Al-Ahram Weekly Online   20 - 26 July 2006
Issue No. 804
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

As Israel's open war against the Palestinians and Lebanese escalates, Al-Ahram Weekly 's analysts and correspondents search for clues to the obstinate questions behind the six-decade-old Arab-Israeli struggle

The end is not yet

Lucy Fielder, in Beirut, finds that there seems to be no way out yet after a week that changed the world for the Lebanese

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Smoke rises from a building in southern Beirut following Israeli air raids; A woman holding her child looks at a destroyed residential building in the southern city of Tyre

At dawn on Tuesday, the heart-stopping thud of Israeli bombs punctuated the close, torpid night air. Beirut's southern suburbs have been pounded, hammered and battered beyond recognition; it is anyone's guess what Israel is still finding to bomb. The morning news provided the answer -- the target was the Lebanese army. Not Hizbullah, but the defence arm that Israel and the international community are demanding take control of the southern border and help disarm Hizbullah. The international community and Israel are putting the blame squarely on a powerless government while Israel cripples the state and pins it into a corner. Hizbullah, Israel's Islamist guerrilla adversary, has so far held its nerve.

Ossama Safa, the director of the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies predicts the crisis will get worse before it gets better. "I think it's spiralling towards escalation. Both sides are waiting to see who will blink first," he says. One reason Israel attacked the Lebanese army, he says, was to hit a broader Lebanese nerve; in this tiny, fractured country the army is a cherished symbol of unity and rehabilitation after the civil war.

Israel has thus turned the screws all week in the hope of widening the political splits in Lebanon and turning up the volume of those voices who have been calling for Hizbullah to disarm over the last year. Lebanese on both sides of the spectrum are angered by the scale of Israel's attacks, which at the time of writing had killed 277 people, nearly all of them civilians and many of them children, and ravaged the economy.

So far the various sects have rallied round in the face of a growing humanitarian disaster. Schools in both Christian and Muslim areas have opened to the tidal wave of displaced. Callers to local television stations have offered their homes, theatres have opened, and a concerned corps of volunteers has emerged to collect supplies and help the refugees. "Politically there's a split but it's contained, the humanitarian crisis is rallying the Lebanese for now," says Safa. "But cracks will appear after the fighting abates."

After a week in which Lebanon's south, southern suburbs and infrastructure have been pulverised almost beyond recognition, the same deadlock persists that could be seen on the first day. Israel, its backers and most Arab states seem bent on changing the order, stripping Hizbullah once and for all of the arms they see as a destabilising force. Prime Minister Fouad Seniora gave an emotional televised address that had defiant undertones, but still made a veiled call for Beirut to be able to extend its control to the Hizbullah-controlled border.

But Hizbullah's support remains strong and Nasrallah's calm, eloquent televised addresses show he is determined not to blink first. "Just as I always promised you victory, now I promise you victory once again," he said late last week as he literally worked his way up to the bomb-shell -- that an Israeli battleship being used to strike Lebanon was burning off the coast. One youth on Beirut's sea front at the weekend summed up the situation of many Sunnis and others in the country who are torn between support for their usual preferred leaders and fury about the Israeli strikes. "A week ago, I would have told you I hated Nasrallah. But now I pray for victory." The government's pro- Western stance sits uncomfortably with the West's support for the country that is bombing their state back to the dark ages of 1990, when the civil war ended.

With its carefully planned capture of two Israeli soldiers, Hizbullah sought an escalation that would prove what it sees as the logic of force, says Amal Saad-Ghoreyeb, a professor of politics at the Lebanese American University. It seeks to show once and for all that Israel remains Lebanon's enemy and that the state is powerless to protect the long-suffering Shia of the south, in particular. Israel's actions play into their hands. "This disproportionate response to a military strike will simply show that Israel remains a serious threat and will seize any opportunity to attack Lebanese territory," she said.

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