DAMASCUS - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud
Olmert described what is happening in Lebanon as
saying. "This is an act of war." Olmert is
correct. This is war. It has been war, non-stop,
since 1948. What is happening in Lebanon today is
yet another chapter of bloody Middle East events
that will last for generations to come, because it
is impossible, after so many years of conflict,
for the Israelis and Arabs to forgive and forget.
In this week's events in Lebanon, the one
set of parties, which include Syria, the
Palestinians, Iran, Arab nationalists in the
Middle East and North Africa, along with jihadi
Muslims in the Muslim World, believe that
escalation is the only solution to the
They claim that the
Arabs tried to talk peace with the Israelis after
Palestinians signed a peace agreement with Israel
in 1993, and ended up with nothing. They say that
war is correct, justified morally, politically and
To them, it is legitimate
self-defense. They back this argument by saying
that Israel still controls the Sheba Farms, which
are part of Lebanon, and still has Lebanese
prisoners in Israeli jails. Also, they add that
the Israeli tank destroyed by Hezbollah, and the
soldiers captured and killed on July 12, had
trespassed into Lebanon's side of the border with
They argue that if the Arab world
cannot fight Israel, then the least Arab countries
can do is permit -or facilitate - a proxy war with
Israel through the Hezbollah resistance in
US President George W Bush, who
commented on Lebanon from Germany 24 hours after
violence had spiraled out of control, described
the situation as "pathetic". He also expressed
concern that Israel's offensive into Lebanon could
destabilize or even topple a Lebanese government
that Washington supports. He made things worse and
further infuriated the Arab street by expressing
Israel's "right to defend herself".
other party (centered mainly in Lebanon) argues
that Lebanon is paying a high price for a war that
does not concern all Lebanese. The Christians of
Lebanon, along with a majority of the Sunni
Muslims, want a war-free Westernized country that
thrives on tourism and sound economic policies.
The Christians in particular were never
too fond of the Shi'ites of Lebanon. They treated
them as an underclass in the 1950s and 1960s,
allocating no more than 0.7% of the budget for
construction and health care in their districts,
waged war against them in the 1970s and 1980s,
then tried to mend relations with them from 1990
The Christians were worldly,
well-educated and worked in business, politics,
literature and the arts, while the Shi'ites were
mainly laborers, farmers and ordinary citizens
with limited social mobility. Even their deputies
in parliament were feudal landlords who cared
little for the community's welfare.
Christians today - despite all the unity talk
heard in Lebanon - do not feel that the Hezbollah
prisoners in Israeli jails concern them. Nor do
the Sheba Farms. They dislike the Shi'ite south of
the country in as much as the Shi'ite leaders
dislike the Christian districts of Lebanon.
Therefore, they feel indifferent to the
plight of Hezbollah. They do not want Lebanon to
become the "Che Guevara" of Arab politics. They
argue that all this military escalation does is
wreck plans for Lebanon's rebirth. On July 13 - as
the Christians feared - tourism suffered
tremendously after the Israelis struck at Beirut
Airport. In one day, over 15,000 tourists fled
Lebanon by land to Syria.
Both pro and
anti-Hezbollah arguments are valid, depending on
where one stands today in the Arab world.
It all started on July 12 when Israel
troops were ambushed on Lebanon's side of the
border with Israel. Hezbollah, which commands the
Lebanese south, immediately seized on their
crossing. They arrested two Israeli soldiers,
killed eight Israelis and wounded over 20 in
attacks inside Israeli territory.
unleashed hell in Israel, and Olmert immediately
responded by mounting a war on Lebanon. A sea, air
and ground blockade was enforced on Lebanon, and a
systematic destruction of Lebanon's infrastructure
Hezbollah responded by wounding
11 Israelis with Katyusha-style rockets fired on
the town of Safad in northern Israel. Hezbollah
secretary general Hassan Nasrallah gave a press
conference hours after the hostilities started. He
was confident, articulate, strong and very
defiant, as usual, saying that this operation
aimed at getting the Israelis to release Lebanese
prisoners from their jails.
Counter-operations would not release the
two abducted Israeli soldiers, he pointed out.
