Avi Shlaim International Herald Tribune
FRIDAY, AUGUST 4, 2006
OXFORD, England Massacres in Qana, Lebanon is the victim of the cruel geopolitics of the Middle East, with the massacre of innocent civilians a recurrent feature of Israeli military intervention in this fragile, democratic, multiethnic republic. The history of Israel’s involvement in the affairs of its northern neighbor is replete with lessons about the perils of intervention.
Leaders who ignore the lessons of history are more likely to repeat its mistakes. One of the few wise decisions ever made by Israel in relation to Lebanon was to withdraw its forces in May 2000 after an 18-year misadventure.
Comparisons are being drawn between the current campaign and the ill- conceived and ill-starred invasion of Lebanon in 1982. But the more instructive comparison is between the recent incursion and the strangely named Operation Grapes of Wrath, which the Labor prime minister Shimon Peres mounted in April 1996.
Both operations reflect the same predisposition to shun diplomacy and rely on military force to achieve political objectives. In both cases, civilian leaders accepted uncritically the advice of the military in order to bolster their popularity with the Israeli public.
Shimon Peres, who became prime minister after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, tried to recast himself from Mr. Peace to Mr. Security. Ehud Olmert, who succeeded the hawkish Ariel Sharon, is trying to prove that he can be just as tough and decisive when Israel’s security is at stake.
The Israel Defense Force has always been influential in policymaking, but its influence today is without parallel. When Hezbollah mounted an unprovoked attack across the border and captured two Israeli soldiers, Olmert presented only a military plan of action to his security cabinet; Israel holds 15 Lebanese prisoners, but the option of negotiations on a prisoners’ exchange was not even considered.
In both cases the main aim of the operation was to break Hezbollah – and in both cases the aim was unrealistic.
In 1996 the idea was to put pressure on the civilians of southern Lebanon, so that they would put pressure on the government of Lebanon, so that it would put pressure on the Syrian government which, finally, would curb Hezbollah and grant immunity to Israeli forces in southern Lebanon. In short, the plan was to compel Syria to act as an Israeli gendarme in Lebanon. Syria did not oblige and Hezbollah went from strength to strength.
The original aim of the present campaign was said to be to destroy Hezbollah. This aim, too, is completely unrealistic. No amount of external military pressure can bring about the forcible disarming of Hezbollah. The Lebanese government is a fragile coalition that includes two Hezbollah representatives. The writ of the Lebanese Army does not extend to the south and an attempt to disarm Hezbollah there would probably provoke a revolt from the Shiite rank and file.
In Lebanon Hezbollah is widely seen not as a terrorist organization but as an authentic Islamic resistance movement. It was not the Lebanese Army but Hezbollah that drove the mighty Israel Defense Force out of Lebanon in 2000 with its tail between its legs. Hezbollah empowers the poor and underprivileged Shiite community. To destroy Hezbollah, Israel would have to kill all the Shiite population.
Both Israeli incursions into Lebanon involved the deliberate targeting of civilians in flagrant violation of the laws of war. In Operation Grapes of Wrath, Israel’s strategy was the equivalent of using a bulldozer to weed a garden. The commander of the current operation, Dan Halutz, is a former commander of the air force, and the leading advocate of the use of air power against civilians. Asked what he felt when he dropped a bomb on a civilian target, Halutz replied that there was a slight judder when the bomb was released and that was it. The reply speaks volumes about the depth of moral depravity of Israel’s top soldier.
It was on Halutz’s advice that the Israeli cabinet last month authorized the most savage air attack in Lebanon’s history, which destroyed Beirut Airport, power stations, bridges, highways, civilian houses and even a UN post. In 1996, Israeli forces drove about 400,000 civilians from their homes. Currently the number is more like 800,000, added to which there are 515 civilian dead and more than 3,000 wounded. A high proportion of these casualties are children.
In 1996, a massacre of civilians brought Operation Grapes of Wrath to its inglorious end. One hundred and two refugees sheltering in a UN compound in Qana were killed by a barrage that was later described by Amnesty International as deliberate. The massacre gave Hezbollah a decisive moral victory. An international outcry forced the United States to arrange an immediate cease-fire to halt the bloodshed. Operation Grapes of Wrath was a political, military and moral failure.
Last weekend, in the same town of Qana, Israeli bombs killed at least 28 innocent civilians. Once again there was universal condemnation of the Israeli action; this may yet prove to be the tipping point in this ugly war. Hezbollah is ready to cease fire as soon as Israel does. America, having given Israel the green light to continue this war, is still opposed to the immediate cessation of hostilities but is working to bring about what it calls a sustainable cease-fire. So far, however, America has been part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Never in its history has Israel been subject to less restraint from America than it is today.
Whether Israel ends this war in a better strategic position than the one from which it started remains to be seen. But no strategic gain would justify in moral terms the death and destruction that Israel has visited on its defenseless neighbor. As in 1982, the effect of this savage assault on the Lebanese people will be to breed a new generation of angry young men dedicated to resistance.
Killing children is wrong. Period. A “war on terror” cannot be won by a democratically elected government acting like a terrorist organization. War is too serious a business to be left to the generals.
Avi Shlaim is a British Academy Research Professor at St Antony’s College, Oxford, and author of “The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World.”
Source: International Herald Tribune