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.
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:
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,
The intense attacks on Lebanon have overshadowed the continuing violence in the Gaza Strip4, 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:
Blogger Abukar Arman poses an interesting question: Can Bias Media Prevent the Next World War?6 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.
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.
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. 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 law9 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?
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 law15, for example. In contrast, Bush cautioned Israel defend yourself, but be mindful of the consequences.
Bush has announced plans to sell $4.6 billion worth of arms to moderate Middle East countries16 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,
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 issue18. 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 pipelines19.
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 measured23, 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 force24… UN officials said they had contacted Israel a dozen times before the bombing and asked them to stop firing, which Israel did not.)
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:
Democracy Now!’s media analysis28, August 3, 2006, explores American and Israeli media coverage.
MediaChannel29 provides news and analysis on media issues from around the world, including on this conflict.
Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting30 also looks into media coverage.
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 offer31: 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,
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.