Official India’s attitude towards West Asia displays a curious tendency to be several steps behind time. This is a region of unending turmoil, today the epicentre of a confrontation that could engulf the entire world. This much has been evident since at least 2003, when the U.S. began gearing up for its invasion of Iraq, the final act in a saga of destruction that would reduce one of the Arab world’s most viable states to a pathetic state of internal meltdown. For weeks on end, the Indian government dawdled, rather than take a stand. It sat through two weeks and a few days of the invasion, before finally issuing a statement in Hindi that cleverly sought to obscure the distinction between “condemning” and “deploring” the thoroughly illegitimate war of destruction. And it urged the withdrawal of invading forces from Iraq on the precise day that U.S. forces were entering Baghdad.
It is necessary to recall this bit of recent history since the habitual tendency to delay taking a stand has not changed with the UPA government. On July 20, the Ministry of External Affairs issued a statement declaring Israel’s actions “unjustified”. This might have seemed a timely response to the Israeli military’s destructive rampage through Lebanon, which had wrecked most of that country’s civilian infrastructure and killed in excess of 300 civilians. But no, the Indian government’ statement it transpired, bore reference to the trail of destruction that Israeli marauders had left in Gaza. It was at least three weeks since Israel had bombed Gaza’s only power plant, abducted most elected representatives of the Palestinian people, and ground the administrative offices of the Palestinian National Authority to rubble. And while the Indian government agonised over the appropriate response to these crimes against humanity, the Israeli killing machine had moved on to open another front in Lebanon. It was not as if the slaughter in the Gaza had ceased. It was just that it had acquired a “business as usual” dimension and been knocked off the world headlines, since the massacre in Lebanon had momentarily acquired greater dimensions.
A few days later, the criminal U.S. administration of George Bush sent its principal diplomat, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, to West Asia to find a way to end the bloodshed in Lebanon. In what was intended to be a conciliatory gesture towards bruised Arab sensibilities, Rice visited the beleaguered Lebanese capital of Beirut first. She met with the Prime Minister, the speaker of parliament, and other significant participants in the coalition of sectarian groups that is the ruling arrangement in Lebanon. She did not receive, by any account, a single word of sustenance and was sent on her way with the unequivocal demand that Israel stop its aggression and a reconstruction effort be set underway before the terms of a final peace settlement could be discussed.
The Lebanese perception in this sense was congruent with the global commonsense, that for a durable peace to be negotiated, the immediate provocation of Israel’s wanton military brutality should be reined in. Uniquely however, the U.S. had a different perception. Obviously believing that the deafening sound of missiles and bombs wrecking the civilian infrastructure of a country would concentrate minds, the U.S. was insisting that a ceasefire would only be the final outcome of a comprehensive peace settlement. The Lebanese were under duress, being stampeded into signing a peace agreement with Israel – much like the shameful documents of surrender authored by Egypt in 1980 and Jordan in 1994 – that would take the country out of the Arab orbit and make it an accomplice in the cultural genocide of Palestine.
It was already clear by the time of the Rice visit though, that the U.S.-Israeli stratagem was faltering. Much store had been set by this axis of evil on the sectarian groups within Lebanon’s political mosaic rebelling against the Shi’a militant group, Hezbollah, that had sparked off the crisis by its cross-border raid into Israel to kill six Israeli soldiers and capture two prisoners of war. Initial rumbles of discontent from the Maronite Christian leadership within Lebanon seemed to indicate that the game-plan may bear fruit. But during Rice’s visit to Beirut, when she met the Sunni prime minister, the Shi’a speaker of parliament and leaders of other factions within Lebanon’s unique mosaic of confessional politics, she was unequivocally told that the Israeli aggression was perceived across all schisms, as a national rather than a sectarian problem.
The reasons are not far to seek. 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.
Then, the bloodletting was only ended by the 1990 Taif accord sponsored by the Arab League. The conditions both implicit and explicit under which the truce came into effect 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. Lebanese 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. 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. This was in part a recognition of the stellar role the Shi’a militant group – which operates as a full-fledged parliamentary party in Lebanese politics – had played in sustaining a sense of civil society and nationality in the south of the country through the years of Israeli aggression and occupation. As Rafiq al-Hariri, then the Prime Minister of Lebanon, put it in 1996: “The resistance...is not made by the Lebanese government. It is made by the people. All we are saying is that the people have the right to fight the occupation”.
