COMMENTARY
 
Another War in the Middle East?
Weekly Pulse
21-27 July 2006
Even though the Middle Eastern conflict is never off the world news, the deadlier turn it has taken in the last couple of weeks has the hallmark of an all out Middle Eastern war. The battle is now confined to two combatants, Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah and the Jewish state of Israel; and two theatres, south Lebanon and northern Israel. Its other front, Hamas versus Israel, has taken a secondary place, but only after Israel decimated the Palestinian militia’s foreign and prime ministries.

Who to blame for triggering the latest crisis in the Middle East? Hezbollah, for its killing of six Israeli soldiers and kidnapping two of them in an ambush two weeks ago and consequent firing of rockets on the northern Israeli city of Haifa, killing dozens of Israeli civilians and soldiers? Or, Israel, for undertaking a disproportionate military response, which has already claimed hundreds of Lebanese lives, mostly civilian?

Perhaps the blame goes to both the conflicting parties, even though each one of them seems to have its own political motives in raising the stakes of the conflict.

Hezbollah’s Motives

Why did Hezbollah undertake the ambush on July 12, which triggered the latest Middle Eastern crisis? Two explanations could be offered. First, since Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Harairi’s murder last year, Hezbollah has lost the clout it enjoyed in Lebanese politics for years. Because it is backed by Iran and Syria, the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon under the UN Security Council Resolution 1559 was a mortal blow to its power base in a country divided along religious/sectarian lines.

Lebanon is lived by Shiite, Sunni (incl Druz) and Maronite Christian communities. Hezbollah is part of the Shiite community. The 1989 Taif agreement that ended the bloody civil war in Lebanon created a governmental structure where each of the three communities is duly represented, with a Maronite President, a Sunni Prime Minister and a Shiite Speaker. The Parliament has 128 seats. As always, the last elections produced a hung parliament, but one in which Hezbollah only has a fractional presence. However, the parliament does have a Shiite speaker. As long as the Syrian troops were present in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s political clout remained greater than its share in the country’s demographic composition.

Since the withdrawal of Syrian troops, the anti-Syrian, nationalist segment of the Lebanese population, which consists predominantly of Sunni factions and Maronites, has been asserting its authority. In recent months, it became more vocal on the question of the disarmament of Hezbollah, which, it perceives, will end whatever influence Syria has in Lebanese affairs. Like the Sunni and Maronite factions, which see a Syrian hand in the death of former Prime Minister Harairi, Israel and the United States have also called for the disarmament of Hezbollah under the same Security Council Resolution 1559 that led to the Syrian troop withdrawal.

Given this backdrop, Hezbollah was under increasing domestic and international pressure to disarm. And that may be the reason why it pre-empted the possibility of its disarmament by undertaking the said ambush, especially by kidnapping Israeli soldiers.

The second reason why Hezbollah could have chosen to raise the stakes in its conflict with Israel may have to do with its desire to broaden its mission, which had been largely fulfilled when Israel unilaterally decided to withdraw from south Lebanon in 2000, after occupying it for 18 years. Following Israel’s invasion of south Lebanon in 1982, Hezbollah’s aim was to push Israel out of the country.

When that objective was achieved six years ago, Hezbollah had to justify its existence by opening another front. So, it continued to fire rockets as Israeli positions. With the second suicide-driven Intifada in Palestine that was triggered by Hezbollah’s perceived victory over Israel in south Lebanon, and the formation of Hamas government in Palestine, Hezbollah was emboldened. With Hamas next-door in power, Hezbollah could simultaneously open another front against the Jewish entity, whose existence as a state is not acceptable to either.

However, it seems that what may have forced Hezbollah to undertake the daring ambush and kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers was the increasing legitimacy crisis it has been facing within the Lebanese political context since Harairi’s assassination. It had to raise the stakes now, as a matter of its own political survival. If Israeli retaliation remains as unrestrained as it has been in the past week or so, then Hezbollah may be able to regain some of the lost political clout in the country, as more and more Lebanese citizens could start to perceive Israel in the same fashion as Hezbollah wants them to. Obviously, Iran and Syria, the arch rivals of Israel in the Middle East, would most likely not wish Hezbollah to disarm. They would like the Shiite militia to continue to pose a frontline threat to the Jewish entity.

