Unity or civil war?
Amid the bombs, the Lebanese may come together, for now, and to Israel's chagrin, writes Abdallah El-Ashaal*
Lebanon is adjacent to Israel and although it officially tries to stay out of conflict with that country, it rarely succeeds. Lebanon has no army to mention, certainly not one that can protect its borders against Israeli incursions, which is why it tries to avoid confrontation. This hasn't proven an easy task. Lebanon has no peace treaty with Israel and therefore no means of normalising its relations with Israel. One reason for that is that Lebanon is a country that is still prone to pan-Arab sentiments. Furthermore, Lebanon's traditional alliance with Syria has created a linkage between the Lebanese and Syrian tracks of the peace talks, one that Israel often tried to break.
In comparison with the main parties of the conflict -- Egypt, Syria and Jordan -- Lebanon seems to have assumed more than its fair share of the common burden. Lebanon has given refuge to a half million Palestinians, despite its small size and tenuous composition. And Israel's attempts to make Lebanon turn its back on the Palestinians have only made things worse. Over the years, Lebanon turned into a Palestinian-Israeli battlefield, culminating in a full- fledged Israeli invasion in 1982 at a time when the country was already ravaged by civil war.
The Israelis invaded Lebanon to expel the Palestine Liberation Organisation, but in doing so they gave birth to Hizbullah, a group sworn to fighting Israel under an Islamic agenda. Since then the Shia Hizbullah has distinguished itself in various political, social and economic fields. The emergence of Hizbullah was part of a Shia revival in Lebanon, a country in which the Shias were traditionally a marginalised class. Hizbullah impressed many with its resistance operations against the Israeli occupation in South Lebanon. Although the Lebanese government often distanced itself from Hizbullah, the group has become a symbol of resistance for all Lebanese, Muslims as well as Christians. To this day, the Lebanese government is uneasy with Hizbullah. You can see that in the cabinet statement issued following Hizbullah's capture of two Israeli soldiers on 13 July 2006.
Even before the recent events, Lebanon was teetering on the verge of a civil war between the forces of 14 March, who have the support of France and the US, and the Islamic and pan-Arab forces, including Hizbullah, who have the support of Syria and Iran. Had the Iranian nuclear crisis turned into a military conflict, Iran's main allies in the region -- Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas -- would have been tempted to take sides. And a confrontation may have emerged within Lebanon between Syria's supporters and opponents. Now that Israel has invaded Lebanon and, with US blessing, subjected the entire country to indiscriminate destruction, perhaps things have changed. Perhaps the forces of 14 March have come to realise that all of Lebanon is under attack. Perhaps out of this horror the Lebanese will emerge more united.
Then again, there is the danger of further divisions. With accusations flying in every direction, and with some pointedly blaming Hizbullah for what it has done, things can get worse. A civil war is the last thing Lebanon needs at the moment, for it can only play into Israel's hands. What else would Israel want more than a divided country on its borders, one that can be manipulated, broken apart, and carved off? Israel is not done with Lebanon yet.
* The writer is former assistant to the Egyptian foreign minister.