Crisis in Lebanon, 2006

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  • by Anup Shah
  • This Page Last Updated Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The rise in violence in mid-2006 that has seen the destruction of much of Beirut and other parts of Lebanon shows similarities to other conflicts in the region in the past.

As with past conflicts, there are concerns with media reporting, the stance of the US and its allies such as the UK, the heavy-handed Israeli attacks and the continued attacks of extremist organizations such as Hezbollah, all together making it difficult to see a meaningful and peaceful solution arising.

Map of Lebanon

“Root cause” of soldier kidnapping is shallow: Media, Blair and Bush should look further back

The violence is reported by much of the mainstream media, by Tony Blair and George Bush and Israel, to be because of the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier. This is the root cause of the conflict Blair in particular insists. However, though that incident did indeed spark of the current round of violence, it seems to have been the last of a series of events building up to this situation.

Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), a media watchdog, details the omitted incidents in a couple of alerts, and is quoted at length from both (the second almost in its entirety) here:

The media assumption is that in withdrawing from Gaza in September 2005, Israel ended its conflict with at least that portion of Palestine and gave up, as [CBS Face the Nation host (and CBS Evening News anchor) Bob] Schieffer put it, “what the Palestinians supposedly wanted.” In reality, however, since the pullout and before the recent escalation of violence, at least 144 Palestinians in Gaza had been killed by Israeli forces, often by helicopter gunships, according to a list compiled by the Israeli human rights group B’tselem. Only 31 percent of the people killed were engaged in hostile actions at the time of their deaths, and 25 percent of all those killed were minors.

From the time of the pullout until the recent upsurge in violence, according to B’tselem’s lists, no Israelis were killed by violence emanating from Gaza. Although during this period Palestinian militants launched some 1,000 crude Kasam missiles from Gaza into Israel, no fatalities resulted; at the same time, Israel fired 7,000 to 9,000 heavy artillery shells into Gaza. On June 9, just two weeks before the Hamas raid that killed two Israeli soldiers and captured a third, an apparent Israeli missile strike killed seven members of a Palestinian family picnicking on a Gaza beach, which prompted Hamas to end its 16-month-old informal ceasefire with Israel. (Though Israel has denied responsibility for the killings, a Human Rights Watch investigation strongly challenged the denial, calling the likelihood of Israel not being responsible “remote”; Human Rights Watch, 6/15/06.) Hamas has repeatedly pointed to the Gaza beach incident as one of the central events that prompted its cross-border raid—indeed, Schieffer’s own CBS Evening News has reported that claim (CBS Evening News, 6/25/06). Even so, Schieffer seems unable to recall this recent event (see Action Alert, 6/30/06).

Hamas also points to the capture of some of its leaders by Israel as the provocation for its raid. If Israelis had every right, as Schieffer said, to respond with force to the capture of one soldier by Hamas, then how are Palestinians expected to feel about the more than 9,000 prisoners captured and held by Israel—including 342 juveniles and over 700 held without trial (Mandela Center for Human Rights, 4/30/06)?

Moreover, Israel’s withdrawal did not remotely give Palestinians “what they wanted.” In addition to its continued deadly attacks on Gaza, Israel has continued to control Gaza’s borders and has withheld tens of millions of dollars of tax revenue in response to Hamas’ victory in democratic elections in January 2006. Israel’s actions crippled the Gaza economy and prompting warnings from the U.N. of a looming humanitarian disaster (UNRWA, 7/8/06).

None of this is to say that Hamas, which has regularly ignored the distinction between military and civilian targets, does not share part of the blame for the current crisis. But to act as though Israel had been behaving as a peace-loving neighbor to Gaza until the soldier’s capture is a willful rewriting of very recent history.

“Because This Is the Middle East”; CBS’ Schieffer ignores context in Mideast crisis, Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, July 19, 2006

As an aside, Blair rightly criticizes Hezbollah for firing thousands of rockets into Israel, but ignores the thousands of heavy artillery shells into Gaza and Lebanon, and the destruction of Lebanese civilian infrastructure by Israeli bomber jets.

Also, since the above has been written, by August 11, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan noted that the death toll has risen considerably. “According to the Lebanese Government, more than 1,000 Lebanese had been killed and more than 3,600 injured. Around a quarter of all Lebanon’s inhabitants—close to 1 million people—had been displaced. Israeli bombing had turned thousands of homes to rubble.… Some 41 Israeli civilians had died, and hundreds of thousands had had their lives disrupted—being forced into shelters or to flee their homes—by rocket attacks from Hizbollah, which had launched its fire indiscriminately to sow the widest possible terror.”Side NoteThe BBC says it is over 120 Israelis, but doesn’t say civilians, which may explain that descrepancy.