Israel’s Motives

Probably, Israel under Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was looking for an excuse to militarily engage both Hamas and Hezbollah, its two principal enemies living just across the present borders. Since former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon went into coma, and even after winning the April elections, Prime Minister Olmert has been striving hard to come out of the shadow of Sharon and become a leader of his own charisma—which, as Israeli history mostly tells us, is possible if the leadership is resolute in fighting those who challenge the existence of the Jewish state.

Besides the above, there seems to be another, perhaps more important factor: like the administration of US President George Bush, the Israeli government appears to be pursuing a strategy of pre-emption—meaning eliminate the threat before it materialises. The Bush administration opted for the same option when it went for the regime change in Iraq in 2003.

The underlying principle of this notion is that if a global or regional power (read US and Israel, respectively, in this case) perceives a threat to its vital national security, it can invade any country and violate its national sovereignty in disregard of the UN Charter. Thus, ridding Iraq of WMD and disarming Hezbollah could be legitimate ends from American and Israeli, perspectives, to intervene militarily in a country or bomb its territory. In the present case, however, the situation is different because a faction of the Lebanese population—namely, Hezbollah—is engaged in a face-to-face battle with Israel without the consent of the entire Lebanese population.

So, one of Israel’s principal motive, rather expectation, is that the anti-Syrian Sunni and Maronite sections of the Lebanese government and population will turn against Hezbollah if Israel continues to hit targets in south Lebanon. Israeli warplanes have been throwing leaflets over Beirut for the same reason, urging Lebanese to turn against Hezbollah since it has taken the entire nation hostage by arming itself and fighting an Iran-Syrian proxy war against Israel from Lebanese soil. However, as some commentators have also argued, the Israeli strategy could backfire. Instead of turning the Lebanese people against Hezbollah, the killing of civilians, including non-Hezbollah, may actually push the population further closer to Hezbollah’s position.

History Repeats Itself?

At least two war episodes in post 1967 history of the Middle Eastern conflict strongly resemble what is happening now between Hezbollah militants in south Lebanon firing mostly unguided rockets at Haifa and other Israeli positions in northern Israel, and Israeli forces firing back with guided munitions at south Lebanon and civil-military targets south of Beirut.

In 1968, after the Arab defeat in the 1967 war, King Hussain of Jordan had invited the Palestinian militias to Jordan to re-arm and when the time comes, liberate occupied Palestine from Israel. The same way as Hezbollah is now firing rockets against Israeli positions across the southern frontiers of Lebanon, the Palestinian militia started firing across the Jordanian borders with Israel in what became known as the battle of Al-Karama.

While the Palestinians could not withstand the Israeli might, they became a threat for the Jordanian state itself. Consequently, what happened on the Black September of 1970, when thousands of Palestinians were massacred, is well known. This analogy is interesting if we take into consideration the recent statement by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab regimes, who do not wish Syria and Iran to gain any regional clout, then Hezbollah has acted prematurely by kidnapping Israeli soldiers and triggering the present crisis. If this statement is read alongside any future effort by Sunni-Maronites-led Lebanese and US-Israel-led international move to disarm Hezbollah, the parallel becomes more interesting.

Another parallel comes from Lebanon itself. The reason why Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 was not because Hezbollah alone was a threat to Israel, even though the suicide bombing that killed over 300 US Marines in Beirut in 1983 was conducted by Hezbollah. At that time, the Palestinians used to pound Israeli positions from across the south Lebanese borders. After Israel invaded, the Palestinians were not just disarmed by Lebanese militias, but also Palestinian refugees at the camps of Sabra and Shatila were massacred, an act for which Ariel Sharon, who was than Israel’s defense minister, is held responsible.

What Could Happen Next?

