I discussed in an earlier post the 18 July news release in which the French news site Voltaire.net explained its refusal to accept the rules laid down by the IDF military censor for reporting on the current Israel-Lebanon hostilities. One of the things I didn’t get around to then was the claim that the abduction of the two Israeli soldiers on 12 July, which ostensibly sparked this crisis, took place not in Israel but in Lebanon, where the IDF was carrying out a military incursion:
Here are the facts: for many years Hezbollah has sought the release of prisoners held by Israel, such as Samir el Kantar, imprisoned since 1978, Nassim Nisr and Yahia Skaff (incarcerated since 1982). On numerous occasions, Hezbollah has made clear that for its part it will take prisoner Israeli soldiers – should they enter Lebanon – and use them as bargaining chips. The IDF quite deliberately sent a commando team into the Lebanese back country at Aita al Chaab. It was attacked by Hezbollah, who took two prisoners. Israel then pretended that it had been a victim of aggression and attacked Lebanon. Hezbollah, which had been preparing to confront an Israeli attack that everyone knew was imminent after the Syrian withdrawal, fired medium-range missiles at Israel...
On the order of the Israeli military censor, the press and media agencies that have journalists accredited in Israel did not inform their readers of the place where the Israeli soldiers were taken prisoner. They didn’t actually lie about it, but abstained [from mentioning it].[translation mine]
Now, it’s perfectly feasible that the Israelis might have been operating in Lebanon when they were captured. There was a similar incident in January 2004 when Israel carried out bombing raids on south Lebanon after Hizbullah killed an IDF soldier on Israel’s northern border, and only acknowledged after the fact that its dead soldier was actually operating inside Lebanon when he was killed. So clearly Israel has no compunction about "retaliating" against Hizbullah even when its own troops are the ones sparking the initial flare-up. But in this case – and of course I’m just guessing here - I would tend to believe the Israeli version of events, simply because not a single reporter from any mainstream news agency has broken ranks and gone with the "it started in Lebanon" story. Perhaps I am being naïve about this, but if I were a reporter with information like that, I would break it even if it cost me my credentials. So what if I never worked in Israel again, if I’d got my scoop of a lifetime? The fact that nobody has done anything like that makes me think that this isn’t a story that is known to the press agencies, and they are not covering it up at the behest of the censor.
Having said that, I should also say that I find it difficult to drum up much enthusiasm about the debate over where exactly those soldiers were captured because I think the question itself is a red herring. Firstly, because it suggests that if we can just prove the soldiers were captured on Israeli territory, then Israel's attack on the entire nation of Lebanon would somehow be all right. And secondly, because it implies that this war is about protecting the sanctity of the Blue Line, when in fact Israel could not care less about the inviolability of its international border with Lebanon. It is not the case that there was peaceful coexistence on that border till Hizbullah cruelly spoiled it, as the Israeli narrative would like you to believe. That border is regularly breached by hostile acts, usually - though not always - from the Israeli side. On a border where violations are a weekly occurrence, the fact that Israel would use this one as a casus belli for a massive strike on Lebanon, suggests that this war isn't specifically to do with what happened on 12 July, whichever side of the border that incident occurred. I think the 12 July incident was simply a useful excuse for Israel to launch a war it has been waiting to fight for a long time, whose goals have nothing to do with winning the release of two captured soldiers.
In the U.S., we are generally told that the underlying reason for the Israel-Lebanon hostilities is that Israel has been forced into a defensive war by a terrorist group on its northern border. This perspective was succinctly summed up by Josh Marshall at TPM who wrote:
Hopefully there's some way out of this in which the underlying problem here can be solved -- Lebanon's lack of control over the belligerent militia controlling its southern border.
Well OK, but let’s for a moment pretend that Israel’s point of view is not the only point of view in the world, and try looking at this from the perspective of some of the people who live on the northern side of the border. Lara Deeb’s Hizballah Primer suggests that from a south Lebanese perspective there is a quite different “underlying problem” on the Israel-Lebanon border:
Unstated “rules of the game,” building on an agreement not to target civilians written after the Qana attack in 1996, have governed the Israeli-Lebanese border dispute since 2000... Both sides, on occasion, have broken the “rules of the game,” though UN observer reports of the numbers of border violations find that Israel has violated the Blue Line between the countries ten times more frequently than Hizballah has.
