hizbullah flag 298.88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
As the violence and destruction progressively intensifies in Lebanon, Israel and Gaza, calls continue for a cessation to Israel's "disproportionate" use of force.
Israel's offensive in Lebanon and Gaza is in reaction to the kidnapping of three Israeli soldiers by Hamas and Hizbullah, both of which are considered to be terrorist organizations by Israel, the US, the UN and the EU. The majority of some 364 Lebanese killed in two weeks of violence have been civilians. At least 36 Israelis have been killed, 17 of them civilians. As unfortunate as this debacle is, and as disproportionate as the body count may be, numbers and proportions is not the problem.
For a while, the optimist in me saw Hamas heading down the same path of integration as the PLO did: terrorist organization turned legitimate political party. Then it committed political suicide by kidnapping an Israeli soldier, and thus validating Israel's refusal to recognize Hamas as a legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Then, proving that it is anything but a representative of Lebanese interests, Hizbullah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, thus initiating the carnage that we have seen for the last two weeks.
Israel's response was predictable to say the least. Since independence in 1948, it has lived by the philosophy of its first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, that any attack against Israel will be met with disproportionate retribution; hence why it has consistently pursued a rigid strategy of targeted assassinations of senior Hamas and Hizbullah leaders; collective punishment; and rejections of cease-fire proposals. And for better or for worse, this is why we are seeing the reaction that we are seeing in Lebanon and Gaza.
Hizbullah declared war against Israel not only by kidnapping its soldiers, but then by returning a barrage of rockets back at it. While the casualties of this war are heart-wrenching, since when is war supposed to be proportionate? When a state is attacked, would it make sense to strike back with an equal amount of force, and give your enemy space and time to fight back? What war has not produced innocent casualties?
Hizbullah not only initiated this conflict, but has been targeting Israeli civilians as well. Both parties are in violation of the Geneva Conventions in regards to targeting civilians during wartime; both are in violation of Security Council resolutions, which says more about the weakness of the UN than anything. For example, pleas for the enforcement of the 2004 Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls for the disarmament of Hizbullah, is laughable unless there is a realistic way of actually enforcing it. This resolution lacks a brush stroke of reality, because no one but Hizbullah can disarm Hizbullah. There needs to be incentive.
There has been much talk about the motives for Hizbullah's kidnappings. Unprovoked, it didn't seem logical. However, if we look at the worldwide protests against Israel's retaliation, which will only intensify, and the international focus on Israel as an aggressor using "disproportionate" force, it points to the success of Hizbullah's plan. If we compare Israel's traditional method with that of Hizbullah's, it seems that the latter of the two - despite the wide-spread human suffering it has brought - is winning more hearts and minds.
For example, there is a reason why the Palestinian cause is more internationally recognized than, say, Maoist rebels in Nepal, or the Shining Path in Peru: international terrorism works. The Palestinian cause became internationalized by hijacking and destroying commercial airlines, and kidnapping and killing Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. The idea is that the world needs a slap in the face to see what the real issues are about.
Both Hizbullah and Hamas were born of Israeli occupation, but with Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, it dedicated itself, like Hamas, to the liberation of Palestine. Paradoxically, the two have only grown more influential and stronger, the more Israel has squeezed them.
Hizbullah is the second largest political party in Lebanon, and Hamas was elected democratically by the Palestinian people as their representative. Hizbullah's Al-Manar news station reaches over 10 million people in the Middle East, second only to Al-Jazeera, and both groups provide efficiently run hospitals, schools and other social services to their people. All this should serve as a warning to Israel that it should consider a serious policy shift away from Ben-Gurion's philosophy, and its traditional belief that the more it goes on the offensive, the weaker such groups will become.
Given Israel's inefficient approach, and the rising popularity of Hizbullah and Hamas, where do they all go from here? A prisoner exchange, like the one in 2004 between Israel and Hizbullah, cannot be ruled out. This, however, as well as any cease-fire, would only leave the back door open for history to repeat itself. Talk of a regional "Axis of Power" including Hizbullah, Hamas, Syria and Iran should not be underestimated. Syria and Iran provide Hamas with both political and economic support and it is asserted that Hizbullah committed its kidnappings in solidarity with Hamas.
I think an important question to ask is: How far will Israel take this? Is this also an opportunity for the US to settle its score with Hizbullah? Second only to al-Qaida, Hizbullah is responsible for more US casualties than any other terrorist organization, the most infamous being the deaths of 241 marines in Beirut in 1983. In fact, US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage sees Hizbullah as more of a threat than al-Qaida.
It appears now that political wrangling and diplomatic efforts are being made to create a badly needed buffer zone on the Lebanese-Israeli border with a NATO or European-led force. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert appears to be leaning towards such a possibility. Unfortunately, I feel that until Israel changes its traditional policy, and the grievances of Hizbullah and Hamas are understood, such a plan will only bide time until history repeats itself.
Alex M. Wright is a Research Associate with the Centre for International Political Studies (CiPS). The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CiPS.