Statements by Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad
al-Siniora, who wanted to distance himself from
the attacks, said that his government had not
authorized the Hezbollah operation.
claim, however, fell on deaf ears in Israel.
Damaging his credibility was a statement by
Lebanon's ambassador to the United States, Farid
Abbud, who spoke on CNN and demanded a prisoner
exchange between Hezbollah and Israel, adding that
Israel must return the occupied Sheba Farms to
His statements gave the
impression that the Lebanese government, which he
was officially representing, approved of the
kidnapping and was echoing the demands of
Nasrallah. As a result, he was recalled to
Undaunted by Siniora distancing
himself from the Hezbollah operation, Israel
responded by bombing Rafik al-Harriri
International Airport in Beirut, bringing all
aviation to a halt, and bombing two other airports
in northern and southern Lebanon.
airports, Israel claimed, were being used to
channel money and arms to Hezbollah. One of the
party's offices in the suburb of Beirut was
bombed, and so was a post in the ancient city of
Baalbak. And Israel battered roads, flyovers and
fuel tanks in Lebanon early on Friday.
division of 12,000 troops has been stationed on
the Lebanese-Israeli border. The Israeli Ministry
of Defense has threatened to bomb the
Damascus-Beirut highway. If this happens, Lebanon
would become completely isolated, with no ground
route to Syria, and its other outlets by sea and
air blocked by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).
Hezbollah threatened that if more attacks
ensued, it would target Haifa, the third-largest
city inside Israel (which it then did), but Israel
military commanders said that no targets in
Lebanon were safe from reprisal attacks so long as
the two Israeli soldiers were still held hostage
Israeli chief-of-staff Dan
Halutz said that the operations would continue "to
restore calm to northern Israel". These
responsibilities, he added "particularly bombings
by air and artillery, target Lebanon itself and
Hezbollah. They will continue as long as necessary
until our objectives are reached."
military commanders have pledged to plunge Lebanon
back 20 years if hostilities did not end
immediately. Bridges inside Lebanon, near the city
of Sidon and throughout the south, were also
destroyed. The death toll, at the time of writing,
is over 50 Lebanese killed. Another 103 have been
Meanwhile, according to the IDF,
90 people had been injured inside Israel. This is
the largest Israeli offensive in Lebanon since the
IDF invaded and occupied Beirut to defeat the
Palestinian Army of Yasser Arafat in 1982.
Apart from all of these facts, everything
gets muddled in Lebanon. Israel announced on July
13 that two rockets had landed on Haifa from
Lebanon, as Hezbollah had promised, but Hezbollah
denied the accusation.
If Hezbollah did
not fire the rockets, however, who did? Is it a
fabricated story being used by Israel to launch
more offensives into Lebanon, because minutes
after the story was revealed, and despite
Hezbollah's denial, Israel jets raided fuel tanks
at Beirut airport.
The question on
everybody's mind is: why is all of this happening
now? Apart from the soaring emotions and reminders
of trumpeting Arab nationalism of the 1960s, it is
sheer madness for anyone to believe that Hezbollah
would be able to defeat, or even inflict maximum
pain, on Israel - and get away with it.
Too much is at stake inside Israel for
Olmert to let the offensive pass without
transforming it into all-out war. In October 2000,
right at the outbreak of the second Palestinian
uprising in Jerusalem, Hezbollah did a similar
stunt by kidnapping Israelis in Lebanon.
At the time, prime minister Ehud Barak
refused to seriously push for their release,
fearing that opening another front against
Lebanon, while the Israelis were busy combating
the Palestinians at home, would only endanger
Israeli lives. Five months later, Barak was voted
out of office, in March 2001, for a variety of
reasons, prime among them being his passive
response to Hezbollah.
So, is anybody
influencing Hezbollah to dramatically escalate the
conflict? Has Hezbollah coordinated these attacks
with Hamas inside Palestine, believing that the
time was ripe since relatively new and
inexperienced leaders were now in power in Israel
(in reference to Defense Minister Amir Peretz and
Never before has Hezbollah
carried out such a massive offensive, not even
during the heydays of the Syrian presence in
Lebanon in the 1990s when most of south Lebanon
was still occupied.
What makes it believe
that this time - with the tense international
situation - it can get away with it?