So, if you were a Lebanese on the northern side of the Israeli border, you might well agree that there is a belligerent militia destabilizing the border of south Lebanon, but you might have good reason to think that that militia actually originates on the southern side of the border, and is called the IDF. And from your perspective as a Lebanese citizen subject to repeated border violations from your southern neighbour, you might think that there are good reasons for Hizbullah not to be disarmed, despite what UNSCR 1559 says. And some of the more cynical among you might also believe that Israel's interest in seeing this resolution forcibly implemented isn't really motivated by a new-found respect for international law or regional peace, but by a selfish desire to see a rather effective sub-state militia removed from south Lebanon and replaced by the ineffectual army of a weak central government, which would be incapable of responding effectively to the IDF's continued violations of Lebanese sovereignty.
In other words, you might agree with the large majority of Lebanese polled in recent days whose opinions suggest that:
... Hizbullah is less likely seen as constituting the underlying "root" or cause of the conflict -- which needs to be removed, as Bush and Blair have been reiterating -- but rather, its effect. In other words, Hizbullah, which owes its creation to the Israeli invasion of 1982, is the result of Israel's predatory behaviour and war-mongering, not the reverse. Tackling the roots of the problem therefore lies in pressuring Israel to accept a comprehensive and just regional peace agreement, not in destroying Hizbullah.
Those readers - and I know I have them – who don't want to hear evidence if it comes from an Arab or U.N. source, will be disappointed to hear that this dynamic (Israel as aggressor, Hizbullah as defender), is confirmed in Israeli research too. In 2004, Daniel Sobelman of Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies conducted a detailed study of Hizbullah’s rocket attacks on Israeli targets during the first four years since the IDF’s withdrawal from Lebanon, and found that there was a consistent pattern to the flare-ups on Israel’s northern border. And it is precisely the opposite to the one that we are led to believe. It turns out that Hizbullah, far from instigating the violence through terror attacks on Israel’s northern border, in practice respects the 1967 border with Israel; while Israel, far from "retaliating" to Hizbullah attacks, persistently violates Lebanese sovereignty by carrying out “targetted killings” (i.e. assassinations) and military incursions inside Lebanon, and above all by repeatedly overflying Lebanese airspace, often in ways designed to terrorize the civilian population, e.g. by practising mock air raids on their villages and inflicting sonic booms over major population centers including Nabatiyah, Zahrani, Sidon, Baalbek and Beirut.
[A] new study showed that the firing of the antiaircraft missiles was not random, but came as a response to the IAF's violation of Lebanese airspace. "A comparison of IAF flight data with the data on the firing of the antiaircraft missiles shows a direct relationship between the violations and the firing," wrote Daniel Sobelman of Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.
Sobelman studied Hezbollah activities over the past four years and concluded that the Shi'ite organization actually wants to preserve the status quo created in the north after the IDF's departure from Lebanon. He found a clear contradiction between Hezbollah's declared ideology, which calls for the destruction of Israel, and the restrained policy that it actually implements, which is based on rules of behavior that have crystalized between it and Israel.
These rules are the name of the game, according to Sobelman, and Hezbollah follows them. The most important rule is "action-reaction," that is, Hezbollah responds to Israel's "aggressive acts." Among these are overflights of Lebanese territory, border crossings into Lebanon by IDF troops or targeted killings of the organization's members in Beirut. Thus, the firing last month at the two IDF soldiers who climbed the antenna of a fortification in the north came as a response to the killing of Hezbollah operative Ghaleb Awali. Two other incidents in which IDF soldiers were killed by Hezbollah occurred after IDF soldiers crossed the border fence….
-- Hezbollah plays by the rules; by Reuven Pedatzur, Ha'aretz, 16 Aug 2004. [Footnote]
So, it turns out that Hizbullah isn't so much trying to "wipe Israel off the map" as responding in kind to an Israeli neighbour who seems unable to internalise the fact that if you cannot stop swaggering across your neighbours' backyard, then you may well find that your neighbours insist on their right to lob rockets into yours. And I think that's what this war is all about. Despite the hysteria, Hizbullah's rockets are not an existential threat to Israel. Its threat to Israel is more subtle than the damage it can inflict with its rockets: it is that Hizbullah has become the one party in the Middle East conflict that can impose even a small measure of deterrence against Israel's freedom of military action.
This is a constraint that Israel cannot countenance because Israel's policy towards the Arabs is essentially unilateralism backed up by the threat of overwhelming military force; what you might call Iron Wall Zionism. This has worked reasonably well in the past, because of the kinds of neighbours it has. Israel is not surrounded by popular or democratic regimes who are representative of their subjects or responsive to their needs or opinions. It is surrounded in large part by undemocratic regimes that stay in power because they are propped up with weapons, financing, intelligence training and resources for "internal control" by the United States. And in return, the price they pay for staying in power is that they must not reflect their own people's anger at Israeli or U.S. policy; they must never respond to Israeli expansionism with anything more than diplomatic objections; they must never deploy their national armies against anybody except their own protesting people.
