Friday, 25 August 2006

Our Neglect of Forests

Perhaps the greatest sin of the Greeks with regard to their forests is one of omission. Reforestation is often redundant, as in the case of pines. The planting of new forest where none has recently existed, though, is infinitely valuable
GREECE has just experienced its worst forest fires in six years. An estimated 5,000 hectares of pine forest have burned to a crisp on the Kassandra peninsula of Halkidiki, and an even greater area of olive trees and shrubs was under destruction in Mani as the Athens News went to press.

The socialist opposition's harpooning of state services comes partly out of a sense of obligation to oppose. The annual acreage of burned forest does not differ wildly between Pasok governments and those of New Democracy. Greece carbonised an annual average of 5,200 hectares in the 1980s when Pasok was in power. The average was 4,600 hectares during 1990-93, when New Democracy ruled. In fact, it was a New Democracy government that purchased the country's first firefighting planes.

The fire brigade was partly unlucky. The conflagrations of Mani and Halkidiki started on the same day, on the tail of a tough firefight on the island of Zakynthos. Waterbombing planes were pinned down by high winds, which fanned the flames too fast for vehicles to quench them in the critical early stages. Once they had spread, not even the planes could deliver the massive quantities of water required fast enough.

Clearly, though, the response was problematic. Planes dispatched to douse Zakynthos were not re-routed quickly enough, leaving only two, plus a helicopter, to deal with Kassandra. Ten planes were grounded for maintenance. The logistics of summer firefighting in the Mediterranean will punish any fire chief who allows nearly half his air power to be put out of action on any given day.

Still, with the summer nearly over, it is unlikely that this year will end up a statistical neighbour to 1998, the year in which the fire brigade took over forest firefighting from the forestry service, and 2000, when it still lacked experience. Greece lost a staggering 150,000 hectares of forest and shrubland in those two years alone (see chart on page 3). Tallying Greece's average losses without them, the damage is a more reasonable 5,000 hectares a year. What makes those losses acceptable is that they are reversible. Pine forest is designed to burn every five decades or so and re-seed itself. Thyme and oregano, too, begin to spring up anew from their crevices within a year. Should fires claim the planes, oaks, beech and sycamores of Ipiros and the Pindos mountains, on the other hand, the damage would be truly catastrophic for those environments.

In the case of Mani the problems will be mainly economic. Thousands of olive trees have been lost, which will take subsidies to replant and years to bear large quantities of fruit. More generally though, Greece suffers from the negligence, mismanagement and abuse of land.

For instance farmers slash and burn forest on the fringes of their land every year, to increase yield by a paltry amount for the sake of European farm subsidies. So lackadaisical are municipal authorities that they rarely, if ever, send out crews to clean up rubbish, much less the highly inflammable dead wood and pine straw that gathers on forest floors. Nature is often prevented from renewing itself. Even the hardy pine forest needs several years after a fire to bring the new generation of trees to sexual maturity. Two fires in quick succession will destroy the offspring before the latter has a chance to produce seed-bearing cones, meaning that lowlier phrygana take over for a period.

Unfortunately, those frequent fires are a hallmark of arsonists wishing to build on urban fringes or areas being developed for tourists. While wooded, land is constitutionally protected from construction. Denuded, it is vulnerable to re-zoning. The lack of a land registry clearly marking public forest has enabled unscrupulous individuals to introduce ambiguity by fire.

But perhaps the greatest sin of the Greeks with regard to their forests is one of omission. Reforestation is often redundant, as in the case of pines. The planting of new forest where none has recently existed, though, is infinitely valuable, because it makes up for losses elsewhere and can restore the arboreal variety of ancient times.

The Phoenicians deforested Lebanon in the sixth and fifth centuries BC to build ships. Two generations later the Athenians probably did the same to Attica and the Corinthians to Corinth, in the process of creating two of the great fleets of the Classical period. There is no particular virtue in venerating the nudity of these regions today. Prefectural programmes could restore the type of forest that existed in southern Greece about 7,000 years ago. Aleppo pine would still preponderate but the alder, elm, hazel, hornbeam and lime would moisten the forest. Pursued on the mountaintops surrounding Athens, such forests could alter the stifling climate in the capital. Watering this forest requires nothing more ambitious than channelling the clean water currently produced by the sewage treatment plant on Psyttaleia, currently dumped into the Saronic Gulf. The engineering plan for such a project even exists, by the hand of Thanasis Katsiyannis, president of parliament's environment committee.
Reforestation and afforestation are a more impressive force than one might think. According to the latest Forest Resources Assessment from the United Nations, the world lost an average of 13 million hectares of forest land a year in the period 2000-2005. Almost half of that loss ­ 5.7 million hectares - was made up by human replanting and natural reseeding. Nature can recover with only the minimum of assistance, but we Greeks seem to begrudge it the minimum.

Friday, 18 August 2006

Who Won? Those Who Feel They Did

As Lebanon wobbles on a tentative ceasefire, the Israeli government and Hizbullah are both declaring victory. The significant difference between the claims is that most Israelis don't think the war was a success, whereas in Lebanon the mood is strident.