The intense attacks on Lebanon have overshadowed the continuing violence in the Gaza Strip”, the BBC also notes. There, “more than 100 Palestinians have been killed, many of them civilians, in Israeli air strikes and incursions” since the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier sparked off this latest round of violence.

The second report from FAIR provides more details of the missed context:

In a July 21 CounterPunch column, Alexander Cockburn highlighted some of the violent incidents that have dropped out of the media’s collective memory:

Let’s go on a brief excursion into pre-history. I’m talking about June 20, 2006, when Israeli aircraft fired at least one missile at a car in an attempted extrajudicial assassination attempt on a road between Jabalya and Gaza City. The missile missed the car. Instead it killed three Palestinian children and wounded 15.

Back we go again to June 13, 2006. Israeli aircraft fired missiles at a van in another attempted extrajudicial assassination. The successive barrages killed nine innocent Palestinians.

Now we’re really in the dark ages, reaching far, far back to June 9, 2006, when Israel shelled a beach in Beit Lahiya killing eight civilians and injuring 32.

That’s just a brief trip down Memory Lane, and we trip over the bodies of twenty dead and forty-seven wounded, all of them Palestinians, most of them women and children.

On June 24, the day before Hamas’ cross-border raid, Israel made an incursion of its own, capturing two Palestinians that it said were members of Hamas (something Hamas denied—L.A. Times, 6/25/06). This incident received far less coverage in U.S. media than the subsequent seizure of the Israeli soldier; the few papers that covered it mostly dismissed it in a one-paragraph brief (e.g., Chicago Tribune, 6/25/06), while the Israeli taken prisoner got front-page headlines all over the world. It’s likely that most Gazans don’t share U.S. news outlets’ apparent sense that captured Israelis are far more interesting or important than captured Palestinians.

The situation in Lebanon is also more complicated than its portrayal in U.S. media, with the roots of the current crisis extending well before the July 12 capture of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah. A major incident fueling the latest cycle of violence was a May 26, 2006 car bombing in Sidon, Lebanon, that killed a senior official of Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian group allied with Hezbollah. Lebanon later arrested a suspect, Mahmoud Rafeh, whom Lebanese authorities claimed had confessed to carrying out the assassination on behalf of Mossad (London Times, 6/17/06).

Israel denied involvement with the bombing, but even some Israelis are skeptical. “If it turns out this operation was effectively carried out by Mossad or another Israeli secret service,” wrote Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s top-selling daily (6/16/06; cited in AFP, 6/16/06), “an outsider from the intelligence world should be appointed to know whether it was worth it and whether it lays groups open to risk.”

In Lebanon, Israel’s culpability was taken as a given. “The Israelis, in hitting Islamic Jihad, knew they would get Hezbollah involved too,” Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a professor at Beirut’s Lebanese American University, told the New York Times (5/29/06). “The Israelis had to be aware that if they assassinated this guy they would get a response.”

And, indeed, on May 28, Lebanese militants in Hezbollah-controlled territory fired Katyusha rockets at a military vehicle and a military base inside Israel. Israel responded with airstrikes against Palestinian camps deep inside Lebanon, which in turn were met by Hezbollah rocket and mortar attacks on more Israeli military bases, which prompted further Israeli airstrikes and “a steady artillery barrage at suspected Hezbollah positions” (New York Times, 5/29/06). Gen. Udi Adam, the commander of Israel’s northern forces, boasted that “our response was the harshest and most severe since the withdrawal” of Israeli troops from Lebanon in 2000 (Chicago Tribune, 5/29/06).

This intense fighting was the prelude to the all-out warfare that began on July 12, portrayed in U.S. media as beginning with an attack out of the blue by Hezbollah. While Hezbollah’s capture of two Israeli soldiers may have reignited the smoldering conflict, the Israeli air campaign that followed was not a spontaneous reaction to aggression but a well-planned operation that was years in the making.

“Of all of Israel’s wars since 1948, this was the one for which Israel was most prepared,” Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, told the San Francisco Chronicle (7/21/05). “By 2004, the military campaign scheduled to last about three weeks that we’re seeing now had already been blocked out and, in the last year or two, it’s been simulated and rehearsed across the board.” The Chronicle reported that a “senior Israeli army officer” has been giving PowerPoint presentations for more than a year to “U.S. and other diplomats, journalists and think tanks” outlining the coming war with Lebanon, explaining that a combination of air and ground forces would target Hezbollah and “transportation and communication arteries.”

Which raises a question: If journalists have been told by Israel for more than a year that a war was coming, why are they pretending that it all started on July 12? By truncating the cause-and-effect timelines of both the Gaza and Lebanon conflicts, editorial boards at major U.S. dailies gravely oversimplify the decidedly more complex nature of the facts on the ground.

