?Doing the Lebanese a Favor?

While I was in Beirut a couple of weeks ago, waiting for US evacuation efforts to materialize and trying to convince my frightened five year old son that it was probably only thunder that was shaking the house, I heard one bit of news that took me aback. The Israeli military had issued a warning to the Lebanese government that they should not shoot at the Israeli aircraft currently decimating the country. Israel and its American ally, in other words, would consider any attempt by the Lebanese to interrupt the delivery of the bombs now falling on their heads to be an illegitimate act of aggression. Talk about a predicament! For the Israeli army, however, this was a perfectly reasonable request. For the destruction of the Lebanon’s infrastructure, the leveling of numerous towns in the south as well as southern neighborhoods of Beirut, and the piling up of Lebanese causalities, almost all civilian, was not the true aim of the campaign but simply the means by which its real objective—the crippling of Hezbollah’s ability to send rockets into Israel—was to be obtained. Indeed, by laying waste to Lebanon, Israel was actually “doing the Lebanese a favor,” according Arye Mekel, Israel’s consul general put it, as the Lebanese would finally be free of Hezbollah. Kill the patient and we stop the disease, so would the patient please be so kind as to stop kicking.

The Lebanon I had first encountered two weeks earlier, in stark contrast to today, was a place of promise. The sectarian tensions left in the wake of the twenty years of civil war and eighteen years of Israeli occupation were not gone, but the democratic political culture that had emerged over the last decade had given many Lebanese a sense that a stable and prosperous future could be collectively forged. Indeed, US officials had also acknowledged the increasing robustness of Lebanon’s democratic political life, a fact that made President Bush’s subsequent opposition to any ceasefire until Israel had completed its business sting of treachery and betrayal to most Lebanese.

Although many of the Christians, Druze, and Sunni Muslims I met in Beirut before the bombing started saw the militancy of Hezbollah as a threat to this future, they were also optimistic that Hezbollah’s increasing participation in the country’s political process would lead to the gradual attenuation of the movement’s militant stance. Some progress in this direction was already evident: the number of active Hezbollah fighters had declined significantly since Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, and the greater part of the movement’s activities were now focused on social and political issues, providing welfare services to the poor in Shiite neighborhoods, building schools, and taking part in electoral politics. Anxieties about its armed militias aside, Hezbollah had increasingly shown itself to be a positive social force in the country. And while most Lebanese I met had no wish to see their nation again entangled in a conflict with Israel, they viewed Hezbollah’s militant posture as an unfortunate but natural outgrowth of Israeli belligerency — after all, Hezbollah first emerged in the aftermath of the 1982 Israeli invasion so as to free southern Lebanon from the Israeli occupiers. While the disarming of Hezbollah’s military wing — as called for by UN resolution 1559 — was an imminent goal for most of those I spoke to in Beirut, they also realized that this could not be forced on the movement without pushing the country over the brink of another civil war. The consensus among critics of Hezbollah was that the only avenue for disarming the movement’s military wing was through political pressure and dialogue.

Any optimism for Lebanon’s future crumbled two or three days after the bombing began. The country had been sized up by more powerful forces and found to be expendable. Why? Because Hezbollah represented a serious threat to the security of Israel and its people? The fact that until two weeks ago Hezbollah had not killed a single Israeli since Israel had ended its 20-year occupation of southern Lebanon suggests otherwise. Was the massive destruction of the Lebanese infrastructure a reasonable response to Hezbollah’s violent incursion into Israeli territory and its kidnapping of the two Israeli soldiers, an exercise of the country’s right to defend itself, as president Bush has argued? While the event may have served as a useful trigger, Israeli military officials have acknowledged that Israel’s current hammering of Lebanon had been planned in detail at least a year before the Hezbollah attack on July 12th. Moreover, the tactic of seizing and exchanging prisoners is one Israel and Hezbollah have mutually engaged in on a number of prior occasions, most recently in 2004.

There is no rational calculus by which the quantity of death and destruction exacted from the Lebanese people during the last ten days can be explained, least of all a calculus centered on a notion of Israeli national security. Does anyone truly believe that this war will enhance the possibilities of peace in the region? Even in Israel today, few hold onto such illusions. It is time that we recognize that Israel’s practice of using overwhelming military force to achieve its political goals has reached the condition of a neurosis, a compulsion deeply embedded in its political and military institutions and that the Israeli people are powerless to oppose, however detrimental the effects on and its own safety and the safety of its upcoming generations. America’s longstanding policy of sanctioning this compulsion condemns Israel to a bloody future, and a vastly more bloody future for its neighbors. In this, America is truly a friend to no one.

CHARLES HIRSCHKIND is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. He can be reached at chirschk@calmail.berkeley.edu