But Hizbullah doesn't fit the pattern. It is a popular movement that gets its legitimacy from its own community, based on its history of struggle against the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon, and its provision of social services to the local community. Unlike other Arab rulers, it doesn't fear making a misstep that will lose it U.S. support, because it doesn't owe its position to the U.S. in the first place. That leaves Hizballah free to do what the Arab governments cannot do, which is to respond militarily to Israel. When Israel violates Lebanon's borders, Hizbollah will fire katyushas at Kiryat Shmona; when Israel devastates wide swaths of Gaza on its southern border, Hizballah will open a new front in the north. And that's potentially very harmful if you are Israel, and the basis of your Arab policy is unilateralism without the fear of meaningful consequences.
So the war against Hizballah is the war to take away any threat of Arab deterrence. It's not a war to restore the sovereignty of the border, but to reassert Israel's right to be the only party that is allowed to violate international borders; not a war against cross-border kidnappings and the holding of captured citizens as bargaining chips, but a war to restore Israel's exclusive right to carry out kidnappings and hold foreign nationals hostage; not a war for the inviolability of airspace, but for Israel alone to have the right to routinely violate it; not a war for the implementation of international resolutions, but to ensure that only Israel might get away with turning a blind eye to resolutions it doesn't like. In short, the IDF is at war to assert a local monopoly on the use of violence.
Even if that explains why Israel is fighting, it doesn’t explain how Israel is fighting, which seems to defy all logic. Hizbullah is a sub-state actor, with no easy return address, but even after taking that into account it is surely obvious that destroying Lebanon’s infrastructure, indiscriminately killing civilians for the crime of being unable to evacuate south Lebanon, or bombing the Christians of Jouniyeh, isn’t going to beat it. In fact, Israel seems to be achieving precisely the opposite of what it set out to do: instead of reaffirming its military superiority, the IDF has displayed to the world the limits of its military might against an organised and motivated guerilla army. (A vulnerability that I’m sure hasn’t been lost on any resistance group, or any Arab General, in the region). Instead of turning Lebanese public opinion against Hizbullah, it has boosted - even beyond Hizbullah’s natural constituencey – the movement’s argument that it is a legitimate resistance movement that is necessary to defend south Lebanon against Israel because the Lebanese army cannot. Instead of adding another weak, toothless neighbour on Israel’s borders, the existing weak, toothless governments of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia have been forced by the overwhelming anger of their own people to distance themselves from Israel and the U.S. and to publicly question how long they can afford to commit themselves to a negotiated peace that the Israelis are clearly not interested in. Whatever else you say about Israel’s war – and there is plenty you could say about waging war by bombing people whose only crime is to be in an area that you declare Hizbullah-friendly – one of the most damning things you can say is that pursuing a war that highlights your own vulnerabilities while empowering your enemies is just plain stupid.
Now, Israelis are obviously not stupid, so why fight a war that ends up strategically hurting them more than their enemies? Well, I don't think they planned for it to turn out like this. I think they’re simply doing what has worked for them for years - making early resort to military force, followed by more force if that doesn't work – but this time it doesn’t produce results for them because they’re facing a new kind of enemy. Sub-state militias are not intimidated by your overwhelming force, they feed off it. Central governments and national armies are weakened and blamed when their civilians are killed and their lands occupied, but every dead civilian adds to the legitimacy of popular resistance movements like Hizbullah (or Hamas, in Gaza) and every day of occupation brings them new recruits. So the war in Lebanon isn’t producing the goods for the Israelis, because south Lebanon in 2006 is a meeting point where Israel’s doctrine of “if force doesn’t work on the Arabs, try more force” meets a new generation of enemies that is not weakened but strengthened precisely by the reliance on force.
The general mayhem that the IDF is wreaking in Lebanon and Gaza might look like wild flailing by an army and a government gone mad, but it represents a perfectly logical progression. If escalation is the only thing you know, and you find yourself fighting an opponent that is strengthened by your escalation, then you will inevitably find yourself in a spiral of increasing violence that progresses to what we currently see in Lebanon and Gaza and culminates ultimately in the kind of outcome that Martin van Creveld, professor of military history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, described in 2003:
In campaigns like this, the anti-terror forces lose, because they don't win, and the rebels win by not losing. I regard a total Israeli defeat as unavoidable. That will mean the collapse of the Israeli state and society. We'll destroy ourselves...