Today, both the U.S. and Israel seek to portray Hezbollah as the terrorist proxy of hostile governments in Syria and Iran. This self-serving narrative overlooks the close links that Hezbollah has managed to forge with all sections of Lebanese national life. It is for precisely this reason that the U.S. and Israel, after wheedling and coercing the U.N. Security Council into passing resolution 1559 demanding the disarming of Hezbollah and the extension of the Lebanese government’s writ over the entire country, have been unsure about the means available to enforce it. 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. Even if the battle were to be joined, it would be an unequal fight since Hezbollah, as the most powerful military force in Lebanon, commanding the allegiance of its largest confessional grouping, would easily prevail.
Hezbollah fought the Lebanese 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 long opposed the influence exerted by Syria in Lebanese affairs and in allying themselves closely with Hezbollah, they have effectively rubbished the self-serving myth that the U.S. and Israel have sought to propagate.
Unfortunately, some of the more influential Arab states -- motivated both by loyalty to the U.S. aid-giver and apprehension over growing Iranian geopolitical influence – have chosen to buy the western myth. 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. Its brand of “adventurism” did not serve “Arab interests” according to the joint declaration, which explicitly warned Hezbollah to steer clear of any actions that could plunge the region into “uncalculated confrontations”. Concurrently, a spokesman for the Saudi Arabian ruling family, 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, among others.
Two weeks on, with the Hezbollah resistance showing no signs of crumbling, the mood in the Arab camp was somewhat different. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia authored a personal communication to the U.S. president, delivered by his kinsman and foreign minister, reportedly “beseeching” him to end the Israeli aggression. The Jordanian foreign minister declared that his country would support a ceasefire and the deployment of an international force in southern Lebanon to “dislodge” the Hezbollah from the strategic positions it had occupied. And reverting to the brand of diplomacy that it is most comfortable with, Saudi Arabia committed itself to provide a sum of $ 1.5 billion for the reconstruction of Lebanon.
Israel was by this time reconciled to the strategic reality that its use of air and artillery power had failed to complete the job of decimating the Hezbollah. Leaflets were being profusely dropped in southern Lebanon, warning the civilian population to leave, since Israel intended to convert the entire region into a free-fire zone where nothing would be safe. Israel’s chief of defence staff, Lt-Gen Dan Halutz – who is effectively persona non grata in several countries because of the threat of prosecution for war crimes under universal jurisdiction laws – was urging his forces to destroy at least ten buildings in Lebanon for every rocket that Hezbollah fired. And evidence was emerging that Israel had, as during its wars of destruction against Lebanon in 1982, 1993 and 1996, again been using banned incendiary weapons on civilians in the south of the country.
In 1996, the international advocacy group, Human Rights Watch, had recorded powerful and persuasive eyewitness testimony about Israel’s use of white phosphorus weapons -- which when not fatal, cause intense burns and permanent scars – on Lebanese civilians including children. “The available circumstantial evidence of the illegal use of phosphorus, and/or other incendiaries, by Israel against Lebanese civilians during the 1993 events and afterwards is so compelling as to warrant serious investigation and a public response by the Israeli government”, it had observed: “Among other evidence, Human Rights Watch saw several civilians, including children, in southern Lebanon with burns that are likely to have been caused by phosphorus”.
Far from being forced to account for its crimes, Israel has only been given greater licence and leeway to kill and destroy. As Israel presses on with its ground offensive into Lebanon, it is reportedly prepared for a long stay, till the U.S. is able to cobble together an international force that will be empowered to take aggressive enforcement action against Hezbollah. Few countries have yet volunteered troops for this enterprise. And just when the U.S. administration was seeking to step up its mobilisational efforts, the news emerged of the deliberate targeting by Israel of a U.N. observer post in Lebanon. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has expressed deep anger and called for an investigation into the incident, which has claimed at least four lives. At the time of writing, it seems that some of the casualties could have been Indian personnel on peace-keeping duties with the U.N.
As with Iraq in 2003, India could soon be faced with a request from the U.S. to volunteer troops for the dirty work of policing Israel’s regime of coercion and aggression in West Asia. And unlike then, it is greatly to be hoped that India will respond this time, not with waffling and equivocation, but with a firm and decisive “no”. The more worthwhile and principled foreign policy pursuit would obviously be to rein in the racist outlaw regime of Israel in the cause of justice for Palestine and Lebanon.