Before July 12, in the six years since Israel withdrew unilaterally from southern Lebanon, there were rare border skirmishes as well as a tacit understanding not to fire on civilians. According to UN forces, Israel violated the blue line 10 times more often than Hizballah. Both sides kidnapped civilians and negotiated a prisoner exchange in 2004.
In the six weeks since Israel responded with disproportionate force to the Hizballah capture of two soldiers–a purely military target–on July 12 to force a prisoner exchange, it has killed at least 900 Lebanese civilians, wounded more than 3,000, displaced up to a million, and destroyed much of the civilian infrastructure, including 95 per cent of bridges and 80 per cent of primary roads.
Hizballah has responded by firing some 2,000 rockets into Israel, killing at least 18 Israeli civilians; in the fighting, it has killed at least 36 soldiers and wounded 88. While the crisis in Gaza has been virtually ignored by the media since July 12, it is unabated. In Israel’s response to the Hamas capture of an Israeli soldier on June 25 more than 160 Palestinians 78 per cent of them civilians–have been killed and Gaza’s already ravaged civilian infrastructure further degraded.
The US insistence on reaching a political settlement before a cease-fire in Lebanon was widely interpreted as giving Israel a green light to continue its offensive until it crushes Hizballah. However, as Hizballah fought back, Israel appeared to reduce its objectives. Any multinational force to secure the cease-fire will have to be negotiated with the Lebanese government, including Hizballah, which is firmly rooted in some 40% of the population. Thus, a conflagration that has cost untold human misery may not lead to a fundamental change to the status quo until the “root causes” are addressed.
Root Causes: Whose Definition Will Prevail?
Throughout this period, the US administration has zeroed in on Hizballah, Syria, Iran, and terrorism as the root cause of the conflict. It has demanded the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1559 of 2004 providing for “disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias.”
This narrow US definition of the causes of conflict ignores the main motivation of Hizballah and the Palestinian fighters: the release of some 10,000 prisoners from Israeli jails.
It also ignores the fact that the majority of the protagonists in the Arab-Israeli conflict define the root cause very differently: as Israel’s 39-year occupation of the Palestinian West Bank and East Jerusalem and the Syrian Golan Heights. Arabs (and most of the world) demand the implementation of UN Security Council 242 of 1967 whose basic premise is the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.” They also call for the Palestinian refugees right of return as upheld by UN Resolution 181. They believe the Bush administration is endorsing Israel’s attempt to settle the conflict on its own terms.
Since Israel secured peace agreements with Egypt in 1980 and Jordan in 1994, it has attempted to impose a unilateral solution on the Palestinian, Lebanese, and Syrian fronts, beginning with former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. At present, Israel believes it has a green light from Bush, set out in his April 2004 exchange of letters with Sharon, to keep large settlement blocs on Palestinian land, reject the Palestinian right of return, and cement Israel’s identify as a Jewish state.
In this context, the disproportionate nature of Israel’s response in Gaza and Lebanon can be seen not just as Israel’s way of demonstrating its military might for deterrence purposes, but also as a way of extinguishing the last two sources of any significant resistance–Hizballah and Hamas–to its unilateral plans. However, the limits of applying military power to settle political conflicts are becoming apparent. The drawn-out nature of the fighting in Lebanon due to Hizballah’s resistance as well as the horrific cost in civilian casualties has ratcheted up world pressure for an immediate cease-fire.
Moreover, there are two areas in which the US and Israeli interests diverge. As former assistant Secretary of State Richard Murphy pointed out pointed out to us. “In Lebanon, the US doesn’t want to see another failed state. The US experience with failed states is horrible. And Washington has to pay attention to what Sistani says.” Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, whose tacit support of the US presence makes him a vital ally, declared the Muslim world would not forgive those who prevented a cease-fire in Lebanon. (See his July 30 statement, http://www.sistani.org/messages/ghanaa.htm) The US, not Israel, has to deal with any fallout from Lebanon in Iraq.
If the US administration really wants a sustainable solution in Lebanon, it will have to acknowledge the links to Syria’s determination to restore the Golan, the Palestinian struggle for self-determination, and Lebanese demands that Israel respect its sovereignty. Bush may find himself having to implement the second paragraph of the July 16 G-8 statement issued at St. Petersburg: “The root cause of the problems in the region is the absence of a comprehensive Middle East peace.” A comprehensive settlement will need meaningful negotiations, which would mean an end to unilateralism.
NADIA HIJAB is a senior fellow of the Institute for Palestine Studies. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org