Ultra-nationalists in Hamas, like the
Damascus-based Khaled Meshal, have certainly
supported the Lebanese group, injecting them with
confidence and prompting them into "defiance"
Meshal, who leads the
anti-pragmatism fold in Hamas that still wants to
destroy the Jewish state, is not satisfied by the
overtures of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyya
towards Israel. Haniyya, voted into office early
this year, wants to run a country and is suffering
from an international boycott on food, medicine
and money into the Palestinian territories.
Wages have not been paid in Palestine
since February. Haniyya made several gestures of
goodwill toward Israel (much to the displeasure of
Meshal), to prove that he was not in power to
combat Israel but to improve the livelihood of the
Meshal had other plans for
the Hamas-led government, which contradicted with
what Haniyya was seeing on the ground in
Palestine. The two men drifted apart on how to
lead the government, and split when three
resistance groups in Palestine, apparently
coordinating with Meshal's team, kidnapped the
19-year old Israeli soldier on June 25.
This sent shockwaves throughout Israel,
and Olmert responded with grand force,
re-occupying Gaza and killing, to date, an
estimated 75 Palestinians in revenge. Electricity
was destroyed in Gaza, and currently 1.5 million
inhabitants live in darkness. Israel struck at
buildings, an Islamic university and official
buildings, including that of Haniyya and his
Foreign Minister Mahmud al-Zahhar (which was
destroyed on July 13).
Ministers have been
arrested, along with parliamentary deputies, and
brought before military courts clad in chains to
their feet and hands. Haniyya, who sees the state
he is heading crumbling before his very eyes,
wanted to solve the crisis politically, claiming
that all the Palestinians living under his control
were suffering from Israel's military response.
The resistance groups demanded a prisoner swap
where 1,000 Palestinians would be released from
Israeli jails, in exchange for the young Israeli
soldier. Israel has refused.
closer to a solution that releases the Israeli
soldier in exchange for Israel releasing
Palestinian funds (frozen since Hamas came to
power in January, and its authorization to bring
clean drinking water, food and medicine into the
Occupied Territories. Both solutions have not yet
materialized, and in the middle of all the chaos
and war, came the Hezbollah operation.
Men of war This is where the
Meshal-Nasrallah connection comes into play. Both
leaders are clearly not interested in peace with
Israel. Their views are mirrored with their two
allies in Tehran and Damascus. Both leaders are
unimpressed by Arab regimes that call for peace
and dialogue - prime on the list being Mahmud
Abbas in Palestine.
They are being
aggressive with Israel so Israel can respond with
similar aggressiveness - killing whatever dreams
Arabs peacemakers have in mind. The same formula
applies inside Israel, where many do not want room
for moderation in Israeli-Arab relations.
They want to root out the moderates to
justify aggression against the Palestinians and
Lebanese. Meshal would very much love to see Hamas
out of the political process. It would then be
restored to the fold of the resistance, and freed
from the burden of government, able to focus on
military operations once again.
applies to Nasrallah. If Israeli leaves the Sheba
Farms and frees all Lebanese prisoners from its
jails, there would no longer be a need for
Hezbollah. The reason behind such calculations,
however, and the dramatic side-effects such
adventures have on Palestinian and Lebanese lives,
They believe, however, that
war on two fronts would achieve one of two things.
Either it would get Israel to show aggression,
justifying their own aggression against the
Israelis. Or a best-case scenario would be that a
two-side war would break Israel. Either outcome,
Hezbollah and Hamas are the victors.
final argument - based on conspiracy theories - in
the war of Lebanon is that somebody convinced
Hezbollah of this offensive with the purpose of
destroying Hezbollah, forcing them to commit
"political suicide". This "somebody" has given
Hezbollah enough rope to hang itself, making it
believe that it could turn the tables on Israel by
capturing two Israeli soldiers.
for this argument is that Hezbollah, for the past
two years, has been a topic of international
concern. Everybody wants Hezbollah to disarm
(except Syria and Iran) but do not have the means
to make them lay down their weapons. It certainly
is not working by dialogue - because Hezbollah
would not hear a word of it, and, therefore, has
to be done by force through a foreign power. The
only power able and willing to inflict a deadly
blow on Hezbollah is Israel.
