The Bush administration, Israel and U.S.-aligned Arab states have been blaming Iran and Syria for igniting the worst Mideast fighting in many years.
They claim Iran and ally Syria got Lebanon’s political-military movement, Hezbollah, to kidnap two Israeli soldiers in a patch of disputed border territory. Tehran’s goal, they say, was to divert attention from growing efforts to curtail its nuclear program. This view has some merit, but is far from the whole story.
In 1975, I arrived in Beirut on the first day of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war. I accompanied the Israeli Army when it invaded Lebanon in 1982 and was in Nabatiyah when Israeli armoured forces shot their way through a Shia religious procession.
This notorious event enflamed Lebanon’s Shia against the Israelis and led to the birth of Hezbollah. Hezbollah’s tough fighters, trained and armed by Iran and Syria, eventually drove Israeli occupation forces from Lebanon by 2000, becoming the only Arab military force to ever defeat Israel, shattering the myth of Israeli military invincibility. Israel vowed revenge on Hezbollah.
Few Americans know Osama bin Laden cited the 9/11 attacks as payback for Israel’s 1982 bombardment and siege of Beirut that killed up to 18,000 Lebanese and Palestinians and left the city shattered.
Hezbollah, from my experience, is no mere cat’s paw of Syria and Iran, but a fiercely independent-minded movement that is Lebanon’s dominant political and military force. Though backed by Tehran and Damascus, Hezbollah pursues its own local interests, sometimes in opposition to its allies.
Ironically, Hamas in Palestine is a democratically-elected government now battling the only other Mideast democracy, Israel. Hezbollah has elected members in Lebanon’s ruling party, including cabinet ministers.
Why did Hezbollah grab Israeli soldiers and ambush rescuers, knowing Israel’s habit of often reacting to attacks by harsh collective punishment?
Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Hussein Nasrallah, made clear his attacks were to support the embattled Palestinians in Gaza, who have been ravaged by Israeli air, land, and sea attacks after militants kidnapped an Israeli soldier. Hezbollah’s offensive was also aimed at securing release of hundreds of its supporters and 10,000 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
So far, Hezbollah is the only Arab force that has made even a gesture to help the embattled Palestinians. The price has been heavy: Israel’s destruction of key portions of Lebanon’s infrastructure and hundreds of civilian casualties.
Yet Hezbollah keeps firing rockets into northern Israel, a futile gesture that only further infuriates Israelis. Palestinians did the same thing, lobbing homemade rockets into Israel that brought crushing retaliation. None of these pinprick attacks served any useful military or political purpose. They give Israel an excuse to further vent its fury and play to worried voters.
All parties involved are to blame for this frightful mess: The Palestinians and Hezbollah for provoking Israel, and Israel for its continuing brutal repression of Palestinians and assassinating their leaders. But most at blame is the Bush administration whose catastrophically misguided Mideast policies have fed this crisis.
The Palestinian-Israeli conflict lies at the heart of Mideast troubles, and is the primary generator for anti-Western violence known as terrorism. It is a weary truism that no nation can bring about Mideast peace except for the United States.
But the Bush administration has been too obsessed by its losing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to pay attention to the Levant. U.S. Mideast policy is dominated by neoconservatives and Protestant fundamentalists aligned with Israel’s expansionist right wing, leaving would-be peacemakers in Israel and the Arab World out in the cold.
A green light
The White House has given Israel a very public green light to go on pounding Lebanon. What déjà vu. In 1982, the Reagan administration also gave Israel’s Ariel Sharon a green light to invade Lebanon. The result was 15 years of mayhem, the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, and Hezbollah.