Belaboring the Obvious

Sunday, July 16, 2006

If Damascus Even Twitches....

Being a long way from Beirut or Gaza, and being mostly dependent on the less than accurate
reporting from the U.S. press, it's not a time for absolutist pronouncements on what is happening in the Middle East at the moment.

What is apparent to most everyone with their cognitive faculties still intact, however, is that Israel's response is clearly over the top. More than a few world leaders, nevertheless, have taken up the phrase, "disproportionate response" to describe what's going on, although the rest of us might be less diplomatic and say it's outright insane. It's that way for one of two reasons--either Ehud Olmert has gone completely irrational, or there's some unseen ultimate intention for Israel's balls-to-the-wall response to a situation that required a rather simple military response. Of course, Israel prefers to cloud the issue by claiming its soldiers had been kidnapped by terrorists (in some stricter sense of the situation, Palestinian and Hizbollah fighters consider the IDF a military enemy--just as the IDF considers Palestinian fighters and Hizbollah the enemy--and, as such, the Israeli soldiers were captured in military actions, not kidnapped). Moreover, the media is concentrating on the factors in play at the immediate moment, and ignoring the recent history leading up to this latest venture of the IDF into Lebanon, and that the IDF has been applying disproportionate force and methods of collective punishment in the West Bank and particularly in Gaza almost from the moment Hamas achieved an electoral majority in the congress of the Palestinian Authority, with the clear intent to punish the Palestinians for their electoral choices.

Hizbollah's attack on an IDF tank just across Lebanon's southern border, so far, seems to have been an act intended to be in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza, but, perhaps not without the tacit support of Damascus. Hamas' demands for a prisoner exchange suggest that capturing an IDF soldier had a prearranged purpose, and Hizbollah's capture of two more was likely intended to reinforce the Palestinians' position on prisoner exchange, or to further their own aims in that regard. (A fact not in wide distribution in the U.S. press is that about 9400 Palestinians are in Israeli military prisons at the moment. Some are women, not a small number were children when incarcerated, and some have been held for some time without trial. Since the IDF occupation in 1967, some 650,000 Palestinians have been imprisoned by the Israeli military--according to various rights groups, this amounts to 20% of the total population and 40% of the men in the occupied territories--perhaps the highest rate of incarceration in the world.)

Were Israel's intention all along to negotiate peace, it seems likely the situation would have not deteriorated to the point it has, and as rapidly as it has, and some quick negotiation might have been made for some female Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the captured IDF soldiers. On this matter, it's difficult to determine from public statements if this is Olmert trying to assert his creds to the right wing (not being a combat soldier as were Begin, Sharon and Rabin), if it's just a stubborn refusal to negotiate for fear of losing face, or is it a part of a preexisting plan, just waiting for push come to shove?

That push may have started months ago, with the election of Hamas. For much of the Palestinian Authority's existence, the predominantly right-wing governments of Israel have sought to put the PA in a box--and especially after the Oslo accords--by making the PA (and the Fatah party) responsible for Israel's security, without true sovereignty in exchange. As occupier of the Palestinian territories, Israel still kept for itself the right to invade anywhere in those territories it chose, at any time, for any reason. It controlled all the roads and checkpoints into and out of the territories, its shorelines and Mediterranean fishing limits, its ports, its borders, its air terminals and its air space--all controlled by the IDF and Israeli police. Israel collected Palestinian taxes, controlled its imports and exports and the movements of all Palestinians.

Sharon's unilateral decision to move Israeli settlers out of Gaza was not exactly the magnanimous gesture it was portrayed to be in the Western press. It was, in fact, because Israel retained complete control over virtually all aspects of life in Gaza, the creation of the world's largest open-air prison, and it paved the way for the sort of collective punishment which has been directed against Gaza most recently. There was no chance of retaliation by Palestinians against Israeli settlers for IDF actions because there were no settlers, no chance of the IDF accidentally killing any Israelis during sometimes indiscriminate bombing and shelling in Gaza.

What the Western press did not elucidate in any detail was that the Gaza Strip had become virtually worthless to Israel--except as a repository for Palestinians. The most recent intifada had made defending the relatively few settlers there an expensive proposition. From Oslo to the building of the wall and the removal of the settlers, the Fatah and the PA had grown progressively more corrupt and the occupied population came to see Fatah officials as in league with the Israeli government for their own profit. Where the general population wanted Fatah and Abbas to negotiate with Israel for their freedom and sovereignty, they were, instead, seen as collaborating with the Israelis. Where the U.S. and Israel saw in Abbas a moderate, the Palestinian people often saw a quisling. Hence, the election of Hamas to a majority in the Palestinian congress. Palestinians wanted genuine negotiations, and Hamas assured them that would be done.

