Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The instructive period of 2000-2006 and what this war is really all about

In Mideast, shades of 1982
Boston Globe
By Augustus Richard Norton August 7, 2006

ISRAEL'S WAR in Lebanon, like its 1982 forbear, was launched with the ambitious aim of buttressing Israel's regional hegemony and security. The 1982 invasion turned into an occupation of southern Lebanon that nurtured and hardened Hezbollah, which became the formidable foe that Israel today confronts. Whether the present war is over in a few days or even weeks, it is clear that not only will Hezbollah survive Israel's onslaught as perhaps the dominant political force in Lebanon, but most distressing is the possibility of Lebanon collapsing into chaos, even civil war.

In terms of the US role in the Lebanon wars, what is most remarkable are the naive assumptions that have framed presidential decision-making. President Ronald Reagan, commenting 24 years ago on the rationale for Israel's invasion, referred to the Palestine Liberation Organization rockets constantly raining on Israel. Reagan did not seem to know that the PLO had been scrupulously observing a cease-fire negotiated by the renowned US diplomat Philip Habib. In a similar vein, President Bush refers regularly to Hezbollah's terrorist attacks on Israel, while Israel's border with Lebanon has been mostly quiet since Israel ended its occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000.

Bush is a one-trick pony when it comes to terrorism, so he has little need for nuance or contradiction. Hezbollah is designated by the United States as a ``terrorist group," a label that Israeli officials use with alacrity to cement support for their actions. The word ``terrorism" is a convenient rhetorical bludgeon. It substitutes for serious thinking and leads to the nonsensical conclusion that whatever Hezbollah does is an act of terrorism. The result is a US policy that supports Israel's ``counterterrorism" war to the point that a third of Lebanon's people are now refugees, hatred of America has become red hot, and the war has caused a major rift with important European allies.

All of this to fight terrorism, we are told. The war's hefty death toll includes hundreds of Lebanese and dozens of Israeli civilians, human sacrifices on the altar of the war on terrorism. What most casual observers are not expected to know, but what Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Bush should know, is that the six years between Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000 until the momentous Hezbollah attack on July 12 were comparatively placid.

During that period, one Israeli civilian was killed by Hezbollah weapons (and five more were killed in a Palestinian operation that may have been helped by Hezbollah ). Meanwhile, more than a score of Lebanese civilians were killed either by hostile action or by mines left behind by Israel. The dead deserve that we not treat their violent end lightly. Haviv Donon, 16, who was felled by a Hezbollah antiaircraft round fired at Israeli planes violating Lebanese airspace, and Yusif Rahil, 15, a shepherd killed by an artillery round intended for Hezbollah after an attack in Shebaa Farms, were innocent victims. Thankfully, such victims were far fewer then than may be commonly imagined.

There were serious clashes in the vicinity of the Shebaa Farms, part of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights claimed by Lebanon during that six-year period. Nine Israeli soldiers died in Hezbollah attacks in the contested area, and 16, including eight on July 12, were killed along the international border in seven clashes. Some of the attacks were in retaliation for Israeli-caused deaths in Lebanon. At least 21 Israeli soldiers were also wounded. By way of comparison, an average of 25 Israeli soldiers died annually during Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon, according to Justice Minister Haim Ramon. More Israeli soldiers than that already have died in the present war.

With one possible exception, there were no purposeful attacks on Israeli civilians across the Lebanese border. This is important to recognize because it illustrates that the task of maintaining stability across this hostile border was neither impossible nor infeasible. Indeed, the rules of the game were well understood by both Israel and its Hezbollah foe.

Israel's over-the-top reaction to the Hezbollah cross-border operation has more to do with settling scores with Hezbollah, eradicating an Iranian proxy, and restoring the credibility of Israel's deterrence than with the actual level of violence coming from Lebanon. Hezbollah provided a handy pretext when it breached Israel's border to capture two Israeli soldiers. Much as the attempted assassination in 1982 of Ambassador Shlomo Argov in London by a blood foe of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat provided a pretext for an Israeli army poised to destroy the PLO and to remake Lebanon, so the foolhardy July 12 operation provided a pretext for Israel to secure its mantle of hegemony.

As for President Bush, he flashed a green light for Israel. He found the opportunity to decimate Hezbollah and to signal to Iran ``you may be next" too delicious to pass up. It is still early for a requiem, but one has to wonder whether the 2000-2006 period might, in a year or so, look pretty good compared to the new realities and new violence that history warns us to expect.

Augustus Richard Norton is a professor of anthropology and international relations at Boston University.
(also available from Common Dreams)

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