Down the Memory Hole; Israeli contribution to conflict is forgotten by leading papers, Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, July 28, 2006

Blogger Abukar Arman poses an interesting question: Can Bias Media Prevent the Next World War? The deeper context (that Tony Blair acknowledges is important to understand) and objective reporting of it, Arman argues, would help citizens understand this complex issue better, and function as an objective counterweight to scrutinizes the powers that be.

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Refugees

This round of violence has also seen a rise in refugees. Harrowing stories for citizens from both sides have made mainstream reporting but has been far less so than the evacuation of other foreign nationals from Western countries. The far larger numbers of Lebonese have a harder time attempting to flee the violence, as major roads have been bombed, and there is no international military force to protect them or help evacuate. Reporters brave enough to go into the area interview families who are stuck in their apartments, afraid to flee in case they are bombed, knowing all too well the fate of clearly marked UN personnel and Red Cross vehicles, targetted by Israel.

Furthermore, it is not just Lebonese, but Israelis, under fear of further attacks from Hezbollah that have had to leave their homes in the frontier towns and major cities within reach of the rockets. A reportedly 1 million Israeli civilians have been told to go to bunkers and shelters for their safety. (Democracy Now! radio notes that Hezbollah’s rocket attacks have killed many Arab citizens in Israel—almost half of the Israeli total—who also appear to receive less protection and shelter according to citizens, one Arab another Jewish.)

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Violence

Human rights organizations and the UN once again criticize the Israeli reaction as overly heavy handed (bombing Beirut suburbs, powerplants, the airport, and major roads for example as well as putting in place a sea blockade) and even being potentially war crimes. Even the media around the world, including in Britain, a key ally of the US in this incident, has been very condemning of Israel (as well as of Hezbollah).

The morning of July 30, 2006 witnessed the an Israeli air strike and destruction of a building in the Lebanese town of Qana. Although widely reported in the mainstream press that over 50 civilians were killed while sleeping, Human Rights Watch and the International Red Cross reported that it was 28 civilians (over half were children), and some 13 more were feared buried in the rubble (though this does not minimize the tragedy). This same town saw an Israeli bombing of a UN base 10 years earlier, killing more than 100 people sheltered there and was already a bitter memory for people. This incident provoked extreme outrage, and many media outlets showed live footage of some 500 angry protesters in Beirut converge at the UN building attempting to smash their way in. While some managed to break in and begin destroying parts, they were all eventually told to go back by a Shia cleric and the small security force that eventually assembled.

When a Hezbollah politician at the scene was interviewed by the BBC asking why they were targetting the UN, when they had been the international organization wanting immediate ceasefire and being were held back by the US, the politician just shook his head and tried to explain that some of these angry crowds are letting go of tension and frustration and directing it at the easiest international institution they can. Some of them had relatives in Qana he added. Although crowds were waving and chanting support for both Lebanon and Hezbollah, the politician insisted that Hezbollah did not support this action.

For Israel, this particular strike is very damaging to its already tarnished image internationally. Israel responded by saying that leaflets had been dropped days ago warning citizens to leave. Furthermore, Hezbollah apparently used the building to launch a rocket attack, and the Israeli air strike was in retaliation for that. However, Jim Muir, a BBC correspondent noted that this was not entirely correct: most roads, even petrol stations were bombed so it was practically impossible for many people to leave. The few viable roads were clogged, and others did not own cars or have somewhere they could go. Furthermore, the large rocket launchers Hezbollah was using could not be put on building roof tops. Instead, they tend to wheel them near buildings and the wheel them away again. Though they use buildings as shields, what ends up happening is that missile air strikes by Israeli jets are going to end up hitting civilians as they target buildings. People may say that civilian casualties are an unfortunate aspect of war, and while that might be right, the point here is that much civilian casualties are unnecessary and avoidable.

A Lebanese journalist, also interviewed by the BBC noted that Hezbollah support had been waning after 2000 when Israel pulled out of South Lebanon. Lebanese were openly criticizing their militant wing and saying they should now integrate back into society through poliical means. However, the recent crisis has not only made Hezbollah popular again, but throughout the Arab world, there has been a kind of unified feeling that has not been there before that is growing in criticism of Israel, and the US and British “diplomatic cover” for their actions. Many are also directing their anger at the US, for they see its influence on Israel as being directly related to the level of violence being felt, for they have, to date, refused to back calls for an immediate ceasefire.

This particular incident also led to Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to denounce Israel’s “heinous crimes against civilians”, and said there was “no room on this sad morning” for talks until Israel had halted its attacks. Siniora also also told US Foreign Secretary Condaleezza Rice not to come until there was a ceasefire.

As the UN Security Council was called into emergency session over this, Secretary General, Kofi Annan reiterated that both Israel and Hezbollah had committed grave breaches of international law during this conflict and urged the Council create a resolution that called for an immediate truce. The Council did not.

