Notes from a Free Fire Zone



Watching the news today in my grandfather’s home in Lebanon, all I want to do is weep. Until today, I was cautiously optimistic. Until today, there were some positive developments in the politics of this war.

It seems almost obscene to say that. Hundreds of human beings lay dead, hundreds-of-thousands more are displaced, living in schools and make-shift shelters all across the country. An unknown number huddle in their homes in the South, as Israel turns Southern Lebanon into an absolute wasteland. Billions of dollars of deliberate damage have already been done to Lebanon’s public infrastructure and, regardless of what the future holds, poverty here will skyrocket in the aftermath of this war. So, yes, it seems obscene to speak of "positive developments" while the bombs still fall. Yet there were some.

President Bush sent Condoleezza Rice to Lebanon before her trip to Israel–a symbolic show of support for Lebanon’s pro-American government, although certainly not for Lebanon’s besieged people. The Israelis stopped bombing Beirut for near two days–in tribute to Rice’s visit. It seemed as if Israel had finally agreed to the UN’s desperate plea to allow humanitarian aid into Lebanon. Hezbollah reportedly gave the Lebanese government negotiating power to end the conflict although, unfortunately, they still haven’t turned over the captured Israeli soldiers to that government. And the general outlines of a plan to cease hostilities seemed to be developing.

To understand that plan, we need to know where we are right now. It’s clear that both Israel and Hezbollah miscalculated when they decided to turn on this war. Hezbollah likely anticipated a significant reaction from Israel and, possibly, the re-invasion of Southern Lebanon. They were prepared to weather the bombs, terrorize Northern Israel with countless rockets, and inflict damage on Israeli troops should they enter Lebanon. They chose this path to demonstrate their capabilities, raise their regional profile, counter their opposition in Lebanon’s government, and rally people throughout the Middle-East who are frustrated with the current status quo in Palestine.

But it’s unlikely Hezbollah anticipated that Israel would completely destroy Lebanon, and demolish near every public infrastructure from South to North. No one could have anticipated such a massively disproportionate response. No one could have foreseen such complete devastation.

Israel, for its part, thought Hezbollah would be an easier target than has turned out. It seems incredible to me that Israel still hasn’t been able to destroy Hezbollah’s weapons caches and rocket launchers. Invading Israeli troops are running into much stronger resistance than they expected, and Israeli soldiers are dying. It’s also unclear that Israel anticipated the anger they’ve generated around the world by destroying Lebanon. When Ariel Sharon led Israeli troops into Beirut twenty-four years ago, he killed over ten-thousand people here with little outcry (the massacre at Sabra and Shatila caused more of a response than thousands of Lebanese dead). Israel is used to being able to pound Arabs at will, with the world’s– if not approval, at least acquiescence.

But things have not worked out as expected. Hezbollah has not proved to be a painless opponent, and world leaders – from SE Asia to Great Britain – have all but openly called their Israeli counterparts war criminals. (Which makes the mock outrage that American Congressmen are directing toward Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki for condemning Israel’s deranged bombing campaign all the more idiotic).

Here in Lebanon, Hezbollah must face the rage that non-Shi’a feel for acting unilaterally to draw the rest of Lebanon into an unwanted war. Even Shi’a Lebanese have been guardedly critical of Hezbollah’s actions.

The plan that seemed to be developing to bring us out of this madness was troubled but straightforward. Hezbollah turns over its prisoners to the Lebanese government. Lebanon turns them over to Israel, with perhaps an under-the-table agreement for the release of Israel’s Lebanese prisoners in a few months. Israel stops bombing Lebanon. Hezbollah stops sending rockets into Israel. A ten-thousand strong force of NATO troops replaces the two-thousand member UN observer force in Southern Lebanon, and a demilitarized zone is set-up for several miles alongside the border. A dog-and-pony show could then ensue with Hezbollah voluntarily making an nominal show of "disarming," and Lebanon could once again begin the long process of reconstruction.

