Over the third weekend of July, television studios in the U.S. were resonant with talk of an apocalyptic struggle of good against evil. Israel had just begun a destructive military rampage in Lebanon, gutting Beirut’s international airport, destroying the country’s electricity grid and throwing transportation networks out of gear. In obvious admiration, Newt Gingrich, the right-wing ideologue and prospective Republican candidate for the U.S. presidency, spoke of these actions as the first salvos of “World War Three”. Joining him in this ascent towards a variety of religious rapture, were news and talk-show hosts in virtually all channels with a tilt towards the right. If the “war on terror” has lost some of the spectral magic that earned the rabid right two significant electoral victories in the U.S., it evidently needs now to be supplanted by an ever more frightening vision.
But for a war that pitted such clearly defined moral categories as good and evil against each other, the line-up of geopolitical forces on either side of World War III remained indeterminate. With the exception of the U.S. and Israel, global public opinion remained firmly on the side of the supposed forces of darkness. And the dynastic regimes of the Arab world, none too firm in their adherence to democracy, stood uneasily on the side of the U.S. This arrangement of pieces on the international checkerboard had altered, though ever so subtly, in the days since the war began. But every minute shift conveyed grim suggestions of unending turmoil in the region.
Though no explicit words of approval were uttered in public, the U.S. was prepared to risk international isolation in resisting any multilateral involvement to curb Israel’s absolute freedom to terrorise its neighbourhood. At the same time, it was prepared with unseemly haste, to rush to unfavourable judgment in all matters involving Israel’s adversaries. Eleven days into the war, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice paid a visit to the region. In a gesture of conciliation towards bruised Arab sentiments, she chose Beirut as her first port of call, expressing sympathy for the Lebanese civilians caught up in a vicious war, but saying nothing that could be construed as disapproval of Israel’s military actions. Rather, she rehearsed yet again, her well-worn line that a ceasefire would be of little substantive value, if it were to be breached within a matter of months. To be of any enduring use, a ceasefire would have to be accompanied by a comprehensive peace that addressed all the fundamental problems of the region. And in identifying the problems that needed immediate attention, Rice proved disinclined to take a broad view. The one problem she had in mind was the pervasive presence and influence of the Hezbollah militia in southern Lebanon, where it had effectively become a “state within a state”, unamenable to central control from Beirut and able to threaten Israel’s northern settlements at will through lethal rocket fire.
The U.S. attitude in effect reverses the commonsense of international diplomacy, which had been articulated the preceding Thursday by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. Addressing the U.N. Security Council, Annan paid due obeisance to the U.S. sensibilities, criticising Hezbollah for its “provocative” foray across the border a week before, when two Israeli soldiers were taken prisoner. This action, carried out without the authority of a duly constituted political authority, showed a “reckless disregard for the interests of the government of Lebanon”. But having said all this, Annan was firm in his belief that Israel's “excessive use of force” was completely unwarranted. It did “little or nothing to decrease popular support” for Hezbollah, and made the Lebanese government, whose authority Israel wanted extended to the entire country, a hapless hostage to the actions of a guerrilla force. Staying well within the bounds of diplomacy, Annan chided Israel for instigating a humanitarian crisis that was likely in little time, to engulf upto a million people.
Fundamental to the divergence between the U.S. and the rest of the world are rival perceptions about the conditions under which negotiations should best be conducted. While conceding that there is a large complex of issues to be resolved, Annan’s proposals suggested that negotiations should ideally proceed in a calm and settled atmosphere. With her own interventions, Rice in effect, was articulating the U.S. position that peace talks are most likely to achieve their objective if conducted with the deafening crescendo of bombs and missiles in the background.
From behind the scenes though, another story was emerging in unsubtle leaks: that even as Rice was setting off for her tour of the region, the U.S. had given Israel a clear deadline of a week to complete its military campaign. Beyond that, the U.S. was reportedly, not prepared to hold out the assurance that it would resist the international call for a ceasefire. Whether this conformed to the professional military assessment from the Israeli side was unclear. At a cabinet meeting the day before the Rice visit, Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had reportedly assured his ministerial colleagues that “the diplomatic process” would not be pursued “at the expense of destroying infrastructures of terror”, which would “take a very long time”.
Evidently to ensure that maximal havoc was created in the available time, the U.S. was also, as the New York Times reported on July 22, hastening its deliveries of lethal munitions to Israel. “The decision to quickly ship the weapons to Israel was made with relatively little debate within the Bush administration”, reported the newspaper: “Its disclosure threatens to anger Arab governments and others because of the appearance that the United States is actively aiding the Israeli bombing campaign in a way that could be compared to Iran’s efforts to arm and resupply Hezbollah”.