While deploring the loss of life, the resolution called for a permanent and sustainable ceasefire, not an immediate one, which, while important, clearly reflected Washington and London’s stance. While Israel declared a ceasefire of air strikes for 48 hours after the Qana incident, shelling and other forms of attack will continue, and Israel says it needs 10-14 days to complete its operations. This US/British stance on not calling for an immediate ceasefire has drawn criticism from around the world, and is widely seen as giving a green light to Israel to continue its operations.

What is also interesting about this incident is that it seems to have hardened the Lebanese prime minister somewhat. In the past, there has been much talk about Lebanon’s military unable to match the Hezbollah force, and that even they want to get Hezbollah to back off, but cannot get them to do it. Does this incident make such a possibility even more remote?

As Israel’s bombing campaign has continued, the level of destruction seen in Lebanon has concerned many around the world. Much of the economy is in ruins, and a lot of civilian infrastructure has been destroyed.

Just after the beginning of August, Israel launched a massive ground asssault. But they have sustained a number of fatalities, making some Israelis question their support for this campaign. While most are in favor, as the toll on Israeli soldiers (many drafted from the ranks of ordinary civilians) mounts, some Israeli citizen’s appetite for a sustained war may be waning.

Lebanese Prime Minister, Fouad Siniora, wrote:

As the world watches, Israel has besieged and ravaged our country, created a humanitarian and environmental disaster, and shattered our infrastructure and economy, putting an intolerable strain on our social and economic systems. Fuel, food and medical equipment are in short supply; homes, factories and warehouses have been destroyed; roads severed, bridges smashed and airports disabled.

The damage to infrastructure alone is running into the billions of dollars, as are the losses to owners of private property, and the long-term direct and indirect costs due to lost revenue in tourism, agriculture and industrial sectors are expected to be many more billions. Lebanon’s well-known achievements in 15 years of postwar development have been wiped out in a matter of days by Israel's deadly military might.

For all this carnage and death, and on behalf of all Lebanese, we demand an international inquiry into Israel's criminal actions in Lebanon and insist that Israel pay compensation for its wanton destruction.

Israel seems to think that its attacks will sow discord among the Lebanese. This will never happen. Israel should know that the Lebanese people will remain steadfast and united in the face of this latest Israeli aggression—its seventh invasion—just as they were during nearly two decades of brutal occupation. The people’s will to resist grows ever stronger with each village demolished and each massacre committed.

Prime Minister of Lebanon, Fouad Siniora, End This Tragedy Now; Israel Must Be Made to Respect International Law, Washington Post, August 9, 2006; A17

Conflict Fueling More Terrorism, Not Abating It

Also alarmingly—though unfortunately predictably—this conflict, rather than abate terrorism, may fuel it. Newsday had an article at the end of July noting concerns that many mainstream outlets have not picked up on, and is quoted at some length:

On the eve of the U.S. presidential elections in 2004, Osama bin Laden finally explained why he attacked the World Trade Center.

And his reason surprised even experts on al-Qaida: He was motivated by the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

… Oct. 29, 2004, bin Laden said he got the idea for destroying the Twin Towers as a young man watching the devastation wrought on Lebanon during the U.S.-backed invasion.

Bin Laden’s message has received little attention in recent weeks as war broke out between Israel and Hezbollah. But it is a reminder of how the new Israeli offensive against Lebanon could motivate Islamic militants to once again attack U.S. targets. There is tremendous anger in the Muslim world for the seemingly unconditional backing that the Bush administration is providing Israel. And experts on Islamic militancy fear that a whole new generation might be radicalized by the events in Lebanon.

“This could produce a thousand new bin Ladens,” said Diaa Rashwan, a leading expert on militants at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “The level of anger and frustration in the Arab world is extremely dangerous. It could easily turn toward the United States, which is blindly supporting Israel.”

… Lebanese leaders say they warned Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other U.S. officials that the war is inspiring radicals, but so far those cautions have gone unheeded.

“This war is encouraging radicalism all over the region,” said Sami Haddad, Lebanese minister of economy and trade. “I don’t think that Western democracies will benefit from this war.… It’s not going to further American goals of peace, stability and moderation in the Middle East.”

In a videotape broadcast by Al-Jazeera on Thursday, bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, called on Muslims worldwide to rise up against Israel and join the fighting in Lebanon and Gaza. Behind him was an image of the burning World Trade Center.

“… [The weapons] are supplied by all the countries of the Crusader coalition. Every participant in this crime will pay the price,” al-Zawahri said. He added ominously, “We will attack everywhere.”

Al-Zawahri’s message was significant because it appeared to adopt the cause of a Shia group, Hezbollah, which has long been at odds with the militant brand of Sunni Islam dominant in al-Qaida.