Herein lies the rub, and one of the possible reasons for what seems an irrational escalation of the fighting in the last two weeks. Israel has never intended to give up--either by dint of force or negotiation--what it now conceives to be its own land, its own water. Since 1948, Israel has hoped to make life so miserable for Palestinian Arabs that they would abandon their own lands of their own volition. From 1948, from David Ben-Gurion onwards, the great fear of politicians of the new state of Israel was eugenic in nature. They were afraid that the Palestinians would outbreed them and eventually claim a majority in their own state. (This is the primary reason why the so-called single-state solution is pointless to pursue.) Hamas, well aware of this, began its control of the Palestinian territories with a willingness to negotiate, but very firmly. Attacks in Gaza, Lebanon and the West Bank may be preparation for Olmert's decision to arbitrarily and unilaterally establish Israel's borders without consultation, and a reflection of his determination not to negotiate. Such a plan is certainly an attempt to create an artificial end to a working policy now in effect for fifty-eight years. The wall running through the West Bank, begun in 2002, along with Israeli-controlled roads and checkpoints will effectively annex large amounts of the West Bank and cut the West Bank into a series of Arab Palestinian Bantustans connected by Israeli-controlled roads. Reoccupation of southern Lebanon and/or a concerted bombing attack on Lebanon from the air may be a means of ensuring a buffer zone pushing Hizbollah and the Palestinians further apart when all the crap starts to come down from Olmert's unilateral remapping of that part of the world.

But, most importantly, the events precipitating Israel's recent attacks started not a week or two ago, but, rather, months ago, shortly after the election of Hamas. The Sharon/Olmert government immediately stated it would not negotiate with Hamas (the major reason Hamas was elected) and immediately began to choke off funds to the Palestinian Authority by refusing to return tax and customs payments and by encouraging the rest of the world community to withhold emergency aid. The IDF began with a reinvasion of Balata Camp, near Nablus, in the third week of February, 2006. Similar attacks occurred in Bi'lin. Regular artillery shelling of Gaza began in earnest early in April. Shortly after the election, Israel began prolonged closures of the Karni/Muntar cargo crossing which is adjacent to the main food warehouse (located in Israeli territory) which supplies much of Gaza with staples, either for sale or supplied by the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA). At one point in the early spring, access to the warehouse had been closed for several weeks and bread was being rationed. By May, the United States had begun blocking wire transfers to the PA, in support of the Olmert government, and reinvasions of Ramallah had been carried out. Throughout the spring, the Israeli Air Force made periodic raids into both Gaza and the West Bank, carrying out attempted targeted assassinations of Hamas officials and supporters. By the time of the killings of eight Palestinians, including children, on the beach in Gaza on June 9th, the situation had deteriorated enough that home-made rockets were being fired from northern Gaza into Israel on a near-nightly basis, causing little damage, but creating considerable fear in civilians, thus giving the Israeli government a ready excuse to escalate its program of collective punishment designed to isolate Gazans from all outside help, including the bombing of Gaza's electrical generating station, border bridges, homes, schools and offices.

Israel has initiated the same sort of program now in Lebanon. As in Gaza and the northern part of the West Bank, the object has been to cut off the population from any outside assistance and to target Hizbollah leadership, both military and spiritual, from the air. Bombing the airport, destroying bridges at the Syrian border and on roads leading from Beirut, along with blockading the Lebanese coastline and bombing port facilities, are all intended to put Lebanon under siege. Without the Syrian army in the country (nicely finessed with the help of the U.S.), the Lebanese army is so ineffectual as to be very nearly helpless, its weapons antiquated and its personnel poorly trained. If Israel reinvades southern Lebanon, it may well turn out that the only trained and armed resistance to the Israeli military available is in Hizbollah's guerilla fighters. If Israel intended these strikes to cause the Lebanese people to turn against Hizbollah and repudiate them politically, there may be considerable blowback coming from that assumption, especially if Israel continues to destroy Lebanon's infrastructure with ruthless abandon. Hizbollah may be the only thing between the Lebanese and Israeli reoccupation, and Hizbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has said he's ready for a war with Israel. Beyond that, there are no assurances that Israel's current leaders have learned the difficulties in fighting fourth-generation warfare with high-technology firepower.

The Lebanese also know that Hizbollah fighters were the primary, if unspoken, reason for IDF withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000 after eighteen years of occupation, and the Israeli military is still annoyed by the unhappy realization that Hizbollah has been the only force which has successfully repelled them from territory they've occupied. That may be part of the reason for the savagery of Israel's recent attacks, but, I wonder if that's all there is to it.

It's no secret that Hizbollah has strong alliances with both Iran and Syria, and, largely because of Bush's looking the other way as Israel pounds Lebanon and Gaza, one might reasonably suspect that Israel could be doing its level best to draw one or both of those countries into the fray, with the full understanding that the United States will cover its back. Or, worse, that Israel and the U.S. have been cooking up a set of circumstances that might prompt one of those countries to act militarily. Recall that Israel has been making unauthorized fighter overflights of Syrian territory in recent weeks, perhaps hoping for a response from that country (perhaps much in the same way that Bush hoped that Saddam Hussein would retaliate against U.S. overflights of Iraq by U-2s painted in UN colors).