It will take time for this war to crystallise into political judgement on each side, but even as they disengage it is becoming apparent that Hizbullah has at least the moral victory. Group leader Hassan Nasrallah's claim to have won a "strategic and historic victory" over Israel sent the Lebanese into a frenzy of celebration. Shiites and non-Shiites felt proud this past week to have ejected an invader from their territory. 

Only 44 percent of Israelis deemed the war a success, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's approval rating dropped to half of its pre-war high of 78 percent. A committee of inquiry will probe the conduct of the war following a bruising parliamentary debate in which Olmert admitted mistakes. Chief of Staff Dan Halutz has even been accused of profiteering.

Amidst the gloom, Israelis may be tempted to draw parallels with the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. An inquiry discredited military icon Moshe Dayan and led to the resignation of Prime Minister Golda Meir because they ignored warnings from the armed forces chief of staff of imminent invasion.

In Lebanon, however, Hizbullah is seen as having broken a historic cycle of defeat. Israel's 1982 invasion achieved its objective of throwing the Palestine Liberation Organisation out of the Middle East and into exile in Tunis. The Israeli army laid siege to Beirut within a week of crossing the border. Three months later the PLO was gone after Lebanese muslims found the Palestinians too much of a nuisance. The Israelis didn't even have to do all the fighting themselves. They co-opted the Maronite Christian militia of Bashir Gemayel.

In all those respects, 2006 was the opposite of 1982. Israel has been forced to tone down its initial triumphant rhetoric about eviscerating Hizbullah to merely disarming it and pushing it back from the border area. Its two abducted soldiers, Helens of Troy, have not yet been returned. The invasion did not produce that internal pressure on Hizbullah that had been so critical in ousting Arafat. Lebanon's collective anger became directed at Israel instead. Israeli losses were heavy and the IDF's progress slow, revealing a worthier adversary than the PLO.

In succeeding where the PLO failed, Hizbullah could reap the political benefits Arafat wished for - money, men and diplomatic clout; above all, the immunity from disarmament called for in UN resolutions. 

But mood is not everything. Perhaps Israel has a victory that simply doesn't look like one. After all, Israel's sights were set on an elusive, final victory over its greatest remaining threat, whereas Hizbullah merely needed to survive. Israel may have set itself up for disappointment. If the periodic culling of Hizbullah is the best that can be hoped for, Israel achieved that. Commentator Yaron Ezrahi contends that it achieved something else besides - the framing of Iran as the regional threat, which could increase the chances of an international coalition to contain it. 

Conversely, Lebanese euphoria may be disguising Israeli success in turning faction on faction. In the long term, Hizbullah's victory may not be Lebanon's. Other factional groups worry that Hizbullah's foreign patronage comes at a price they all must pay - being forced into the role of anti-Zionist champion, and suffering the ravages of war. The first post-war speeches from Lebanon's coalition members include fierce criticism of Hizbullah, Syria and Iran. Sunni leader Saad Hariri, whose father, late prime minister Rafiq Hariri, may have been assassinated upon Syrian instigation, bridled at the suggestion earlier in the week by Syria's president that Lebanese who weren't pro-Hizbullah were pro-Israeli. Veteran Druze leader Walid Jumblatt openly criticised Hizbullah during the war for triggering it without consulting with others. 

Although Hizbullah is showing reinforced exceptionalism - it will not disarm, its chief has said - no-one in the Lebanese government seems willing to confront it. Memories of the civil war are still fresh. So the Lebanese army, deploying in southern Lebanon, is doing so on terms acceptable to Hizbullah. No multinational force wants to enforce disarmament either, so reinforcements to the existing UN Interim Force could be massively delayed or paltry (France, which had been thought willing to pour 5,000 troops into the UN force, now says it will deploy 200). 

With no-one but the Israelis willing to take Hizbullah on, and Syria and Iran seemingly bent on a policy of goading Israel, a repeat of this war might be inevitable. But a more optimistic assessment is possible: that Israel's mixed success means that this has been its last incursion into Lebanon, and a change of security strategy will exclude mass punishment for Hizbullah's socio-economic base. Over the longer term, that could sap Hizbullah of political justification for keeping a massive private army. At the same time, Israel and the US could offer Syria and the Palestinians the carrot of a new peace process. A peace process that includes the Syrians would isolate Iran. That, surely, is a bigger political gain than turning some Lebanese factions against Hizbullah. 

The neocons in Washington, however, are not given to solutions that involve diplomacy. Allied with the wrong Israelis, they could provide quite a different option. In an article posted on The New Yorker's web site on August 14, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh quotes high-ranking intelligence sources saying that the Bush administration not only knew about the Israeli incursion plans, but encouraged them. The administration apparently saw Lebanon as a dress rehearsal for an assault on Iran. If Washington and Tel Aviv decide to pursue a Middle Eastern conflagration, then the departure from reason has only just begun.

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.

Friday, 4 August 2006

Means and Ends in the Middle East

The Israeli bombing of an apartment building in Qana packed with women and children has tipped international sympathy decisively in favour of the Lebanese people. Images of dust-caked children, apparently suffocated to death at one in the morning when the three storeys above them collapsed, have produced an outcry around the world, and justly so. Even the European Union, that immovable object, nearly issued a call for a ceasefire, scuppered by Britain.

