As a Palestinian who sincerely believes in the need to have peace in the Middle East, I am torn between two opposing views. On the one hand, I have been impressed with the rare military success against the arrogant Israeli war criminals. But at the same time, as a moderate, I am concerned with the possibility of a victory (or a perceived victory) by hardline Islamists whose ideology has little room for middle-of-the-ground political compromise.
After so many Arab military defeats and political failures, it is not surprising that the actions, strategies and political honesty of Hizbollah’s charismatic leader Hassan Nasrallah are embraced by Palestinians and by Arab patriots.
Ever since the recent post-Hariri assassination elections, Nasrallah, the leader of the Hizbollah resistance group, has been calling on the Lebanese government (of which his group is part as well) to help resolve the two remaining issues of dispute with Israel: the occupied Shebaa Farms and the need to release the remaining 20 odd Lebanese. Actually these two issues are included in the current government’s working programme.
Lebanon’s Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, in an attempt to peacefully fulfill these goals, made an appeal during his recent visit to Washington for the end of the occupation of the disputed Arab farms and the release of the prisoners, but to no avail. Syria and Lebanon both insist that this farm area is Lebanese, but this has done little to change Israel’ attitude, which says that the land is Syrian and will be evacuated only within the context of an agreement with Syria.
The prisoners are also a source of pain to the Lebanese. Jailed by Israel during the 1982-2000 occupation of south Lebanon, the Israelis refused to release the 300 Lebanese after its unilateral withdrawal from south Lebanon.
Hizbollah’s leader has been totally forthright and honest with the Israelis, to the degree that public opinion polls have shown that the Israelis trust his words more than those of their own leaders. For some time this year, Nasrallah has been repeatedly stating that if the Israeli don’t release the Lebanese prisoners, his group will seize Israeli soldiers to secure a swap. The latest successful capture of two Israelis came after a classical attack on a military target (the Israelis insist on calling it terrorism) in which a tank was destroyed, eight soldiers were killed and two were captured.
Israel’s exceeding reaction to this military act took the form of collective punishment which forced the normally neutral Swiss government to declare that the Israeli action are crimes of war and in clear violation of the Geneva Conventions.
The Palestinians’ situation is also important for Hizbollah which considers itself a patriotic Lebanese, Arab and Islamic movement. Ever since the Palestinians democratically elected a government that is not to the liking of the Americans and the Israelis, the world’s superpower and its ally arbitrarily imposed an economic siege, barring any transfer of money (even from Arab and Muslim countries) to the Palestinian government.
The Palestinians, like the Lebanese, have had citizens in Israeli prisons for long time. Israeli jails are crowded with nearly 10,000 Palestinians, many of them (literally thousands) held without charge or trial, based on ancient British Emergency Regulations. As in Siniora’s case, moderate Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has tried in vain to gain the release of any of the Palestinian prisoners, but even children, women and many sick individuals continue to be incarcerated without an end in sight.
In recent Middle East history, the only time Israel released Arab prisoners was during a prisoner swap.
Ever since Israel’s unilaterally withdrew from Gaza, it has refused to deal with the new Hamas government. When the Israeli army withdrew from Gaza, Israel rejected many calls to release the prisoners who were residents of the Gaza Strip, which is another violation of the Geneva Conventions.
Not only have the Israelis refused to allow money in to pay the Palestinian public servants (or even return tax money collected by Israel on behalf of the Palestinian Authority), they have also refused repeated offers by the Palestinians for a ceasefire. Israel wanted the Palestinians to stop launching their homemade Qassam rockets without it agreeing to stop the assassination of Palestinian leaders.
If terror can be defined as an indiscriminate violent act against civilians aimed at forcing a population to change the position of its government, then what the Israelis have been doing in Gaza Strip and in Lebanon is a classical form of terrorism.
Unlike the traditional Arab-Israeli conflicts, this latest round of violence has a new twist: Iran. Because Hizbollah is a Shiite-based resistance movement with connections to Iran, the Islamic Republic has suddenly been thrust into the middle of this conflict. Timed at heightened Western-Iranian tensions over the latter’s nuclear plans, what began as a cross-border military attack has suddenly taken on regional dimension. Whether acting in their own interests or in those of their American allies, the Israelis have seized the attack as an opportunity to once and for all cripple what they consider Iran’s proxy in the region. Hizbollah’s repeated denials have gone unheard and unnoticed as the US is showing support for the Israeli plans to destroy Hizbollah.
In an well viewed interview on Al Jazeera, Nasrallah called this accusation humiliating to Hizbollah whose first and foremost allegiance, he said, is to Lebanon.
The unusual success of radical Islamic groups is a major source of concern to those believing in the need for a historic compromise in the Middle East. Had Israel and its US ally given serious and effective support to moderates like Siniora and Abbas, the situation might have been different.
If Condoleezza Rice and the Americans are serious about changing the rules of the game now, they must give real, serious and tangible support to moderate elements. This support must be reflected in ended occupations, release of prisoners and an iron-clad pledge from the Israelis that they will end targeting innocent Arab citizens and the infrastructure of Palestine and Lebanon.