Lebanon is Poised for Free Fall

Israel’s actions last summer against Lebanon were almost vandalism – seemingly undertaken for the sheer joy of destruction – since most had no perceptible military value. More than one commentator on BBC during the war characterized Israel as having gone nuts. In addition to the many roads, bridges and power stations they wasted throughout the country, they even bombed a dairy farm in the far northeast of the country – mostly killing migrant workers from Syria - very far from any Hezbollah activity. Destroying civilian infrastructure is a war crime, pure and simple.

To recap very briefly: the fiasco began with the capture of Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah. In fact, Hezbollah’s action seemed to be an act of solidarity with the capture of an Israeli solder by militants in Gaza. Israel has justified its actions in Gaza – where nearly 500 people have died since the soldier’s capture – by saying its sovereign territory was invaded. Problem is Israel violates Palestinian (and Lebanese, through surveillance flights) sovereignty every day; moreover, while its troops had left Gazan land, it remained in total control of daily life there.

Palestinians want to open their airport in Gaza; Israel says no. They want their own seaport, once again Israel says nyet. As a result all imports to Gaza, as well as the West Bank, go through Israel which collects tariffs on the Palestinians’ behalf. It is now withholding those monies because it doesn’t like the Hamas government – part of the handy stranglehold mentioned in the last article. Israel says control of the ports would allow the Palestinians to import arms. Probably true, nevertheless, every country has a right to be armed. The pertinent fact is that they couldn’t realistically challenge the Israeli military no matter how many armaments they might be able to import and, more importantly, if a fair peace deal were negotiated and they were left alone, they wouldn’t have any reason to use them. (There will always be some crazies; Spain has not been able to stop Basque separatist violence for 30 years.)

Anyway, as an occupying power, Israel’s troops are fair game anywhere. I don’t approve of suicide bombings of civilian targets – though I understand the motivation behind them – but, on the other hand, attacks against the Israeli military are totally justified.

In both cases the stated reason for the capture of Israeli troops was for exchange of prisoners. Some 10,000 Palestinians are incarcerated in Israeli prisons, the number of Lebanese is in the hundreds, or maybe thousands. Exchanges are nothing new, Israel has negotiated the release of prisoners several times in the past – once even 400 prisoners for the remains of one Israeli.

However, this time Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who had no previous fighting credentials, decided he needed to flex his muscles; you know, prove he could be as macho as the best of them, and began campaigns of massive destruction. Collective punishment is a favored tactic of Israel; it seems to need to vengefully strike out even though that tactic never works to stop violence against it. The awful truth is that, short of extreme repression, nothing a standing army can do is effective against an insurgency, especially one that’s backed by the people. That has been amply shown by the experience of America in Iraq. (Iraq is also an example of how repression does work; Saddam had no problem with terrorists.)

Moreover, Hezbollah is no ordinary band of insurgents, as they well proved last summer. They were the cause of Israel abandoning its occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000 after 18 years and gave it a bloody nose once again.

Pretty much the only thing Olmert accomplished in his war against Lebanon (bombing a power station in Beirut is hardly fighting Hezbollah) was to showcase Israel’s heartlessness and the Israeli Defense Force’s ineffectiveness in that type of conflict.

Of course, it would have been different if the IDF had put 200,000 troops in southern Lebanon. They would’ve been able, through sheer force of numbers, and use of a tactic of total destruction of the area, to root Hezbollah out of their hiding places and destroy the organization – at least temporarily. They would’ve suffered heavy casualties, but accomplished their goal. They same would work in Iraq: two million troops and extreme repression would quiet things down a bit.

It’s important to note that Hezbollah didn’t start its rocket attacks until after Israel commenced its indiscriminate bombing campaign. Israel dropped as many bombs on Lebanon - from fighter jets, helicopter gunships and naval vessels – nearly every day as Hezbollah sent rockets into Israel during the whole conflict. There had been occasional border skirmishes of a strictly military nature for quite some time, but northern Israel had generally been peaceful from the time the IDF left southern Lebanon. Some two-thirds of the 170 or so Israeli casualties were military. Of the approximately 1000 Lebanese who were killed, 95% were civilian.

About three weeks into the conflict there were calls from many quarters for a cease fire. Bush wasn’t interested; Blair the Poodle backed him up: Israel needed more time to destroy Hezbollah was the reason given. Hundreds of lives could have been saved but we know monkey boy is fighting a noble millennial crusade against Islamo-fascists so what’s a few hundred lives here or there. For Israel a cease fire would have salvaged the ‘invincible’ reputation of the IDF, but of course it too had no interest in a cessation of the hostilities at that time.

After bombing the shit out of Lebanon for nearly five weeks to no apparent avail – they weren’t able to get their soldiers back or stop the rockets raining down on their cities – they decided they had to go in on the ground to get at the enemy. Big lesson learned: They got creamed - lost 50 soldiers in a 36 hour period and were forced to hightail it out of there. And after all their boasting for five weeks about degrading Hezbollah’s rocket capability, they sent more down on Israel in the last days than at the beginning. The IDF can level cities at will, but is powerless against dedicated well-trained guerilla fighters – outside of that logistical impossibility of sending hundreds of thousands of troops.

Now, as a result of the instability engendered by last summer’s conflict, Lebanon is poised to descend into civil war. The pity is that the country had just begun to extricate itself from the devastating effects of its 15 year civil war from 1975 to 1990.

Subsequent to the assassination of Rafik Hariri, a well-liked former Prime Minister, in 2005, Lebanon experienced its Cedar Revolution. This involved massive street protests that eventually forced Syria to withdraw its troops after a 25 year presence in the country. It was the dawn of a new day for Lebanon.  

Politics in Lebanon is very delicately, and precariously balanced. When we think of democracy, we automatically assume it ensures that every person’s vote is equal. However, as the US Senate shows – where Wyoming’s 600,000 people have the same voting power as California’s 35 million –  many democracies are necessarily forced to compromise the basic right of equal treatment in order to create functioning states.

Thus Lebanon’s power structure is divided up three ways between Christians, Sunnis and Shiites. The latter, represented by Hezbollah in parliament, are the poor and downtrodden of Lebanon. They are also the most populous, but in order to keep political balance between the three groups they currently have a lesser share of power than their numbers would indicate. Lebanon has purposely not done a census for a long time to avoid having to deal with a growing imbalance between the three groups.

But now Hezbollah, emboldened by its success in holding back the IDF, is mounting demonstrations demanding an increased share of power. People have already died in the streets in clashes between the groups. The country could well be heading for a second civil war, thanks to Israel and Bush who almost certainly encouraged it to take on Hezbollah.

So chalk up another point of instability in Bush’s war against peace.