Friday, 21 July 2006

Israel's Invisible Enemy


Hizbullah does not belong to the countries that support it, or to that which it claims to support, and least of all to the country in which it is a parasite, hiding among the civilian population. This is an organism that knows it cannot survive for half an hour without the tissue of women and children,who are killed in the effort to extricate it

Israel's counter-insurgency in Lebanon is dividing western governments between pro-UN and UN-indifferent camps. The rift goes to the heart of the Euro-Atlantic alliance. Tony Blair told George Bush on July 17 that a multinational force had to be assembled as quickly as possible. The impromptu conversation on the sidelines of the G8 summit in St. Petersburg was recorded without their knowledge, apparently inadvertently. Blair's foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, pushed the UN agenda in a BBC interview the following day. Most major European Union members agree. In the British view, the longer it takes to install the force, the greater the danger of regionalisation of the conflict. Kofi Annan has called for a significantly strengthened UN garrison, which currently numbers about 2,000. 

Bush, on the other had, and his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, have followed the maximalistic Israeli line. They insist on a unilateral cessation of hostilities by Hizbullah and Hamas as a precondition to a ceasefire.

That makes very little sense in terms of saving lives. Over 340 have been lost on both sides of the border as we go to press, and the UN reckons half a million Lebanese are refugees in their own land. Thousands more are upset by evacuation. The whole point of a ceasefire is that it is unconditional on both sides - a precursor to discussion of terms. Clearly, though, Israel has a military agenda to carry out. Public security minister Avi Dichter said on July 18 that Israel would consider a prisoner swap with Lebanon only after its military operation was complete, leaving no indication as to when that might be. Israel's army chief, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, told his men that Israel will operate "until security is returned to the state of Israel" - an open-ended commitment. 

Washington is giving Israel time to carry out this agenda. Media reports have suggested that Rice's diplomatic efforts will not get underway until the second week of hostilities, and not bear fruit until the fifth week. By that time, hundreds of Lebanese men, women and children alive as these words are being written will have been killed, and potentially dozens more Israeli soldiers and civilians.

Israel is right to feel threatened. If we believe it was right for the US to invade Afghanistan in order to clear out Al Qa'ida and their troublesome host, the Taliban, then we must also agree that it is right for Hizbullah to be cleared out of Lebanon. The new, longer range of Hizbullah's missiles that can hit Ashkelon and Tel Aviv show that Hizbullah is not a waning threat, and lend credibility to the Israeli operation.

Hizbullah's modus vivendi can no longer be tolerated. It cannot expect to burrow into Lebanon, and by means of funding from Iran and Syria operate on behalf of the Palestinians. It is an alien organisation in every sense. It does not belong to the countries that support it, or to that which it claims to support, and least of all to the country in which it is a parasite, hiding among the civilian population. This is an organism that knows it cannot survive for half an hour without the tissue of women and children, who are killed in the effort to extricate it.

Hizbullah's desire to stir the Middle Eastern pot is cynical. One theory is that Iran ordered a distraction as its nuclear programme approached UN Security Council referral. An even likelier trigger was Hamas. The recalcitrant Palestinian party was preparing to recognise Israel's right to exist, as Arafat's Fatah had done after it came to power. Wielding power, after years of dreaming of it, would then have sobered both major Palestinian factions. Hizbullah would be isolated ideologically, since its entire raison d'etre is allegedly to help the Palestinians. We can only imagine that Hizbullah prevailed upon the yet-unsobered wing of Hamas to participate in this concert.

Herein lies the problem for Israel - how to tolerate the chasm between the democratically elected Palestinian Authority and Lebanese government, both at pains to construct a relationship with Israel, and the violent cultures they harbour but seem unable to control.

Israelis have lost their faith in the international community's ability to help bridge that gap between democrats and miscreants. In some cases they even see the UN as helpful to the enemy. That disillusionment has made them unilateralist and proud of it. Facing threats to their existence, they are thick-skinned to international opinion and decidedly immune to the sermons of the international press.

Yet this is clearly no way to do business. Killing hundreds of Lebanese civilians as pre-emptive protection for Israeli lives follows the logic that individuals don't count, and that human life is subservient to the higher cause of making a point. Despite the rhetoric about finally destroying Hizbullah in this operation, it is difficult to see what the third Israeli invasion of Lebanon can achieve that the others didn't, which is merely to serve notice that Israel can give as good as it gets.

Since 9/11 there is an increasingly worrying similarity in the security attitudes of Washington and Tel Aviv. Bush reflects Israeli maximalism in his message to Iran - stop enriching uranium, and then we can talk about whether you ought to stop enriching uranium. (In diplomacy, of course, maximialistic positions can be tactically conceded for reasonable ones; but in war, time lost is life lost).

There is also a worrying trend in the new, mutually encouraged unilateralism. In an interview to Ha'aretz in November 2003, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, at the time deputy premier to Ariel Sharon, said he doubted the possibility of a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians. Israel should instead separate itself demographically from them he said. Ariel Sharon's infamous fence and unilateral withdrawal from Gaza were steps in this direction. But whatever their merits in scaling down the provocation of the settler movement, such steps cannot replace negotiation. Israel seems to think that it can have peace on its own terms.

An equally worrying parallel is the mistaken belief that a war on terrorism can be won. Israel's vow to crush Hizbullah is mirrored by Bush's quixotic "war on terror". There cannot be a victory in the sense in which most people understand the term. There can be victorious battles, but a mutually retaliatory war is a political perpetual motion machine.
 
Israel has suffered for too long as a nation. Just under two years from now it will celebrate its 60th anniversary. It has, in that time, won the recognition of Egypt and Jordan as well as mainstream Palestinians thanks to its determination to survive. But military assertiveness is no substitute for a political settlement, and can even strengthen its enemies - Syria and Iran. Israel rightly sees its superiority in arms as necessary for survival in the short term, but this is not a long-term solution to its problems. It is unthinkable, for Israel and its neighbourhood, for the next two generations to manage affairs in the same way as the last two. There needs to be a commitment from Olmert and Hamas for a new peace process. The US, Europe and the Arab world must press for this. Only in the presence of a peace process are Hizbullah, Qassam and the Al Aqsa Brigades shown up for their recalcitrance and unreason. In its absence, there can only be a shrinking Israel at war with enemies it cannot see.

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