Before al-Zawahri’s tape, many Sunni jihadists—in debates on militant Web sites and chat rooms—were confused about how they should react to Hezbollah’s war with Israel. While they hate Israel and America, most of them view Shias as apostates who deserve death.

The October 2004 video was regarded by analysts as a seminal message from bin Laden because in it he appeared to offer a political truce to the United States: If America stays out of the Muslim world, he said, it will no longer be a target of al-Qaida.

For the first time, bin Laden claimed responsibility for ordering the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He did not directly threaten new attacks, but said, “there are still reasons to repeat what happened” because of U.S. policies in the Middle East. He addressed his comments directly to the American people, saying he wanted them to learn how “to avoid another Manhattan.”

Experts worry that many of the scenes of destruction in Lebanon cited by bin Laden in that 2004 video are being repeated today. “I could not forget those moving scenes, blood and severed limbs, women and children sprawled everywhere,” bin Laden said. “Buildings were demolished over their residents’ heads, rockets were raining down on homes without mercy.… And the entire world saw and heard, but it did nothing.”

The al-Qaida chief said the events of 1982—in which Israeli forces besieged Beirut for 70 days—convinced him violence was the only way he could deal with America. “The situation was like a crocodile meeting a helpless child, powerless except for his screams,” bin Laden said. “I wondered, did the crocodile understand a conversation that does not include a weapon?”

Mohamad Bazzi, “A thousand new bin Ladens” —Experts say the Israel-Hezbollah battle may motivate Islamic militants to attack U.S. targets again, Newsday, July 31, 2006

Events in Britain, August 10th may have confirmed some of these fears, as an apparent plot to detonate bombs on planes enroute to the US was thwarted.

As an aside, John Tirman, writing at Alternet.org notes that “what stopped this plot was law enforcement. Law enforcement. Not a military invasion of Pakistan, Iran, Lebanon, Egypt, or Iraq.” (Emphasis original).

There are other concerns about this plot as people question whether it is being used as a diversion from this conflict, or, as with many other “major plots” such as the so-called Ricin plot, the plot to blow up Manchester United’s stadium, etc that this too is a fake. Whether real or not, these issues stoke further fear and animosity, which play into the hands of either side that wishes to promote violence as a means to resolve problems.

Geopolitics

The US is presented in some media as an even-handed peace-broker. However, it has been openly caught sending more missiles and bombs to Israel via airports in the United Kingdom. When interviewed on prime time television, the UK foreign secretary Margaret Beckett was angry about the whole saga and noted that she would be complaining to the US about this. Bush has apologized for not disclosing this properly to the UK, but continues to send missiles, the difference now being that proper procedure has been followed!

Human Rights Watch has noted that Israel’s use of cluster bombs in civilian areas of Lebanon is in clear violation of international law, for example. In contrast, Bush cautioned Israel “defend yourself, but be mindful of the consequences”.

Furthermore, Bush has announced plans to sell $4.6 billion worth of arms to “moderate” Middle East countries such as Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Jordan.

Bush and Blair also seem to be keen to add more geopolitical dimensions into this and risk making this conflict larger and wider by trying to draw in Syria and Iran. While these two nations are accused of arming Hezbollah, Bush and Blair’s verbal attacks on them also seen incendiary and their own response of not backing a call for an immediate ceasefire (though Blair denied it in a televised interview) does appear to give a tacit green light or approval to Israel to continue its methods, as many media reporters do admit. This might, as a BBC analysis fears, draw Iran and maybe Syria into the conflict by supplying more opposing support, maybe even via Iraq where Iran appears to now have more influence. Furthermore,

For [Israel, US, and UK], any settlement must be based on the defeat of Hezbollah and the humiliation of its Syrian and Iranian sponsors.

If an increasingly isolated US, with anaemic support from Britain, continues to support or even encourage Israel’s absolutist approach, the consequences could be dire both in Lebanon and in the wider region.

Jim Muir, Washington risks a wider conflict, BBC, July 28, 2006

A number of experts on British news broadcasts have questioned the US stance and argued that it is biased towards Israel and therefore not likely to be the even-handed peace broker that others believe or hope for.

Even Tony Blair’s own party members (including senior ones) are concerned about his decisions on this issue. The Guardian noted (see previous link): “Greg Pope, a Blairite and member of the Commons foreign affairs committee, told the Guardian that there was widespread dismay that the government had not called for an immediate ceasefire. ‘Tony has misjudged [this issue], and is leaving us isolated among European countries and at home,’ he said.”

Harder to know at this moment is the wider geopolitical calculations that Bush might be making.

Professor Michel Chossudovsky, for example, sees this conflict as potentially leading to a wider conflict related to oil pipelines.

