a mistake.’
All parties involved are to blame for this frightful mess and carnage: Palestinians and Hizbullah for provoking Israel at a time when its new leaders were anxious to show they could blast Arabs as effectively as Ariel Sharon, and Israel for its brutal repression of Palestinians and assassination of their leaders. But most at blame is the Bush Administration whose disastrous Mideast policies allowed this crisis to erupt and then encouraged Israel to bomb Lebanon back into the Stone Age.
The White House has been too obsessed with its lost wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to pay attention to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Under Bush, US Mideast policy has fallen into the hands of neoconservatives, and fundamentalist Protestants. Both groups, and President Bush himself, are closely aligned to Israel’s expansionist right wing, leaving would-be peacemakers on both sides out in the cold.
Little wonder the Muslim World — and much of Europe — believes Israel pulls the strings of US foreign policy. This view has become religious faith among Islamic radicals who see an attack on the US as an attack on Israel.
Mideast crises tend to follow a similar pattern. First, a bombing or assassination triggers off a fierce Israeli military response. Everyone involved screams no negotiations and no deals. After days or even weeks of destruction, the great powers intervene and force a return to the status quo ante bellum, often under the fig leaf of the UN. Prisoners are quietly swapped, ransoms discreetly paid.
After much more killing and destruction, Israel will eventually talk to its enemies. Prisoners will be exchanged. It’s only a question of how many civilians will have to die before this happens.
July 18, 2006