Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 August 2006
Issue No. 806
Opinion
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Two souths, one war

Israel is unlikely to win the current military confrontation with Hizbullah and its defeat could hasten the unraveling of a regional political system based on US client states, writes Tamim Al-Barghouti

Any war must set political goals the achievement of which is the principle criterion for measuring victory and defeat. The three political goals that Israel has set for this war -- the release of its two soldiers, the disarmament of Hizbullah and the deployment of the Lebanese army in the south -- can be achieved in two ways: either Israel reoccupies the south with ground forces and neutralises Hizbullah using its own troops, a task that it failed to accomplish after 22 years of occupation, or else it will have to put pressure on the Lebanese government to do the job. Even if we overlook the fact that the Lebanese government will lose its legitimacy if it does so -- and Hizbullah is, after all, part of that government -- Israel has already hit the Lebanese army badly, and the army has declared its full allegiance to Hizbullah. Any attempt to place the Lebanese army in a confrontation with Hizbullah on Israel's behalf will lead to the army's disintegration, for it is just as sectarian as Lebanon itself. Shiites in the army will simply refuse to fight Hizbullah, as will half the Sunnis. The Muslim Brothers, one of the two big Sunni organisations in Lebanon, and based in Tripoli, the largest Sunni city in the country, has allied itself with Hizbullah, as has one of the two major Maronite factions under the leadership of General Michel Aoun.

Even if we overlook these obstacles and assume that by some miracle the government of Lebanon will decide to implement UN resolution 1559 it has only two options; it can try to implement the resolution before a ceasefire, which means it will embrace the politically impossible position of fighting alongside Israel, or it can try to do so after a ceasefire. The problem with the second option is that once a ceasefire is reached Hizbullah will have won. Hizbullah would still have arms, the ability to operate in the south and, most importantly, the two Israeli soldiers. And if Hizbullah emerges as the winner from this confrontation it will be too strong for any Lebanese government to dare attempt disarm it.

Israel's army, like any advanced industrial institution, is not labour intensive, and invading a densely populated area requires more soldiers than tanks. Hizbullah fighters are supported by the population, which means the more Israel attacks on the ground the more its troops are exposed. Also, given the range of Hizbullah's missiles (more than 200 km by Israeli estimates), a 30 km buffer zone will not make much difference. The result will be a continuation of missile showers into Israel and greater exposure of Israeli infantry. It should also be noted that the moment troops are engaged on the ground the risk of bombing its own soldiers means the air force is effectively neutralised. Israel looses its comparative advantage the more it ventures into Lebanese territory.

Israel is betting on morale, hoping that the bombing of Lebanese civilians will lead to a collapse in Hizbullah's demographic infrastructure and that people will start asking Hizbullah fighters to leave their towns for fear of Israeli attacks. This is another miscalculation. Israel tried it for 22 years in Lebanon and it did not work, and the Americans are trying the same strategy in Iraq and failing.

The political impact of civilian casualties is different in the Arab world than in Israel. The more civilians are killed, the louder the calls for revenge in the Arab world. Examples for this are abundant. One of the most telling was the reaction of the Arab family in Nazareth that lost two members when a Hizbullah missile landed on the city which has an Arab majority. Hizbullah apologised, saying it was not targeting Arabs in Israel, and the Arab family declared that it supported the Lebanese resistance and that Israel, not Hizbullah, was responsible for all the casualties in this war.

Hizbullah is a unique phenomenon in the Arab world. It is the only organisation that can claim a clear and clean victory over Israel. The credit for Israel's withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000 is seen to be exclusively Hizbullah's. Such a perception among Arabs, and especially among the Shiite Lebanese bases of Hizbullah, gives the organisation great credibility and legitimacy and makes it more difficult for Israel's aerial bombardments to weaken the link between the organisation and its people. On a more materialistic level, fear costs money that Arabs don't have. When missiles hit Haifa the deputy mayor of the city said one third of its inhabitants left. Leaving means you can afford transportation and accommodation elsewhere which many Lebanese cannot. Even when Israelis attack them, their best chance of survival is to invite those who can protect them to fight back. Israel also bombed trucks and busses moving in or out of the south under the pretext that they were Hizbullah missile batteries, making fleeing a perilous option. And many of those who did flee moved only a couple of kilometers east or north, to Tyre and Sidon, both close to Israeli lines and rendering the political and military cost of occupying the cities high.