The famous American journalist, Seymour Hersh argues that the Bush Administration is not only siding with Israel, but actively helping it plan its military activities:

The Bush Administration, [instead of leading calls for a ceasefire] however, was closely involved in the planning of Israel’s retaliatory attacks. President Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney were convinced, current and former intelligence and diplomatic officials told me, that a successful Israeli Air Force bombing campaign against Hezbollah’s heavily fortified underground-missile and command-and-control complexes in Lebanon could ease Israel’s security concerns and also serve as a prelude to a potential American preëmptive attack to destroy Iran's nuclear installations, some of which are also buried deep underground.

According to a Middle East expert with knowledge of the current thinking of both the Israeli and the U.S. governments, Israel had devised a plan for attacking Hezbollah—and shared it with Bush Administration officials—well before the July 12th kidnappings. “It’s not that the Israelis had a trap that Hezbollah walked into,” he said, “but there was a strong feeling in the White House that sooner or later the Israelis were going to do it.”

The Middle East expert said that the Administration had several reasons for supporting the Israeli bombing campaign. Within the State Department, it was seen as a way to strengthen the Lebanese government so that it could assert its authority over the south of the country, much of which is controlled by Hezbollah. He went on, “The White House was more focussed on stripping Hezbollah of its missiles, because, if there was to be a military option against Iran’s nuclear facilities, it had to get rid of the weapons that Hezbollah could use in a potential retaliation at Israel. Bush wanted both. Bush was going after Iran, as part of the Axis of Evil, and its nuclear sites, and he was interested in going after Hezbollah as part of his interest in democratization, with Lebanon as one of the crown jewels of Middle East democracy.”

Seymour Hersh, Watching Lebanon; Washington’s Interests in Israel’s War, The New Yorker, August 21, 2006 Issue

Hersh also adds a geopolitical dimension, whereby he notes that the US wanted to use this as a stepping stone to action against Iran, even trying to follow tried and tested “divide and conquer” tactics, by creating more animosity between the Sunni and Shia Muslims in the Middle East:

Cheney’s office supported the Israeli plan, as did Elliott Abrams, a deputy national-security adviser, according to several former and current officials. (A spokesman for the N.S.C. denied that Abrams had done so.) They believed that Israel should move quickly in its air war against Hezbollah. A former intelligence officer said, “We told Israel, ‘Look, if you guys have to go, we’re behind you all the way. But we think it should be sooner rather than later—the longer you wait, the less time we have to evaluate and plan for Iran before Bush gets out of office.’”

Cheney’s point, the former senior intelligence official said, was “What if the Israelis execute their part of this first, and it’s really successful? It’d be great. We can learn what to do in Iran by watching what the Israelis do in Lebanon.”

The Pentagon consultant told me that intelligence about Hezbollah and Iran is being mishandled by the White House the same way intelligence had been when, in 2002 and early 2003, the Administration was making the case that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. “The big complaint now in the intelligence community is that all of the important stuff is being sent directly to the top—at the insistence of the White House—and not being analyzed at all, or scarcely,” he said. “It’s an awful policy and violates all of the N.S.A.'s strictures, and if you complain about it you’re out,” he said. “Cheney had a strong hand in this.”

The long-term Administration goal was to help set up a Sunni Arab coalition—including countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt—that would join the United States and Europe to pressure the ruling Shiite mullahs in Iran. “But the thought behind that plan was that Israel would defeat Hezbollah, not lose to it,” the consultant with close ties to Israel said. Some officials in Cheney’s office and at the N.S.C. had become convinced, on the basis of private talks, that those nations would moderate their public criticism of Israel and blame Hezbollah for creating the crisis that led to war. Although they did so at first, they shifted their position in the wake of public protests in their countries about the Israeli bombing. The White House was clearly disappointed when, late last month, Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, came to Washington and, at a meeting with Bush, called for the President to intervene immediately to end the war. The Washington Post reported that Washington had hoped to enlist moderate Arab states “in an effort to pressure Syria and Iran to rein in Hezbollah, but the Saudi move … seemed to cloud that initiative.”

Seymour Hersh, Watching Lebanon; Washington’s Interests in Israel’s War, The New Yorker, August 21, 2006 Issue

Iran is also quietly reacting to this. While we hear in the media accusations of Iran and Syria arming Hezbollah, we don’t get to understand wider reasons as to why that may be, undesirable as it is. Hersh sheds some light on this:

There is evidence that the Iranians were expecting the war against Hezbollah. Vali Nasr, an expert on Shiite Muslims and Iran, who is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and also teaches at the Naval Postgraduate School, in Monterey, California, said, “Every negative American move against Hezbollah was seen by Iran as part of a larger campaign against it. And Iran began to prepare for the showdown by supplying more sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah—anti-ship and anti-tank missiles—and training its fighters in their use. And now Hezbollah is testing Iran’s new weapons. Iran sees the Bush Administration as trying to marginalize its regional role, so it fomented trouble.”