Even though nothing could be stated about the extent and the manner in which the present conflict could conflagrate, what is quite clear is that the United States seems to have given a go-ahead to Israel to decimate Hezbollah through the full use of its military might. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is shortly travelling to the region, but by then the conflict would have completed its second week. And with every passing day, the Israeli military offensive is continuing to increase. For the purpose, Israel may also launch a ground assault on south Lebanon, dividing the Hezbollah positions.

The UN special mission also visited Beirut, but only with a statement afterwards that it will report the matter to the Security Council. The UN Secretary General has heeded a proposal of the British Prime Minister Tony Blair to deploy international troops in south Lebanon to create a buffer zone between Hezbollah and Israeli forces. That proposal will not be acceptable to Hezbollah, nor may the Israeli leadership take any interest in such an option. In fact, the speed with which some 25,000 Americans and thousands of British, French and Italian residents of Beirut are being evacuated to Larnaca in south Cyprus is enough to create the spectre of a bloodier battle over Lebanon and its widening scope overtime.

In the United States, at least what could be gauged from remarks of the leadership and spin in the media, the perception, or perhaps the policy, is to use this opportunity to disarm Hezbollah and get rid of one of the main overt militant factions threatening the security of its chief Middle Eastern ally, Israel. Besides Hezbollah, Hamas is the second such organisation actually running a government in Palestine. Syria and Iran are two regimes, perhaps the only ones remaining now, who are anti-American and anti-Israel. In Afghanistan and Iraq, the international or coalition forces and authorities are tacking the resistance or insurgent elements, whatever one may call them.

In the US media, the main driving force behind the Bush administration’s war on terrorism, the talk of attacking Iran and Syria has gained momentum. On its own, the United States would not like Israel to expand the battlefront beyond Lebanon. For the US is already bogged down in Iraq, where the Shiite insurgency might gain momentum if Hezbollah loses so much in Lebanon that Syria and Iran start to feel that they may be next targets. In particular, Iran has in recent past played an important role in inciting Shiite militancy in Iraq and its links with Hezbollah are very obvious. In fact, it is being argued that Hezbollah’s ambush of July 12 may have been directed by Tehran, with the precise objective of diverting international attention from its nuclear weapons programme.

One thing that can expand the present conflict beyond Lebanon is if Israel decides to go after what it has started to perceive and propagate now as the source of Hezbollah armament; namely, Iran and Syria. If that happens, the Syrians and Iranians should not be expected to exercise restraint. With the wars already going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, we could then have a number of countries engaged in a wider Middle Eastern conflict. However, as said before, it would be premature to predict the widening of the conflict to such a grand regional scale.

The Future of Lebanon

The key issue right now is that of Lebanese sovereignty and security. It is a relatively freer, diverse and prosperous Middle Eastern state. Its Christian population did cooperate with Israel in past, before the Syrians started to call the shots in the country. Its standing army consists of some 50,000 soldiers. However, Hezbollah has some 6,000 to 7,000 militiamen.

The question is which identity prevails first. If the Israelis undertake an indiscriminate bombardment of the country, then the Arabian identity may prevail over Druz, Maronite, Sunni or Shia. It is not that all Lebanese like Hezbollah; most may still hate it following days of Israeli bombing. Since they were rendered armless after the Taif agreement, but Hezbollah was not, they should not be expected to take up arms against the Shia militia.

However, what should not be unacceptable to all Lebanese is the destruction of their country’s infrastructure, the ruining of its economy and the killing of their fellow Lebanese citizens. Because over 200 Lebanese, mostly civilians, had become a victim of Israel aerial bombardment in the very first week of the violent conflict, it could have been difficult for the Lebanese government to use the national army to reign in on Hezbollah.

Did Israel miscalculate this time? Did it fall a prey to Hezbollah’s ploy? Or, did Hezbollah over-estimate itself? Economically, Lebanon had developed significantly since the civil war and events since Harairi’s murder were increasingly pointing towards a more democratic future for the country. Are Lebanese heading towards another round of destruction? Or, somehow, through international diplomacy, will they be able to get rid of the last remaining scourge in their destiny: the existence of an armed Lebanese group that acts independently on the asking of Iran or Syria against neighbouring Israel? But then the story does not end here, as long as Israel remains in occupation of some Palestinian territories.