On the Israeli side the cost of the war is also rising. Half a million Israelis living in Galilee have been told either to leave or to stay in shelters. Two million -- almost half the Jewish population of Israel -- are within range of Hizbullah missiles, paralysed and required to abide by security measures restricting residence and movement. This situation cannot go on for months without the Israeli government coming under internal pressure.

Israel has been though only one long war, but in 1982 there were no Palestinian missiles landing in Haifa and Tiberius. So while Israeli bombardment and the evacuation of southern Lebanon will have little political or military effect on Hizbullah, the evacuation of Galilee and the continuation of Hizbullah missile attacks on Israel are likely to change the political will there.

Hizbullah has established the viability of the principle of non-state resistance in the minds of many Arabs, a principle that could bring down the whole regional system based on colonial states. In Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine it is clear that states cannot defend their peoples while popular organisations can. As this principle gains ground in the region it will weaken Israel and local governments alike. There are a number of grievances that the Arabs hold against Israel: the occupation, and confiscation of lands and the building of settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem; the siege of Gaza; the occupation of the Golan Heights; the occupation of the Shebaa Farms in Lebanon; the holding of ten thousand Palestinian and Arab abductees in Israeli prisons; the Israeli law of return that allows Jews to become Israeli citizens while denying four million Palestinian refugees the right to return to their homes and the tens of thousands of civilian deaths caused by the Israeli army. While no Arab government denies any of these grievances in their domestic political discourse, these governments have tried to convince their audiences that such grievances can be solved by lobbying the US to put pressure on Israel to meet Arab demands. Such an approach proved has failed for decades and has left most Arab governments unprepared for Israeli invasions, making them and their people hostage to Israeli military superiority.

Hizbullah's definition for victory, meanwhile, is simple: it is to survive. If it does survive the victory, added to its victory in 2000, will underline a fact that has already been entrenched in the minds of millions of Arabs: a popular resistance organisation can do what no other Arab state, despite their standing armies, can.

The Hizbullah model could then be copied throughout the Middle East. This is what the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called the hurricane that will sweep the region. It is also why Shimon Perez called this war, supposedly fought over two soldiers, a matter of life and death for Israel, and why the US Secretary of State said that the establishment of a new Middle East depends on the outcome of this confrontation. It should be remembered that the second Palestinian Intifada, the most ferocious Palestinian Israeli confrontation since 1948, took place only four months after Hizbullah drove Israel out of Lebanon in May 2000. Hizbullah's leader Hassan Nasrallah said then that the Palestinians could liberate Gaza through resistance alone, and with no political compromise, which happened to an extent, though Israel still controls the airspace and the sea. But that is the case in Lebanon too; in essence Gaza was a clumsy, but successful, copy of Southern Lebanon.

In Arab media now the confrontation is referred to as the War of the Two Souths, the south of Lebanon and Gaza, the south of Palestine. That the timing of the Hizbullah operation made it appear to be an act of military relief for Palestinian organisations engaging Israel in Gaza infuriated Israel and the US. Not only has Hizbullah set an example of successful political resistance, it has also shown how resistance organisations working together can engage Israel on many fronts.

It is this ability to copy and coordinate that threatens to bring down the regional system. Hizbullah-like organisations might be formed in Syria, Jordan, and Egypt, operating from the mountain ranges and hostile population centres that encircle Israel. Moreover, since guerilla warfare capitalises on population density, Israel's demographic deficit will be amplified.

This war has gained Nasrallah the status of de facto caliph, a spiritual and political leader of Arabs and Muslims across national borders. It is no secret that current Arab governments have few claims to the allegiance of their populations; political authority depends, after all, on the willingness of people to obey, and in this sense Nasrallah might have more authority in Palestine than Mahmoud Abbas, more authority in Iraq than Nuri Al-Maliki -- one could go on listing Arab leaders. Today Nasrallah, and the ideology of resistance he symbolises, represents an all powerful example to Arabs and Muslims who have been longing to regain some of the dignity they lost at the hands of their leaders, who look more like employees in the American bureaucracy than heads of independent states.

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