The effect of Qana on Lebanon, at least in the short term, was to push the country closer to Iran and Hizbullah. Prime Minister Fuad Siniora had used the first week of fighting to issue a call for Hizbullah to disarm, calling it a "state within a state. " On July 31, the day after the Qana attack, he publicly thanked Hizbullah for its sacrifices. And whereas US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had been received in Beirut on her first visit to the region a week earlier, Siniora said she was not welcome on July 30 unless she came with a ceasefire. Just to press the point home, Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki was allowed to pay Beirut a visit instead.

This is more than posturing on Saniora's behalf. There seems to be a shift in the notoriously fractured public opinion of Lebanon against Israel. An opinion poll published in the past week found a favourable rating of 87 percent for the resistance to Israel that Hizbullah is solely responsible for. Allowing for the fact that Lebanon is only about 40 percent Shiite, that is an enormous, inter-communal endorsement of the radical Islamic group. 

Hizbullah has rarely been popular outside the Shiite community, partly because it vows to make Lebanon a Tehran-obeisant theocracy, and partly because non-Shiite Lebanese can only vote for parties within their own religious groups.

Qana's effect was not lost on the Israelis. They scrambled to announce a 48-hour suspension of airstrikes, attributed to US pressure, and in any case not adhered to. They tried to show that the suffering of Lebanon has not been in vain. Israel has wiped out two thirds of Hizbullah's long-range rockets, which are its chief concern, Israel said. 

The stepping up of Israel's ground war with a massive infantry invasion employing seven battalions (as many as 10,000 men) can also be seen as a decision to bite the bullet and risk casualties, which are unpopular in Israel, rather than try to do the job with air strikes, which are unpopular in the rest of the world. 

Qana is almost certainly responsible for the change in Israeli language about the duration of the war. Whereas until now the position has been that the engagement is open-ended, during the past week the prime minister's office and other ministers talked about a ten-to-fourteen day horizon. That would theoretically put the war's end on or before August 15. 

Apart from affecting the timing and nature of the war, Qana is straining alliances. "I think it's time to get a ceasefire," Condoleezza Rice was heard to utter in Jerusalem after the bombing marred her shuttle diplomacy, which had aimed to produce a UN Security Council resolution text. Leaving Jerusalem, Rice said a ceasefire was possible within the week. Olmert flatly contradicted her, as did Shimon Peres two days later. 

Perhaps the most interesting effect of Qana was on the "special relationship". British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been portrayed during this conflict as US President George W Bush's poodle. He and Bush struck a familiar hawkish chord in a joint press conference two days before Qana; but two days afterward Blair distinguished the British position by uttering the sanest words to come from any world leader since the conflict began on July 12. He acknowledged that there can be no purely military victory against "reactionary Islam". 

"This war can't be won in a conventional way," Blair told the World Affairs Council in Los Angeles. "Unless we re-appraise our strategy, unless we revitalise the broader global agenda on poverty, climate change, trade, and in respect of the Middle East, bend every sinew of our will to making peace between Israel and Palestine, we will not win." 

That throws into sharp relief the essential dilemma of Israel's position. Soft power is of limited use when rockets are flying into Haifa and suicide bombers are boarding buses. It is also arguably futile for Israel to try and charm governments that build a significant part of their platform on implacable, unexamined opposition to Israel's existence. 

Soft power is useless against a guerrilla organisation that uses the most cynical means of survival. Israel confirmed its suspicions of a Hizbullah headquarters inside a hospital on the Lebanese-Syrian border after a commando raid that killed many noncombatants. The strike on Qana can be partly blamed on Hizbullah, which launched rockets from residential areas. Against such enemies the response clearly cannot be solely diplomatic but needs to be military as well. What has gone wrong, however, is that the military response is taking over. Generals are promising more than they can deliver, and politicians are choosing the least compromising positions as a first option. 

The US and Britain, on the other hand, whose vetoes in the UN Security Council and the European Union respectively protect Israel from international pressure, do not face a threat to their existence. Their political support could help bring about the renewed peace process the Middle East sorely needs. 

Bringing that about will take much more than a mad scramble for a UN Security Council resolution in the midst of violence. Israel, Britain and the US, the front line of the war on terrorism, are still closing political and diplomatic channels while opening military fronts. They calculate that today's military gains outweigh the political ill-will that is being stored up for the future. The US refuses to talk to Syria and Iran, so it cannot possibly open any negotiation with Hizbullah's backers. Nor can it muster leverage to halt Iran's nuclear plans. Israel refuses to talk to Hizbullah, leaving only the option of fighting a foe it cannot defeat alone. 

Soft power has thus been defenestrated, diplomacy rendered Epimethean rather than Promethean, and war is justified as an undesirable means to a worthwhile end. But means are not distinguishable from ends. Multi-faceted problems cannot be reduced to security concerns. Unless someone puts into effect what the British prime minister professes, the world will not move past the vicious circles being drawn in the Middle East.