Friday, 11 August 2006

History Repeats Itself in Lebanon

More than four weeks into the Israeli offensive in Lebanon, the United Nations is still mulling over the wording of its first Security Council Resolution on the matter. The disarmament of Hizbullah is agreed upon. What remains is the question of satisfying Lebanese demands - ordering the Israeli army out of Lebanon and demanding a full cessation of hostilities (a ceasefire).

The demands are reasonable, but difficult to implement. Hizbullah says it cannot cease hostilities, let alone disarm, with Israel as an occupying force. On the other hand, Israel does not want Hizbullah fighters to re-infiltrate areas they have been cleared from before a peacekeeping force enters. Security Council members are trying to figure out a way of transfusing Israeli forces with a multinational force so that there is no security gap; but that transfusion will be tricky because any multinational force must come in under ceasefire conditions, not the present combat ones. The transfusion must follow on the heels of a ceasefire in a matter of hours, not days.

For all its suffering, Lebanon cannot seem to command the sympathy and support to satisfy these demands. In June 1982, when Israel last marched into Lebanon to remove a terrorist threat, the UN immediately granted them. Its first resolution came within 24 hours of the Israeli incursion. It demanded that all parties "cease immediately and simultaneously all military activities". In contrast, the qualified demand in the draft resolution of last weekend, demanding an end to offensive action, left open a back door of defensive action. Since all military action against actual or potential terrorism is now justified as a pre-emptive defence, famously introduced by US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as a rationale for the thoroughly unnecessary invasion of Iraq, the distinction between offence and defence is practically meaningless.

Resolution 517, two months into the 1982 engagement, called for the "immediate cease-fire and withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon." It even censured Israel for failing to comply with previous resolutions. 

The last quarter-century has bolstered Israel's immunity from UN censure. Perhaps that makes little difference. The cartload of resolutions ordering Israel out of Lebanon in 1982 was ignored. But the gruelling process of negotiation in the UN is important. The leading voices of the UN, permanent Security Council members with vetoes, have positions of leadership in the world. It is in their interest to bolster faith in the world body politic by appearing fair and democratic. Allowing crises to spin themselves out would diminish them.

As the UN deliberates, a frustrated Israel is escalating its war. This is a major tipping point. Israel has done all it can - aerial bombardment, tank fire, commando raids, border skirmishes - short of a full-scale invasion. Hizbullah has matched Israel every step of the way. It has fought fierce hand-to-hand battles with the most highly trained and best-eqipped army in the Middle East, incurring losses that, if Hizbullah is to be believed, match its own; at the same time, it has actually increased the number of rockets being fired at civilians in Israel.

The Israeli government says it intends to march to the Litani river, about 20 kilometres north of the border at the nearest point. In 1982 the Israel Defence Forces reached the outskirts of Beirut within five weeks. Now, as they enter their fifth week of the campaign, they are still fighting over Bint Jbail, a southern Hizbullah stronghold just four kilometres from the Israeli border. The battle over that town is 18 days old as we go to press.

Whatever the damage to Hizbullah in men and materiel, it is clear that the foe Israel helped create in 1982 is stronger and more determined than ever. No doubt Israel's assertions that it destroyed bunkers of rocket launchers and other materiel are largely true, but Israel has also made Hizbullah the Islamic world's new front line against itself. That glamour surely revictuals Hizbullah as much as the war erodes it. It should be clear to the UN Security Council, and to Israel and Hizbullah, that there can be no military resolution of the conflict.
If that is indeed the common understanding, then it is time to put political pride aside - whether it is the pride of Israel and Hizbullah, or of France and the United States, the respective champions of Lebanon and Israel - and end the suffering of civilians. The war is doing more damage to the noncombatant population than the men in uniform. Sickening photographs of the crushed bodies of Lebanese children pulled from the rubble of their houses, bombed while they slept, are doing Israel no credit in the eyes of the world. Missiles launched into Israel are killing Arabs as well as Jews. Lebanon's economy and infrastructure are now in tatters, and the longer that situation prevails the more difficult it will be do normalise the country after any ceasefire. History is slowly but surely repeating itself. Neither Lebanon nor Israel can possibly want that.

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