Creating people's geographies
Stephen Farrell, Times Middle East Correspondent, in Metula, says that Condoleezza Rice’s diplomatic success in arranging a 48 hour halt to Israeli air strikes contains two loopholes so large that it is having virtually no effect
31 July 2006 The Times
“There is a large discrepancy between the statement from the US State Department last night announcing an immediate 48 hour halt to Israeli air strikes on southern Lebanon, and the reality on the ground this morning.
“Certainly this is no ceasefire. Any Lebanese villager stranded near the border with Israel would notice no difference in the level of military activity compared to yesterday.
“From where I am standing in the village of Metula I can see Israeli 155mm shells continuing to rain down on the Lebanese border town of Kila at a rate of more than one a minute, causing fires and covering the hillside opposite in a pall of drifting smoke.
“I am told that they are firing smoke canisters rather than live shells, as a ploy to provide cover for other military operations – but for anyone unfortunate enough to be underneath the bombardment it cannot be pleasant.
“Israeli heavy armour is active very close to and across the Lebanese border. Despite the supposed ban on air strikes, an Israeli F16 bomber jet was in action this morning, firing in support of Israeli ground troops near the village of Taibeh.
“Hezbollah for its part is not observing a ceasefire either. Early this morning its fighters fired an anti-tank missile across the border and crippled an Israeli tank, right in front of the world’s media and they fired Katyusha rockets into the town of Kiryat Shmona today.
“If you look carefully at the wording of the Condoleezza Rice announcement, it emerges that the supposed cessation contains loopholes. By saying that Israel ‘reserved the right to take action against targets preparing attacks against it’, Israel is allowed to continue to use its warplanes in support of ground forces and it can also use them to attack Hezbollah rocket launchers.
“This effectively allows Israeli air strikes to continue unchecked in the border areas where its troops are active. Here, the Israeli army has its full arsenal is still available. The only parts of Lebanon which are likely to notice a halt in airstrikes would be Beirut and areas further back from the Israeli border.
“This chimes in with the mood in Israel this morning, where there is a level of anger at the announcement of the temporary halt to some air strikes. One mass circulation tabloid is openly calling it a mistake, saying that the Israeli Prime Minister should never have agreed to it. Instead, it says, the Israeli army should intensify its offensive.
“Israeli public opinion remains robustly in favour of the war in the face of the pictures coming out of Qana yesterday. Most people, while expressing sorrow, agree with the Israeli Government’s line that Hezbollah was to blame and that the civilians had been warned to leave.
“There is a mood of anger and frustration among armchair generals that Israel was apparently strong-armed into a late night about-face, after a day in which Ehud Olmert had been defiant about Qana and saying that operations would continue.
“Amir Peretz, the Israeli Defence Minister, made it clear in Parliament this morning that this is not a ceasefire, that Israel is not interested in a ceasefire now, and indeed that its security cabinet is meeting at 9pm (7pm BST) to discuss expanding military operations in southern Lebanon.
“To understand what has happened, one needs to look at the fact that the cessation in air strikes was announced, not by the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, but by an official from Ms Rice’s State Department – a highly significant fact that has not gone unnoticed in Israel among some commentators who are extremely critical.
“They point out that Ms Rice has an unhappy record in Middle East diplomacy. Her last achievement, to broker the safe passage of aid into Gaza last November, was hailed as a US triumph but fell apart within days if not hours.
“She had already been snubbed by the Lebanese yesterday, who refused to let her visit Beirut again. Faced with the embarrassing prospect of going home empty-handed, with nothing to show for days of negotiations, she wanted to pull a rabbit out of the hat – and this announcement was it.
“The Israelis have appeared to go along with it, but it has actually made no difference on the ground this morning.”
Copyright 2006 Times Newspapers Ltd.