Americans pressure Hezbollah to disarm would be
considered aggression on the Shi'ite community as
whole. It would enrage Iran and alienate whatever
support the Americans still had left among the
Shi'ite community in Iraq. The leaders of Lebanon,
who came to power after the Syrian troop
withdrawal in April 2005, wanted to court
Hezbollah. They believed that by making them
shoulder responsibility for government, Hezbollah
would show more reason in dealing with Israel.
The same reasoning applied to the
Americans when they brought the Sunnis to power in
Iraq, hoping that this would help end the Sunni
insurgency. The Lebanese, headed by Siniora,
reasoned that with seats in parliament and
government ministries allocated to Hezbollah, the
resistance group would not possibly engage in war
Apparently, they were wrong.
Many wrongly believed that once the Syrian
army left Lebanon, Hezbollah would be weakened,
gradually losing its influence in the country.
This turned out to be nonsense, since contrary to
what is commonly portrayed in the Western media,
Hezbollah is a party that is totally independent
in Lebanon from control of the Syrians.
They used to work under Syria's umbrella
under former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad in
the 1990s, needing his support to keep their arms
in the post-war era, but since their victory in
liberating south Lebanon in 2000, they have become
independent of Syrian control.
confer with the Syrians, seek their advice and
coordinate with Syria but they do not take orders,
money or arms from Damascus. For example, they had
four parliamentary seats in 1992, and four for
their allies, a total of only eight, and this in
the heyday of Syrian hegemony in Lebanon. Today,
with Syria out, they have 14 seats.
explains why Hezbollah remained pro-Syrian until
curtain-fall. Nasrallah never relied on the
Syrians for his power base, nor did any member of
Hezbollah. Also in Hezbollah's favor now is the
victory of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad,
who has shown strong support for the Shi'ite
Lebanese resistance. Ahmadinejad clearly believes
in the vision of Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah
Khomeini, to promote Shi'ite Islam and help
emancipate the Shi'ites of Lebanon.
Ahmadinejad said on Thursday any Israeli
strike on Syria would be considered an attack on
the whole Islamic world that would bring a "fierce
response", state television reported.
Relevant to all that is happening in
Lebanon today is the degree of support Hezbollah
and Nasrallah have in the Shi'ite community - and
the amount of animosity in non-Shi'ite districts.
One reason the Shi'ites support Hezbollah is
religion. It is not the only one, however, because
a study conducted by Dr Judith Harik, a professor
at the American University of Beirut in 1996,
showed that 70% of Hezbollah's supporters saw
themselves only as moderately religious, and 23%
said they were religious only out of obligation.
Pragmatism, nationalism and charity
networks, rather than Muslim ideology, are the
secrets of Hezbollah's success. Hezbollah enjoys
authority and commands unwavering loyalty among
Shi'ites because it always appears to be a
confident political party that is doing an
honorable job in fighting Israel. Adding to the
nationalist aspect is the social one, which is
that many people in the Shi'ite community, mainly
at the grass-root level, rely on Hezbollah for
charity and welfare.
succeeded in promoting itself through the media,
igniting confidence, safety and security among the
10 million viewers of al-Manar television, for
example. Many of those viewers are Shi'ites. Not
once does al-Manar, for example, show viewers a
member of Hezbollah defeated. Rather, it shows
pictures of dead Israelis, real footage of
Hezbollah operations and programs highlighting
Hezbollah's charity organizations. Hezbollah is a
movement inspired by nationalism rather than
Precisely for these reasons
it would be difficult for anyone to tackle
Hezbollah. The only way to disarm is for the
Shi'ite group to wait until the Israelis leave
Sheba, then free all prisoners. They would then
have to modify their agenda, after quiet
discussions with everybody in Lebanon, and
transform themselves from a military party into a
That would have been the
logical response, but Nasrallah proved otherwise.
What he has done in the past few days is show the
world that if he so wishes, he can create havoc in
Lebanon and the entire Middle East.
Nasrallah is sending a message to the
world - and to his opponents inside Lebanon - that
he is still strong and a force to be reckoned
with. He is also sending a message to the United
States, Israel and the Lebanese that the Shi'ites
are still there - still strong, still a force and
still visible to the rest of the world.