Nasr, an Iranian-American who recently published a study of the Sunni-Shiite divide, entitled “The Shia Revival,” also said that the Iranian leadership believes that Washington’s ultimate political goal is to get some international force to act as a buffer—to physically separate Syria and Lebanon in an effort to isolate and disarm Hezbollah, whose main supply route is through Syria. “Military action cannot bring about the desired political result,” Nasr said. The popularity of Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a virulent critic of Israel, is greatest in his own country. If the U.S. were to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, Nasr said, “you may end up turning Ahmadinejad into another Nasrallah—the rock star of the Arab street.”

The crisis will really start at the end of August, the diplomat added, “when the Iranians”—under a United Nations deadline to stop uranium enrichment—“will say no.”

Even those who continue to support Israel’s war against Hezbollah agree that it is failing to achieve one of its main goals—to rally the Lebanese against Hezbollah. “Strategic bombing has been a failed military concept for ninety years, and yet air forces all over the world keep on doing it,” John Arquilla, a defense analyst at the Naval Postgraduate School, told me. Arquilla has been campaigning for more than a decade, with growing success, to change the way America fights terrorism. “The warfare of today is not mass on mass,” he said. “You have to hunt like a network to defeat a network. Israel focussed on bombing against Hezbollah, and, when that did not work, it became more aggressive on the ground. The definition of insanity is continuing to do the same thing and expecting a different result.”

Seymour Hersh, Watching Lebanon; Washington’s Interests in Israel’s War, The New Yorker, August 21, 2006 Issue

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UN or NATO/European peacekeeping force?

The US and Israel have long been hostile to the UN. Numerous resolutions in the past have called for Israel to withdraw to the 1967 borders, and have condemned Israel’s heavy handedness in the past (as well as that of opposing forces). The US has vetoed almost all such criticism. For example, at a recent UN Security Council meeting on July 13, a resolution was put forward to condemn Israel for its incursion into Gaza. Britain abstained and the United States vetoed the motion. (Canada’s Prime Minister also described Israel’s response as “measured”, Israel National News noted.)

A discussion around this conflict has been that of a UN peacekeeping force, but Israel and the US are against that, instead preferring a European or NATO-led force, seen to have more “teeth” to stop Hezbollah launching rocket attacks into Israel, and even routing them out. This might be seen by some as wanting to get Europe/NATO to fight against Hezbollah on side with Israel. This view may not be too accurate however, as much of the international community has condemned Israeli violence, as well as Hezbollah. Perhaps a UN-led force consisting of soldiers from nations with “teeth” would make sense.

As if to warn the UN that a UN-led peacekeeping force would be difficult, it was widely reported that an Israel airstrike killed 4 UN personnel, who were clearly marked and the UN insisted were always in touch with Israel to let them know of there whereabouts. A number of UN officials on TV were reported as suspecting the attacks (like the attacks on clearly marked Red Cross vehicles) were deliberately targetted. (And the BBC also reports that “the UN has warned the deaths of four of its personnel in an Israeli airstrike may deter countries from contributing to a future force… UN officials said they had contacted Israel a dozen times before the bombing and asked them to stop firing, which Israel did not.”)

As of August 11th, after much wrangling and delay by the US and UK, primarily, there was an eventual unanimous approval at the UN Security Council for Resolution 1701, which called for “the immediate cessation by Hizbollah of all attacks and the immediate cessation by Israel of all offensive military operations” in Lebanon. In addition, UN and Lebanese troops would replace Israeli forces in southern Lebanon.

Israel continued to bomb Lebanon, despite the resolution, ending the strikes once the government formally adopted the plan the day after. Hezbollah therefore also continued its rocket attacks into Israel.

As with Israel, Hezbollah’s reaction seemed mix. As another BBC report noted, Hezbollah leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said, Hezbollah would abide by the ceasefire plan in the resolution, but would continue fighting as long as Israeli soldiers remained in Lebanon.

The next day, when the Israeli government also backed the truce deal, it too came with conditions: “Israel’s army says it will not leave southern Lebanon until regular Lebanese troops are deployed there, supported by an expanded UN force,” according to the BBC (see previous link). The UN estimates it will be about 10 days for an international force to arrive.

In effect, both sides have added conditions. For Israel, their continued presence may provoke attacks, while those attacks may provoke further retaliation.

As part of military secret operations, and dark propaganda, it is not imporbable that if either side wants to continue war, they can manufacture pretexts for continued military action. The UN peacekeeping force will likely have a tough task on their hand, as a result.

As of writing, the resolution has only just emerged, so the world will see in the coming days what happens.

