Israeli commandos staged a daring raid the other night on the ancient Lebanese town of Baalbeck, catching Hassan Nasrallah asleep, bundling him into a waiting helicopter, and spiriting him back to Israel.
But as the dust settled and reports from the ground began to emerge, it turned out that the Hassan Nasrallah that Israel’s most elite military unit had captured-with the assistance of the formidable intelligence capabilities of the legendary Mossad-was apparently not Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizballah, but rather Hassan Nasrallah, the owner of a small toyshop on the dusty outskirts of Baalbeck. They also nabbed his son, another relative, and a neighbor for good measure. Israel claims that the men are members of Hizballah, albeit not the ones they were hoping for. Their relatives and neighbors, and Hizballah itself, deny this.
The raid was focused on the Dar al Hikma hospital, which was heavily damaged by the Israeli raiders and supporting fire from aircraft. The hospital, however, was found to be empty. The kidnapped men were, according to local sources, taken from their homes.
To provide cover before and during the raid on the hospital, Israeli aircraft subjected residential neighborhoods of Baalbeck and neighboring towns to a withering bombardment, in which seventeen people, almost all of them civilians, were killed. The dead included the son of the mayor of al Jamaliyeh, his brother, and five other relatives. The mayor of al Jamaliyeh, incidentally, held a distinctly anti-Hizballah position in local politics.
Israel’s aerial torment of a population entirely lacking in air defenses and even proper air raid shelters has now killed some 900 people, the overwhelming majority of them civilians, and about a third of them children. It has displaced almost a million people from their homes. It has devastated Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure. It has reduced entire towns in the south-including Bint Jbeil, once home to 30,000 people-to rubble. And it has left block after block after block of Beirut in total ruins. (All this while Israel is at the same time holding the 1.4 million destitute people of the Gaza Strip in the world’s largest prison, bombarding them day and night, and sadistically depriving them of sleep at night by repeatedly breaking the sound barrier at low altitude).
After three weeks of devastating bombardment, Israel’s much vaunted army finds itself unable to fight its way more than a few kilometers into Lebanon. The heavy resistance they have encountered on the ground is the most obvious explanation for why the Israelis prefer on the whole to go on dropping bombs on children from a safe distance: not only is it less dangerous, it also involves much less effort.
The “deep penetration” raid on Baalbeck was meant to show off the capabilities of Israel’s armed forces, to make up for their humiliating performance on the ground and their repeated massacres of civilians from the air, including the refugees sheltering in Qana (an event whose cover story has gone through at least three variations, none of them convincing to anyone other than the Israelis themselves).
Instead, it left a hospital in ruins, more than a dozen civilians dead, and elite forces in possession of an unfortunate middle-aged shopkeeper and an assortment of his friends and relatives.
Surely this would be the right moment for Israel to give up and call it quits.
SAREE MAKDISI, a professor of English at UCLA, is the author of Romantic Imperialism: Universal Empire and the Culture of Modernity (Cambridge University Press, 1998) and William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790s (University of Chicago Press, 2003). He can be reached through his blog or at: firstname.lastname@example.org