Creating people's geographies
The Franco-US resolution is an absurdity: it would give Israel immunity while denying Lebanon the right to defend itself
Guardian Thur 10 August 2006
As Lebanon is brought to its knees, and Israeli leaders promise yet more of the same, there is something truly extraordinary about the manner in which the war on Lebanon is being portrayed as a war for Israel’s survival, as if it were the existence of the Jewish state that were at risk.Whatever else it may be, this is a war between palpable unequals: a giant nuclear-armed power with the most advanced western military hardware and a potential ground force of up to 650,000 trained men, against a tiny third-world guerrilla force of around 5,000 fighters, armed largely with second-hand former eastern bloc hardware (the first Katyusha rockets were developed in the early 1940s) and castoffs from Iran and Syria.
The idea that the latter can pose an existential threat to the former, under any foreseeable circumstances, is risible at best and disingenuous at worst. While it can hardly be comfortable for northern Israel’s civilian population to be forced into shelters for four weeks, the physical safety of the overwhelming majority – unlike that of their counterparts in much of Lebanon – has never been seriously at stake. And while Hizbullah’s supposed targeting of Israeli civilians has yielded relatively few victims, Israel’s repeated “mistakes” in Lebanon have maintained a civilian death rate of about 100 Lebanese to every three Israelis. The opposite side of this coin is that while Israel’s hi-tech “surgical strikes” have killed hundreds more civilians than Hizbullah fighters, the Lebanese resistance’s low-tech weapons have killed about three times as many Israeli soldiers as civilians.
After yesterday’s decision to expand the ground war all the way up to the Litani river and beyond, Israel’s constantly shifting war plan is now moving away from its initial relatively cautious phase and has plunged headlong into grand-scale politico-strategic engineering. What Israel now seeks is less of a secure border, and more of a major rearrangement of the Lebanese domestic scene that will crush resistance not only in Lebanon, but by extension in Palestine as well, and wherever else it may exist across the seething Arab Muslim world.
If Hizbullah, as many have argued, is indeed the people of south Lebanon and the voice of Shia Lebanese empowerment, then the Israelis seem to believe that the best means of defeating them is to disperse them, uproot the communities in which they thrive, and destroy the infrastructure that sustains them and provides them with their means of livelihood.
That is why Israel has been pounding away at the Shia areas of south Beirut that Hizbullah evacuated even before the bombing began. That is why it is attacking Shia population centres in the Beka’a valley in the east of the country. And that is why it is deliberately depopulating south Lebanon, driving almost a million civilians northwards in the hope of destroying what remains of the area’s infrastructure, so as to make it impossible for its residents to return home any time in the near future. As in Gaza – which has been hit by 12,000 artillery shells over the past six weeks – Israel is creating a system of free fire and buffer zones, where it will be free to act in response to any “provocation”.
Sadly, there is really not much new here. Depopulation is a longstanding Israeli expedient, used sometimes for grand strategic purposes, as in the 1948 war in Palestine, and at other times for less grandiose aims, but no less painfully, as in Lebanon in the 1978, 1982 and 1996 invasions.
The difference this time is in the purposeful destruction of the social and economic structure of the south, and the rest of the country. With no popular sea to swim in, Hizbullah’s fighters will have been denied a secure social base for a long time to come. And now there seems to be the additional goal of creating a new socio-demographic reality in Lebanon, one that will make an impact on the already fragile domestic confessional and sectarian balance. After “cleansing” the south, Israel expects the rest of Lebanon, with support from the international community, to continue the elimination of Hizbullah – politically if possible, but by force of arms if necessary.
The fact is that it is now Lebanon that faces an existential threat. And with that comes the threat of a serious meltdown in the Levant that will have inevitable repercussions, from Syria to Iraq with its disaffected Shia masses. And it is precisely because of these grave dangers that the initial Franco-US draft security council resolution is so outrageous.
The draft effectively gives immunity to Israel’s occupying forces, denies Hizbullah, or any other Lebanese party, the right to resist the continued violation of Lebanese sovereignty and soil, says not a word about an Israeli withdrawal, and does nothing to bring the population back to their homes and thus safeguard Lebanon’s domestic balance and political future.
How any of this could be expected to appeal to the Lebanese, how an undefeated Hizbullah is meant to concur, and how this could have been seen as “a step in the right direction” as suggested by prime minister Blair, beggars belief. And why the strongest military power in the region needs another layer of defence via an international force, to secure it from the weakest and least powerful party in the area, is simply beyond argument or reason.
The only conclusion must be that the real purpose of the British-backed Franco-US manoeuvre is a deliberate and calculated western attempt to rescue Israel’s ill-conceived war from the jaws of political and moral defeat. It is also meant to threaten the Lebanese with dire consequences for refusing to rise up against the party that is defending their very soil and homes. And it is further intended to send a message to Tehran and Damascus that those who act with such violence in Lebanon, as well as Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, are ready to do the same in Iran and Syria as well.
The UN may yet come to its senses, and stitch together a resolution that has a minimum chance of success. Its initial, absurd draft may have been intended to produce a second modified draft that the Arabs, Lebanese and Hizbullah would find very hard to refuse.
But even if Lebanon survives intact, the hatred of its battered and bloodied population for those on the other side of the border will have intensified, and a whole new generation of Lebanese will have grown up knowing nothing of Israel but its pitiless aerial bombardment and indiscriminate destruction. Far from being a war for its survival, Israel has by its actions over the past month only increased the long-term threat to its own security.
· Ahmad Samih Khalidi is a senior associate member of St Antony’s College, Oxford, a former Palestinian negotiator and the co-author, with Hussein Agha, of A Framework for a Palestinian National Security Doctrine (Chatham House, 2006)