Even without the additional element of rancour injected by this report, Arab states had begun by then to show deep signs of disquiet. Foreign Ministers of the Arab League were called into session at Cairo on the fourth day of the offensive against Lebanon. In an obvious effort to set the tone for this meeting, King Abdullah of Jordan joined President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt in issuing a statement putting the onus of finding a peace on Hezbollah. The predominantly Shi’a Muslim formation, which represents the largest of Lebanon’s many confessional groupings and is a significant presence in the national parliament, was accused of “adventurism that does not serve Arab interests” and explicitly told to steer clear of any actions that could plunge the region into “uncalculated confrontations.” As if on cue, a spokesman for the Saudi Arabian ruling family immediately afterwards, came out with a denunciation of Hezbollah’s “uncalculated adventures” which had ostensibly exposed “Arab nations... to grave dangers without these nations having a say in the matter.”
In compliance with a U.S. demarche, the Saudi foreign minister read out a statement at the Arab League session, demanding that Hezbollah cease its “unexpected, inappropriate and irresponsible acts” of aggression against Israel. Saudi Arabia was joined in this demand by Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, the Gulf states and the Palestinian authority, represented not by its elected parliament but by the increasingly isolated president, Abu Mazen. Ranged on the other side, were Syria, Algeria, Yemen and Libya.
Within a week, the Saudi foreign minister, accompanied by two other members of the ruling family, called on the U.S. President in Washington, to deliver a letter from Saudi King Abdullah. According to media reports, the King “beseeched” the U.S. President to intervene in Israel's military campaign in Lebanon. As he left the presidential premises, the Saudi minister said that he had “requested a cease-fire to allow for a cessation of hostilities”. The “bleeding in Lebanon” had to stop, and there had to be “an agreement to save Lebanese lives, Lebanese properties and what the Lebanese have built, and to save this country from the ordeal it is facing”.
Behind this shift in Saudi attitudes, lies a sense of alarm at the violence inflicted upon Lebanon. Israel had obviously calculated that the scale of mechanical and explosive force it was prepared to apply through air and artillery power, would unhinge the loose coalition of confessional groups that is the ruling arrangement in Lebanon. It had hoped that the Maronite Christian element, traditionally viewed as allies, would lead a revolt against the Hezbollah, if necessary ejecting the party from the ruling coalition and deploying the Lebanese national army to rein in its militia.
It did not take very long before this calculation came a cropper. The religious factions in Lebanese politics are all too aware of the disastrous consequences that disunity can have at this juncture. Memories of the country’s 15 year-long civil war, punctuated by the brutal Israeli invasion of 1982 and the destruction of much of its capital city, are still raw. The bloodletting was ended by the 1990 Taif accord sponsored by the Arab League and its conditions – both implicit and explicit – have never been a secret. Syria would under-write the peace in Lebanon and honour the National Accord of 1943, which was the foundational document of the brittle peace between the country’s different confessional groupings. The Christians had lost their social, economic and above all, numerical preeminence since the 1943 compact assured them the presidency of the republic in perpetuity. Natural growth and the influx of Palestinian victims of Israeli ethnic cleansing in 1948 and subsequent years, had altered the demographic balances. But if the Taif accord committed itself to honouring the 1943 compact, it was only on the essential condition that the resistance would be kept alive. There would in other words, be no peace treaty with Israel without a broader settlement of all issues of concern to the Arab world.
Shortly after the Israelis blasted a residential building of Beirut with 20 tonnes of explosives in an effort to kill him, Hezbollah’s leader Shaikh Hassan Nasrallah sat down for an interview with the Al Jazeera news channel. Asked about the impunity with which Hezbollah functioned in southern Lebanon, engaging in hostile actions that endangered the fragile peace with Israel, he was categorical that the Shi’a militia was operating within the terms of a broader agreement with the Lebanese government. “The government statement, on the basis of which we participated in the government, talks about the Lebanese Government's endorsement of resistance and its national right to liberate the land and the prisoners”, said Nasrallah. Uniquely for a process of national reconciliation, the Lebanese state agreed in 1990 to an abridgment of its powers, granting Hezbollah the autonomy in southern Lebanon to sustain the resistance. And the objectives of the resistance as laid out by Nasrallah, were manifold, though not all were of equal priority.
