The wrath to come
In ambition and miscalculation, Israel's latest Lebanese adventure looks ominously similar to 1982, writes Graham Usher
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UNITY UNDER SIEGE: Images of Beirut and Gaza grow eerily similar as the Lebanese and Palestinians face the most brutal rampage their lands have suffered in recent memory. Telling the world it has "the right to defend itself", Israel is in fact intentionally ravaging residential areas and key state infrastructure in overwhelming strikes designed to break the will of the two peoples. A cameraman films destruction in a residential area in east Beirut (left) while a Palestinian policeman stands by the destroyed Foreign Ministry building in Gaza (right)
In October 2000 Hizbullah guerrillas captured three soldiers on the Lebanese border with Israel. Israel's then prime minister, Ehud Barak, chose not to respond. With the Al-Aqsa Intifada less than a month old, he was wary of opening a "second front." In April 2002 -- at the height of the Israeli army's re-conquest of Palestinian West Bank cities -- Hizbullah killed several soldiers on the border. Barak's successor, Ariel Sharon, too, did not respond.
Instead he warned Syria while continuing indirect negotiations with the Lebanese resistance that led, eventually, to the release of 410 Arab prisoners in exchange for the bodies of the three dead soldiers and the release of the Israeli "businessman" Elhanan Tennenbaum. Even Sharon, it seemed, accepted the status quo on the Lebanese- Israeli border, buttressed by 10,000-12,000 Hizbullah missiles aimed at Israeli cities.
On 12 July 2006 Hizbullah guerrillas captured two soldiers and, in battle, killed eight more. Israel, in occupation of Gaza for the first time in a year, responded by unleashing its worst ground, air and sea assault on Lebanon, certainly since Operation Grapes of Wrath in 1996, and arguably since Operation Peace in the Galilee in 1982. Hizbullah hit back with rockets into Haifa and Tiberias.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert clearly has no problem fighting on two fronts. Like Samson, he willingly upturned the "balance of fear" that had kept the peace on Israel's northern border for the last six years. As Azmi Bishara wrote in Lebanon's As-Safir newspaper, "Hizbullah did not engage in 'adventurism' against Israel. Israel engaged in war against Hizbullah."
But why did it do so? Israel's argument that it is no longer prepared to negotiate the fate of "kidnapped" soldiers is the easiest to rebut. Asked on Israeli TV how the two Israeli soldiers would be released without negotiation, Israel's Foreign Minister Tsipi Livni answered, "we will bomb the Beirut airport." Asked how this would help, she answered, "we will bomb the roads leading to airport." Freeing prisoners is obviously not an Israeli priority just now, whether in Lebanon or Gaza.
Israel's priority rather is "eliminating Hizbullah's military power from the Lebanese and regional equation," says one Lebanese commentator. It is using two means. The first is the deliberate destruction Lebanon's national infrastructure -- roads, ports, power stations, etc. -- to compel the Lebanese government to deploy its army on the Israeli border and disarm Hizbullah -- in other words "the implementation of UN Resolution 1559 by force."
In the likely event of this not happening, the second means is to disarm Hizbullah by attrition -- targeting its arms stocks, rocket launchers and headquarters and regardless of the civilian cost. The alarming aspect of this second goal is that many Israelis believe it can be done, with one commentator predicting an end to the military campaign "within a week."
It is all eerily similar to the hubris that accompanied the first weeks of Israel's 1982 invasion. Then too there were predictions that the PLO would be vanquished "within a week." The PLO fought for over 100 days. Hizbullah is an indigenous movement, with a solid Shia constituency which views it as their only protector. The idea that Hizbullah can somehow be "removed from Lebanon" is an Israeli fantasy. "We will never leave, even if Lebanon is reduced to scorched earth," says Hizbullah cadre, Abdullah Kassir. He means it.
Israel's ambition is driven by the "regional equation." Since 2002, Israel has ploughed a unilateralist path in the Palestinian occupied territories with the encouragement of the United States, complicity of Europe and passivity of the Arab League. The only consistent resistance has come from Hamas and Hizbullah and their regional allies, Syria and Iran. By delivering Hizbullah a mortal blow in Lebanon, Israel believes it can "serve deterrence" on Tehran and Damascus without resort to a regional war. It also believes it can remove the last barrier to knocking over the Hamas government in Gaza.
This is particularly important for Olmert. A shibboleth of the Israeli right and many in the army is that Israel's flight from Lebanon in 2000 cleared the way for the Intifada. The same forces think the Gaza disengagement enabled the Qassam rockets and Hamas's electoral victory. The centrepiece of Olmert's political programme is some kind of territorial redeployment on the occupied West Bank. He knows that "realignment" cannot happen, domestically, if Hamas and the other Palestinian resistance forces are fighting in Gaza and Hizbullah remains armed and in place on the Lebanese border.
"We've decided to put an end to this saga and change the rules of the game where a terrorist organisation that is part of the government can push the region to an abyss," said security cabinet member, Isaac Herzog. He was referring to Hizbullah. He could just have easily been referring to Hamas.
This dangerous mix of Israeli self-righteousness and miscalculation suggests the latest assault on Lebanon could last a while. There are some, Iran and Syria apparently among them, who believe an internationally brokered ceasefire, followed by a prisoner exchange, could lead all back to politics and the negotiating table.
But Israel is not interested in a ceasefire, still less in politics. This is not 1996, when operation Grapes of Wrath was eventually tamed via "understandings" reached between Israel, Hizbullah, America and Syria's Hafez Al-Assad. This campaign is closer to 1982, when Israel believed it could recast Lebanon and thence the region in line with its own ambition. "Israel is not looking for an understanding with Hizbullah," said Israeli analyst, Guy Becher, on 16 July. "It is looking for victory."