The general surprise that Lebanese civilians are taking the brunt of Israel’s onslaught — and the unwillingness in some quarters of the media to report the fact — reflects a poor understanding of Israel’s historical use of violence. Since its birth six decades ago, Israel has always been officially “going after the terrorists”, but its actions have invariably harmed civilians in an indiscriminate manner.
The roll call of dishonour is long indeed, but its highlights include: the massacre of some 200 civilians in Tantura, as well as large-scale massacres in at least a dozen other Palestinian villages, during the 1948 war that established Israel; Ariel Sharon’s attack on the village of Qibya in 1953 that killed 70 innocent Palestinians; the Kfar Qassem massacre inside Israel when 49 farm workers were gunned down at an improvised army checkpoint; a massacre in the same year in the refugee camp of Khan Yunis, in Gaza, in which more than 250 civilians were killed; attacks on dozens of Palestinian, Egytian and Syrian villages during the 1967 war; the killing of six unarmed Arab citizens of Israel in 1976; the massacre of hundreds of Palestinian civilians in the Lebanese refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla in 1982; the unremitting use of lethal force by the army against unarmed Palestinians, often women and children, during the first intifada of 1987-93; the aerial bombardment of Qana in south Lebanon in 1996 that killed more than 100 civilians; and the endless “collateral damage” of Palestinian civilians during the second intifada, including a half-ton bomb that killed a husband and wide and their seven children a week ago.
The true reasons for these deaths are concealed from credulous observers by Israel’s use of Orwellian language. When it says it is destroying the “infrastructure of terror”, Israel means it is crushing all Arab resistance to its territorial ambitions in the region. The “infrastructure” includes most Arab men, women and children because they continue to support — against Israel’s wishes — their peoples’ rights to self-determination without interference from the Israeli army.
In this sense, and others, there is very little difference between what Israel is doing in Gaza to overturn the democratic wishes of the Palestinian electorate and what it is doing in Lebanon to smash any hopes of a democratic future for its northern neighbour. In Gaza, it wants Hamas destroyed because Hamas is prepared to counter Israel’s unilateral policies with its own unilateral agenda; and in Lebanon, Israel wants Hizbullah obliterated because it is the only force capable, possibly, of preventing a repeat of Israel’s long invasion and occupation of the 1980s and 1990s.
By rounding up the Palestinian cabinet, Israel is not destroying terror, it is clipping the political wings of Hamas, those in its leadership who are quickly learning the arts of government and searching for a space in which they can negotiate with Israel. Through its rejectionist behaviour, Israel is only confirming the doubts of those in the Hamas military wing who argue Israel always acts in bad faith.
Similarly in Lebanon, Israel is holding Hizbullah less to account with its attacks than the Lebanese people and their government, despite the latter’s transparently shaky grip on the country. Israel’s military strikes polarise opinion in Lebanon, weaken Fouad Siniora and his ministers, and threaten to push Lebanon over the brink into another civil war.
Israel is keen to talk about “changing the balance of power” in Gaza and Lebanon, implying that it is trying to stregthen the “democrats” against the “terrorists”. But this impression is entirely false. Israeli actions are destroying what little balance of power exists in Gaza and Lebanon so that the two areas become ungovernable.
In Gaza, Israel has been engineering a debilitating struggle for power between Fatah and Hamas, while in Lebanon whatever hollow shell of national unity has existed till now is in danger of cracking under the strain of the Israeli onslaught.
Superficially at least, this seems self-destructive behaviour on Israel’s part, given that it has also been striving to detect the fingerprints of outside actors in Gaza and Lebanon.
In the case of Gaza, Israel points to Syria as a safe haven for the exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, to Hizbullah and Iran as sponsors of Hamas “terror” and even to a new al-Qaeda presence. In the case of Lebanon, Israel additionally identifies the strong ties between Hizbullah and Damascus and Tehran.
So why would Israel want Lebanon and Gaza to be ravaged by factional fighting of the kind that might make them more vulnerable to this kind of unwelcome interference from outside?
A history lesson or two helps clarify Israel’s reasoning.
In the occupied Palestinian territories, Hamas was born during the upheavals of the first intifada and encouraged by Israel as a counterweight to the unifying secular Palestinian nationalism of Yasser Arafat.
In Lebanon, the Shiite militia Hizbullah was the inevitable byproduct of Israel’s occupation of the south and its establishment of a mostly Christian proxy militia, the South Lebanon Army, against the Muslim majority.
In both cases it is clear Israel hoped that, by Islamising its opponents in these regional conflicts, it would delegitimise them in the eyes of Western allies and that it could cultivate sectarianism as a way to further weaken the social cohesiveness of its neighbours.
Recently Israel has encouraged the slide deeper into Islamic extremism through its policies of unilateralism and its refusal to negotiate.
The same set of policies is being continued now in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon: the shattering of these two societies will only deepen the trend toward radical Islam. Islamic movements not only offer the best hope of local resistance to Israel for these weakened societies but they also offer a parallel social infrastructure of health care and welfare services as state institutions collapse.
There is immediate advantage for Israel in this outcome. With secular society crushed and Islamic resistance movements filling the void, Israel will be able to reinforce the impression of many in the West that Israel is on the front line of global “war of terror” being waged by a single implacable enemy, Islam. Israel’s ability to persuade the world that this war is being waged against the whole “civilised” Judeo-Christian West will be made that bit easier.
As a result, Israel may be able to drag its paymaster, the United States, deeper into the mire of the Middle East as a junior partner rather than as an honest broker, giving Israel cover while it carves up yet more Palestinian land for annexation, puts further pressure on the Palestinains to leave their homeland, and destablises its regional enemies so that they are powerless to offer protest or resistance.
For some time President Bush has found himself in no position to criticise Israeli actions when Tel Aviv claims to be doing no more to the Palestinians than the US is doing to the Iraqis. If the US allows itself to be handcuffed to Israel’s even more extreme version of the “war on terror”, the consequences will be dire not just for the Palestinians or the region, but for all of us.