Creating people's geographies
The sixth Arab-Israeli war, as some have called it, has ended in the first real setback for Israel’s deterrent power
The Guardian Thursday August 17, 2006
There was nothing new about the broad objective behind Israel’s war on Lebanon: through the destruction of Hizbullah it was to wreak fundamental change in a strategic, political and military environment that it had come to regard as menacing to its future. Nothing new about its methods either: the use of massive violence not merely against its military adversary but against the civilians and the infrastructure of the country in which it operates. Or about its official justification: seizing upon one single act of “terrorist” violence from the other side as the opportunity to strike at the whole “terrorist” organisation that was responsible for it. Or about the international support, even outright collaboration, it enjoyed, although in the case of the US and Britain this support was unprecedented in its partisan degree and in the perception of the vast dimensions, nature and menace of the “enemy” against which Israel was waging war. For Condoleezza Rice the “root causes” of the Lebanese crisis lay not on the Israeli side but in the wider Arab and Muslim world: Hizbullah was but the cutting edge of “global terror”, of the Islamic fanaticism that nurtured it, and of those states, Iran and Syria, that succour these forces for their own purposes, whether inspired by ideology or realpolitik.Nor was there anything fundamentally unexpected about the Israeli campaign. For it grew out of very nature and dynamics of the Arab-Israeli conflict. For all the peace-seeking diplomacy it also engenders, that conflict remains what it was from the outset, one in which violence is always the ultimate arbiter. Ever since the 70s, when the Arab states lost the will and ability to fight classical wars, most of the violence has been confined to the main protagonists – Israelis and Palestinians. Basically, Israel seeks through violence to preserve all the gains, at Palestinian expense, that violence secured it in the first place, or at least as much of them as is consistent with its view of what would constitute a reasonable peaceful settlement. The Palestinians use violence in repeated attempts to wrest back enough of what they have lost, or simply to cause sufficient pain and alarm to make possible what, in their view, that settlement should entail. Most of the time violence has been low-level and attritional, but every now and then it escalates into something much larger.
What is new – and dramatically so – about this campaign is its outcome. Arabs soon dubbed this the sixth Arab-Israeli war, and for some of them – and indeed for some Israelis – it already ranks, in its strategic, psychological and political consequences, as perhaps the most significant since Israel’s “war of independence” in 1948. For a state that relies for its survival not on the acceptance of its neighbours but on its repeatedly demonstrated ability to defeat and intimidate them by superior force of arms, it is vital to retain what it calls its “deterrent power”. What, on July 12, made Hizbullah’s seizure of two soldiers so unbearable was not that it was a “terrorist” act; it was that – allowed to pass without an appropriate response – it would have constituted a grievous blow to that “deterrent power”. But with the extraordinary shortcomings of that response it has not only failed to repair its deterrent power, it has undermined it as never before.
Hizbullah achieved this in various ways. On the strictly military level, a small band of irregulars kept at bay one of the world’s most powerful armies for over a month, and inflicted remarkable losses on it; the manner in which it did this – a combination of professional skills, ingenuity, intrepidity, meticulous preparation, masterful use of anti-tank missiles, brilliant organisation, labyrinthine underground defences – is only now fully coming to light. This was only possible because Hizbullah represented something else: the first non-state actor to single-handedly take on Israel in a full-scale war of this kind. Only such an actor could have secured the freedom of action to prepare for and conduct such a war. Yet it was Israel itself, through its earlier attempts to change its strategic environment by force, that did so much to create Hizbullah, just as, in Palestine, it did so much to create Hamas.
It is not just Hizbullah’s performance in itself that has changed the balance of power at Israel’s expense; it is the example it sets for the whole region. In his way Hassan Nasrallah is now an even more inspiring Arab hero than Nasser was; Hizbullah’s achievement has had an electrifying impact on the Arab and Muslim masses that largely transcends the otherwise growing, region-wide Sunni-Shia divide; it will contribute to their further radicalisation and, if that is not appeased by the Arab regimes, to upheavals in the whole existing order. “Public opinion says to the regimes, ‘If they are getting more on the battlefield than you are at the negotiating table, and you have so many more means at your disposal, then what the hell are you doing?’ ” says Mouin Rabbani of the International Crisis Group.
King Abdullah of Jordan, who – like Egypt and Saudi Arabia – made the mistake of publicly accusing Hizbullah of “uncalculated adventurism”, and clearly hoped that Israel would punish it, admits that if things go on like this then new Hizbullahs will emerge, with his kingdom among the candidates for one.
Hizbullah has no intention of disarming, and it is improbable that anyone else can get it to do so. Never before, therefore, has Israel ended a war so persuaded that, sooner or later, it will only generate another. The only way to prevent that is to get Israel and the US to realise that those “root causes” out of which it grew lie on their side too. Israel may not have caused “global terror” and Islamic extremism, but with its own violence, especially that against civilians, it greatly inflames it. And Israel resorts to violence, at bottom, because it cannot achieve peace; and it cannot achieve that because the only peace it has ever offered falls so far short of what Arabs and Palestinians could ever accept. This is the conclusion a few Israelis, Europeans and even leading Americans are drawing. But there is no sign of the Israeli establishment or President Bush doing so. They should bear in mind, says Israeli commentator Nissim Kalderon, that “the difficult war imposed upon us obliges us to take greater risks for peace after the war. Because the risks of the coming missile war with the fundamentalists could be greater. Much greater.”
· David Hirst reported from the Middle East for the Guardian from 1963 to 2001