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Media

As has been acknowledged for many years, the American mainstream media is very pro-Israel. In Europe, mainstream coverage appears to be broader, and less biased. The Israeli prime minister has accused the international media of being too biased, for criticizing Israeli policies, but as an in-depth series of reports by Democracy Now! shows, Israel has been very good at public relations, often with American firms at ensuring their message is heard in vital (American) circles.

Less reported, but also concerning, is the reaction throughout the Muslim world. As pictures of death and carnage in Lebanon (and Gaza) fuel more anger, experts also say that there is less criticism of Hezbollah’s own war crimes.

A lot can be said on this issue and I will attempt to write more, time-allowing. In the meanwhile, here are some links for further information:

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Is Peaceful Resolution Possible?

It seems hard, at time of writing, to see how both sides will calm down. At the time of writing, both sides have continued unlawfully targetting and terrorizing civilians. Each side sees the other at fault and to stop first would show a sign to the other that they are backing down and kind of admit defeat. For a soverign nation, Israel cannot conceivably let the soldier kidnapping just go. For Hezbollah, returning the soldier may look like they are backing down and thus would appear to lose face. Regardless of what one believes about who started this, neither side seems likely to be able to finish this in a peaceful way. Some fear this may lead to a World War III but most hope this is too extreme a likelihood.

Even when peace offers are considered or extended to the other side, are they going to be believed? For example, as reported by the Los Angeles Times, Israel rejected a Lebonese peace offer: “Hezbollah political leaders … reversed course and agreed to join a Lebanese government proposal aimed at stopping the fighting in the country’s south.” Israel’s reaction? “Israel dismissed Hezbollah’s offer as disingenuous and said it was an indication of the guerrillas’ weakness on the battlefield. But the Shiite Muslim militia’s willingness to participate in the initiative shows a flexibility to negotiate not previously evident as the fighting raged in southern Lebanon.”

The peace offer in question was for a ceasefire and prisoner swap. Israel also wants Hezbollah to disarm.

It does however, seem hard to envision what a peaceful solution will be. The US and UK effectively insist on allowing Israel to continue to route out Hezbollah, even pressuring Lebanon to do it for them (but it is widely reported that Lebanon’s own military would not be up to the task against Hezbollah, if it even wanted to), or even getting a NATO/EU force to do that for them instead.

It also seems difficult to envisage Hezbollah go with a disarmament without an extremely enormous Israeli concession. This might then sow the seed for Hezbollah’s seemingly eventual destruction, for they surely cannot withstand the formiddble Israeli military power indefinitely, even if early signs show some successes for them. Israel could therefore be calculating (along with the US and UK) that if the conflict is drawn out and does not have an immediate ceasefire, then one result could be the ability to utterly destroy Hezbollah and so it may be in their interest not to go for an immediate ceasefire. Of course, this is speculation and coming weeks will be seeing attempts at negotiated outcomes that may well happen yet.

The BBC reports notes a number of key issues,

If the current course continues—and there is no sign of an imminent turnaround—there is no predicting how far and how fast the flames may spread, as Israel plunges deeper into open-ended warfare with forces challenging the very foundations of its existence.

There is an alternative, favoured by most of the international community apart from the US and Israel: an immediate ceasefire, followed by negotiations to address the underlying issues and stabilise the truce.

Hezbollah itself is willing to agree on an immediate ceasefire and an exchange of prisoners that would see the two captured Israeli soldiers return home.

The longer the war now goes on, the weaker and less relevant the Lebanese government will become, and the less able to exert pressure on Hezbollah and a Shia community seething with anger at the devastation visited on it.

For many of those non-Hezbollah, anti-Syrian factions in the Lebanese government, the key failure in the current crisis has been Washington’s: its inability to keep the Middle East road map alive, and to address the core Palestinian issue, its total alignment with Israel, and its apparent willingness to allow Lebanon to be devastated in a proxy war of regional ambitions.

Jim Muir, Washington risks a wider conflict, BBC, July 28, 2006

Terrorist attacks from both sides cannot be the answer. As Gandhi once said, “an eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.” Yet, this crisis has indeed started and blindness surely seems to be spreading.

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Where next?

Other options

Author and Page Information

  • by Anup Shah
  • Created: Sunday, July 30, 2006
  • Last Updated: Tuesday, August 15, 2006

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Document Revision History

DateReason
August 15, 2006Minor update to reflect the more accurate death toll in Qana, and note about Hezbollah killing many Arab citizens in Israel.
August 13, 2006More on the death toll, that the conflict is fueling more terrorism, some more about the geopolitical ramification, mention of UN Resolution 1701 and some notes on media coverage

Alternatives for broken links

Sometimes links to other sites may break beyond my control. Where possible, alternative links are provided to backups or reposted versions here.