Perhaps this assault on Lebanon is yet another attempt to push the envelope, to force the hand of Bashar Al-Assad. If Assad were, in turn, pushed hard enough by his military to assemble troops and tanks on the Syrian-Lebanese border in readiness for a land invasion of Lebanon by Israel, that would certainly prompt the Israelis to mount a preventive strike. Since Syria and Iran have signed a mutual defense pact recently, Iran might retaliate against Israel in some fashion (or, either the U.S. or Israel might claim an Iran-inspired terrorist attack related to that pact), which is all it would take to set off a full-scale joint U.S.-Israel attack on Iran and Syria. The proximity of Damascus to both Lebanon and Israel would make air assassination strikes on al-Assad and his military leadership virtually inevitable, and the U.S. would have its casus belli, however thin and manipulated, to set in motion its existing plans to attack military, nuclear program and leadership targets in Iran without having to go to Congress for prior authorization. No one in Congress, under the circumstances, would chance bringing up the delicate matter of the U.S. having no bilateral mutual defense treaty with Israel, thus calling into question Bush's authorization to attack under the War Powers Act.

Were all that to come to pass, the neo-cons would have their fondest desires met--U.S. warfare in progress from the western Chinese border to the Mediterranean, all for the sake of regime change and control of petroleum and the routes of its transport throughout the Middle East and South Asia--and Republicans would be able to inculcate in the public a new round of war fever before the 2006 elections, this time for the noble purpose of defending an ally.

What, ultimately, might be accomplished by all that? Simply multiply Iraq by, what, five, six, ten? Probably. Peace and harmony after a brief period of intense destruction? Again, look at Iraq for the likelihood of that. The military will be stretched even thinner, and the supplemental budgets will balloon well beyond the already egregiously large current ones for Afghanistan and Iraq. If Syria reenters Lebanon, that country may find itself in the midst of a new civil war. In any event, Lebanon's recently rebuilt essential infrastructure will have been destroyed by Israel's bombs and missiles and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of innocents will be killed (over 150,000 were killed in the fifteen years of Lebanon's previous civil war). Hizbollah and Iran may direct either terrorism or other asymmetrical warfare at either Israel or the United States, or both. Islamist sentiments could become inflamed in Pakistan and have effects on the government there, setting off increased aid to the Taliban in Afghanistan. An air strike on Iran could easily cause a renewed focus of various insurgent groups and militias on U.S. occupation troops in Iraq. Oil would undoubtedly spike to $100-120/barrel, especially if Iran sought to disrupt, in myriad possible ways, oil shipments through the Persian Gulf. Even if these various possible wars might not last for decades, the ill will generated in Muslim communities around the world would, setting off new instances of terrorism against the U.S. and other Western targets. This will, likely, set off new waves of religious extremism in this country (the Rapture-believing crowd is already positively giddy at current events--imagine their ecstasy over war across the whole of the Middle East).

Israel can look forward to more resistance from Palestinians, and certainly more desolated and despairing kids strapping on vests of explosives, innocents killing innocents. It's almost impossible to comprehend that Israel has been fighting Palestinians and/or its neighbors for sixty years without ever publicly acknowledging that it has both failed in its efforts to drive the Arabs away and that it has assured, by its actions, intensified Islamist efforts at creating theocracies in the region and an enduring Arab enmity that will last a long time--even by the standards of a culture which measures grudges in millennia. When Einstein said that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over and over again and expecting different results, he could have been describing Israeli governments over these many years.

Robert Fisk, living in the midst of the carnage now, in Beirut, and who has lived through it before, thinks Israel will eventually give up on destroying things and settle for a prisoner swap, because it has done so before.

This time, I'm not so sure. The last time all this happened, in 1982, the neo-cons were busy impressing each other with their plans to destroy the Evil Empire and Star Wars was still just a movie.

Bush could induce the Israeli government to cease and desist, and quite lawfully. The Arms Export Control Act bears a provision that denies Israel the right to use US-supplied arms against civilians. Invoking an embargo of funds and ammunition resupply and ordering a stand-down of US equipment (including all those F-16s and Apache helicopters) might slow down the carnage long enough to get Hizbollah, Israel and Hamas to agree to a cease fire, and to implement the prisoner exchange which would inevitably come to pass, anyway. It's worthwhile to remember that while the news is full of civilian deaths in Haifa from Hizbollah rockets (and Hizbollah deserves the blame for that), American-made arms, many of them supplied to Israel gratis, are killing civilians in Lebanon with far greater frequency.

The fact that Bush has not done so, and instead has invoked the same self-defense against "terrorism" mantra on Israel's behalf as he has done at home, means two things: Bush, once again, shows no practical or virtual grasp of the actual situation, and two, there's something else, unseen, at play in the unfolding of events. After the evolving revelation of truth regarding the reasons for the invasion of Iraq, one would be well-advised to be chary of tub-thumping for Israel's latest war, as it may portend more than what events in the most recent couple of weeks suggest.


  • Stop apologizing for the little Hitlers in Headscarves. Everyone but the left (even most Arab Muslims! First time ever!) know that Israel is right.

    Tell you what: Let's lob 1,000 rockets at your house, and then you let me know how much you care about the attackers being elected to rule their little crapholes.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:48 AM  

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