Despite vacating much of southern Lebanon in 2000, Israel continues to be in occupation of a small patch of land called the Shab’a farms. Furthermore, violations of the sovereign space of Lebanon through land, air and sea are almost a daily occurrence. But neither of these, in Nasrallah’s account, merited great attention on the part of the resistance. Though the border violations in particular, were a grievous provocation, Lebanon he declared, could live with them. Where it would not compromise though, was in respect of the Lebanese nationals and Palestinians who were being held without trial in Israeli prisons, and the civilians who were subject to the daily military atrocities of the Israeli armed forces. Strategically and tactically, in the aggravated situation that prevailed mid-July, with Israeli military action against civilians scaling new heights of random and disproportionate violence, the Hezbollah had no option but to conduct its raid across the border and take two soldiers prisoner.
The subsequent reaction by the Arab states had disappointed Lebanon, but there were in Nasrallah’s strategic estimation, no grounds for anxiety in the internal situation. “We do not fear the internal front”, said Nasrallah: “They are trying to play on the sectarian divisions. They know that playing on the sectarian divisions is dangerous. …. If they want to play on the differences between Sunni and Shi’a, Muslim and Christian, or Druze and Shi’a, it will be dangerous to the country”.
These locutions have multiple layers of significance. On the one hand, an effort to deploy the Lebanese national army in disarming the Hezbollah would, absent a broader settlement in the region, fail to muster up a political consensus. It would moreover, be an unequal battle, since Hezbollah, as the most powerful military force in Lebanon, commanding the allegiance of its largest confessional grouping, would easily overwhelm the Lebanese army. If external powers were to intervene, the outcome would be a descent into civil war, which in conjunction with the daily bloodshed in Iraq, could plunge the entire region into anarchy.
Within Lebanon itself, Hezbollah fought the general elections of 2005 with a slate of predominantly Shi’a candidates. But it draws the unswerving support of the Palestinian diaspora in the country. And the powerful Druze chieftain Walid Junblatt, has also allied himself with Hezbollah in the ruling arrangement in Beirut. Further political sustenance has come from Michel Aoun, a former chief of staff of the Lebanese army and a Maronite Christian who has credibility and respect across all confessional groupings.
Both Junblatt and Aoun have been long-time opponents of the overweening influence exerted by Syria in Lebanese affairs. In allying themselves so closely with Hezbollah, they have effectively rubbished the notion, so pronounced in the Israeli and U.S. narration, that Hezbollah is little else than a terrorist proxy for Syria, determined to work contrary to Lebanon’s national interests. At another level, Nasrallah’s statements reflect a certain confidence that the Israeli assault would heal, rather than deepen sectarian fissures within Lebanon. Since the Israeli strategy has been quite explicitly to inflict pain on all of Lebanon rather than only the offending elements, it seemed to have precisely this effect after the first two weeks. Further, in standing up and signaling that Israel would be called to account for its atrocities on the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, Hezbollah has the potential to transcend the sectarian split between Shi’a and Sunni Muslim, and appeal to a broad mass of the Arab people.
Since the farce of its withdrawal from Gaza, Israel has, with the acquiescence of all Arab regimes, considerably stepped up its daily attacks on the very fabric of civic life in occupied Palestine. These attacks have ascended several notches in virulence since Palestinian national elections in February brought the Islamic resistance group Hamas to power. Western governments have been mobilised to stop all aid flows to the beleaguered people, tax revenues rightfully belonging to the Palestinian administration have been withheld, and access routes through both land and sea have been blocked. In what would be recognised under international rules of war as a legitimate act of self-defence, Hamas militants in June carried out a raid on an Israeli military picket enforcing the illegal siege of Gaza. Two soldiers were killed and one taken prisoner. Since then, Israel has been engaged in the kind of destructive rampage through Gaza that it is now visiting on Lebanon.
That no Arab state managed to summon up the political will to condemn Israel’s crimes against the Palestinian people, has been a blot on their already besmirched reputations. That a non-state actor like Hezbollah should have taken up the onus of demanding accountability from Israel, is a further challenge to the Arab state system. Early reactions to the atrocities in Lebanon were conditioned by the aversion most Arab regimes have towards any accretion to the regional strategic influence of Iran, which is still considered, with obvious inattention to truth, the external prop without which Hezbollah would be a negligible political force. The later mood within the Arab leadership, which seemed almost to verge on panic, could well suggest the beginnings of a rearguard to safeguard their rapidly shrinking political legitimacy.
July 25, 2006