...We possess several hundred atomic warheads and rockets and can launch them at targets in all directions, perhaps even at Rome. Most European capitals are targets for our air force. Let me quote General Moshe Dayan: "Israel must be like a mad dog, too dangerous to bother." I consider it all hopeless at this point. We shall have to try to prevent things from coming to that, if at all possible. Our armed forces, however, are not the thirtieth strongest in the world, but rather the second or third. We have the capability to take the world down with us. And I can assure you that that will happen before Israel goes under.'
-- The War Game; The (London) Observer, 21 Sept 2003.
Now, there is nothing written in stone that says an Israeli government has to continue a policy that essentially amounts to "the spectacular suicide of the state of Israel", as Yitzhak Laor described it yesterday. There is another way to combat popular resistance movements, and that is to stop doing the things that boost their legitimacy and win them a steady stream of recruits. That alternative was spelled out most succinctly for Israel at the very beginning of the peace process, at Madrid in 1991:
Israel must recognize the concept of limits - political, legal, moral and territorial – and must decide to join the community of nations by accepting the terms of international law and the will of the international community.
No amount of circumlocution or self-deception can alter that fact.
Security can never be obtained through the acquisition of other people's territory, and geography is not the criterion for security.
-- Dr. Haidar Abdel Shafi; Opening remarks to the Madrid Conference on Middle East Peace.
Admittedly, it’s very difficult to imagine Israel taking this advice, simply because it has proceeded for so long under the premise that it can do whatever it perceives as good for itself, and the IDF will be strong enough to put out any resulting fires. But it’s even more difficult to imagine that there is any prospect for Israel’s long-term survival in the region unless it can grow up and accept that it doesn’t live in a vacuum, but among other people and nations, who have rights and needs too. The lesson of the war with Hizbullah, whether Israelis care to learn it or not, is that from now on there are consequences to your actions; that military power alone is no longer enough to shield you from those consequences; and that if you don’t like those consequences, then it’s time to modify your actions.
If you don’t want to be perpetually embroiled in unwinnable guerilla wars in occupied territories, stop occupying and colonizing other people’s land;
If you don’t want the perpetual emnity of 1.3bn Muslims, stop trying to annex and depopulate occupied East Jerusalem, which is the home of their holy sites as well as yours;
If you really want to see anti-semitism diminished, stop killing, dispossessing, exiling, starving and humiliating the long-suffering Palestinian people, and doing it in the name of a “Jewish democracy” that claims to act in the name of all Jewish people wherever they live;
If you want to be accepted by the other people in the region, live there on mutually agreeable terms, acceptable to the non-batshit-crazy majorities in your own country and in your neighbours’ countries;
Finally, and most relevant to the mess you find yourself in today with Hizbullah, if you want neighbours who respect your borders, start by withdrawing to them, and respecting them yourself.
Sobelman's report was prepared two years ago, but the pattern of Israeli violations of the Lebanon border continued right up to the present escalation in hostilities, e.g.:Jan 2006 - As in the past, Israeli aircraft often penetrated deep into Lebanese airspace, sometimes generating sonic booms over populated areas. The pattern identified in my previous reports continued, whereby the aircraft would sometimes fly out to sea and enter Lebanese airspace north of the UNIFIL area of operation, thus avoiding direct observation and verification by UNIFIL... There were no instances of Hizbollah anti-aircraft fire across the Blue Line during the period under review. (Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, 18.1.06; PDF);
Mar 2006 - Israeli warplanes violate Lebanese airspace;
May 2006 - UN Envoy concerned over increased Israeli violation of Lebanon's airspace;
May 2006 - Lebanon: New evidence Mossad behind assassination
Morality is not on our side by Ze'ev Maoz;
Hizbullah's attacks stem from Israeli incursions into Lebanon by Anders Strindberg;
"Respecting Lebanon's Sovereignty" by Ran Hacohen
Israelis See Their Own Nation As "Neighborhood Bully" by Ira Chernus
Operation "Save Israel's High Command" by Charles Glass
Beware of the 'New Order' Israel is imposing by Siddharth Varadarajan
Israel’s strategic impasse by Paul Rogers;
Hezbollah wages new generation of warfare by Matthew B. Stannard;
Yet more proof of the limits of Israeli unilateralism by Christoph Bertram
Israel's Bid to Reestablish Deterrence Is Failing by Ehsan Ahrari.
Israel responded to an unprovoked attack by Hizbullah, right? Wrong by George Monbiot.