Israel has already smashed Lebanon flat, and set the entire country back at least twenty years. They can claim "victory" at any time. Hezbollah can also claim "victory" in that it stood up to Israel’s onslaught and survived. However, Hezbollah would face a tough time in the months ahead. While their stock has been raised in the rest of the Middle-East, Southern Lebanon is in absolute catastrophe, and Hezbollah would have to deal with that reality. Hezbollah is also part of a diverse society, and they’d have to deal with the anger the rest of Lebanon feels toward them – an anger many Shi’a share. In the midst of such anger and devastation, and in the absence of an immediate enemy to rally people around, Hezbollah would be under serious strain and in great trouble for some time to come.

It’s lunacy to call this "hope," but we have to take what we can.

To my complete horror, though, even this precarious hope is now being snatched away. Israel is again bombing all of Lebanon, now that Condoleezza Rice has left, and the relief effort is very much in question since Israel is now also bombing UN Peacekeepers and Red Cross ambulances in Southern Lebanon.

Yesterday, CNN reported that before meeting with Israeli leaders Condoleezza Rice said that it was time for "a new Middle East…time to say to those who do not want a different kind of Middle East that we will prevail, they will not."

To my complete horror, she apparently means exactly what she says.

Instead of the ten-thousand strong NATO force that Israel was calling for, CNN reported that the United States is insisting on a thirty-thousand member force, and that Bush and Rice are demanding that either Hezbollah accept such a force, or first be defeated militarily.

Hezbollah will never accept that many foreign troops in Southern Lebanon – even ten-thousand was pushing it. And "defeating" Hezbollah will take weeks of intense fighting, if not months, and cause tens-of-thousands more civilian casualties.

The terrifying thing is that the Lebanese government might accept such a plan – as angry as they are at Hezbollah, as desperate as they are to stop Israel’s bombs. But European countries would be insane to contribute their troops to such a force.

Thirty-thousand foreign combat troops in Southern Lebanon is more than a face-saving measure, and much more than just a deterrent to future rocket attacks against Israel.

Thirty-thousand foreign combat troops in Southern Lebanon means knocking down every door, in what homes remain standing, to search for militants and weapons. Thirty-thousand troops means arbitrary arrests and indefinite detentions. Thirty-thousand troops means turning the South into Lebanon’s very own "Shi’a Triangle," with a bitter insurgency and massive violence at every turn.

Thirty-thousand troops means turning Hezbollah into a world-wide organization that will certainly try and sponsor attacks against any country sponsoring those troops.

Thirty-thousand troops means uniting Shi’a militants with their Sunni counterparts in Al-Qaeda’s view of the world.

Despite the tensions of the last year, with Rafik Hariri’s assassination and Syria’s withdrawal, Lebanon has avoided restarting its bitter civil war. The Lebanese had invested too much time and effort in rebuilding their country. They were too proud of all they had accomplished over these last fifteen years. The memory of that accomplishment has a momentum of its own that might have carried Lebanon through this crisis. But if the Lebanese government accepts the Rice plan then even that hope will be killed.

Lebanese Shi’a will damn well know who put their heads on the chopping block, and they will not sit still for it. Thirty-thousand foreign combat troops in Southern Lebanon means a guerrilla war, and a continuing war means there will be no substantive reconstruction. Therefore there will be no jobs, no money, no future, no hope, and no reason not to restart the Civil War.

The tactics used by many Arab militants should be resoundingly condemned. Both for targeting innocents and for bringing disaster on their own peoples. Even so, underneath America’s scorn for Hezbollah and Hamas lies an incredible racism that pretends to believe that no Arab could possibly have any legitimate grievance with Israel. Even as Israel smashes their nations into oblivion. To deliver a solution to this crisis from out that racism is to birth a monster.

For a short time this week I allowed myself to feel some hope. But America’s plan for "peace" amounts to throwing gasoline on an already raging fire and standing back while we all burn.

RAMZI KYSIA is an Arab-American essayist and peace activist. He spent a year in Iraq with Voices in the Wilderness, the Chicago-based predecessor to Voices for Creative Nonviolence (http://www.vcnv.org). He is currently living in Lebanon.


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