Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Aug 04, 2006 10:56 am 
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Published in The Baltimore Chronicle

A calculus of escalation

A Human Rights Watch report just published documents, as its authors state, "serious violations of international humanitarian law (the laws of war) by Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in Lebanon between July 12 and July 27, 2006, as well as the July 30 attack in Qana." The report observes "a systematic failure by the IDF to distinguish between combatants and civilians." But Hezbollah is in direct violation of the laws of war too, firing imprecisely in civilian areas. Does anyone play by the laws of war? Maybe the first law of war should be: Don't start one, and if you do, pull out as fast as you can.

In a typically impassioned piece in The Independent, Robert Fisk, longtime Mideast correspondent based in Beirut, has looked at the grim statistics and drawn his own conclusions: "The obscene score-card for death in this latest war now stands as follows: 508 Lebanese civilians, 46 Hizbollah guerrillas, 26 Lebanese soldiers, 36 Israeli soldiers and 19 Israeli civilians. In other words, Hizbollah is killing more Israeli soldiers than civilians and the Israelis are killing far more Lebanese civilians than they are guerrillas." But on Thursday Hezbollah killed eight civilians and four soldiers. The proportions shift, but the bottom line is Israel is always gong to be killing a lot more people than its tiny adversary, Hezbollah. The US may have killed 100,000, for sure over 44,000, in Iraq, in retribution for 3,000+ dead on 9/11, which Iraq had nothing to do with. In these terms, Israel's lash-back begins to look mild and reasonable: its enemy, however tiny and underground, is right next door.

A look at Hezbollah's history such as Jason Burke recently presented in the Guardian will reveal its ambiguous nature: they run schools and fire rockets. Hezbollah takes its inspiration from young Arab Islamist movements but its origins lie in Israel's earlier attacks on south Lebanon, which an older political generation seemed unable to resist. Hezbollah resembles Hamas in being a paramilitary organization and in Hezbollah's case this element is unusually strong and well equipped. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah used to seem primarily interested in prisoner exchange with Israel, which in the past has been willing to trade a great many Arabs for one or two Jews. Israeli Prime Minister Olmert's taking Hezbollah's July 12, 2006 capture of two Israeli soldiers as "an act of war" is not only an overreaction, but probably not what Nasrallah wanted; but Nasrallah, who evidently has always had dreams of glory, has risen to the occasion all too well and made warlike threats, suggesting he'll send rockets to Tel Aviv. Olmert answers that Beirut will be destroyed in reply.

A lose-lose game

A real war is out of the question here, and neither side can win. Hezbollah is in no condition to send forth planes and helicopters with high tech bombs against Israel. But true to Israel's declaration that all its Arab opponents are "terrorists," Hezbollah is quite capable of terrorizing the Israeli population. Also true to the nature of terrorism, or to insurgencies, Israel cannot reply by wiping out Hezbollah: a widely scattered guerilla force can't be blown up, and Israel can't justify its destruction of Lebanon and killing of Lebanese civilians on the ground that this will destroy Hezbollah. Mitch Prothero, among others, has argued that Israel's defense of its attacks on the Lebanese population on the grounds that Hezbollah is "hiding among civilians" is based on a myth. But even if it were true, these attacks are a lose-lose game for Israel. Israel's attacks have been faulty tactically and strategically, as well as lousy pubic relations, worldwide. Not only have they angered the Arab public and appalled the rest of the world at Israeli cruelty and intransigence but they will also undoubtedly inspire many recruits to Hezbollah, just as the US assault on and occupation of Iraq has brought plenty of new members to Al Qaeda and other such organizations. So Hezbollah will be the only winner, but will play no positive role, with Lebanon in chaos.

Another Bush disaster

Again the Bush administration appears alternately provocative and inept. It's been argued that the apparent Bush aim to expand warfare into Syria has failed because the Israelis aren't interested. Perhaps as Helene Cooper of the New York Times says, Condoleeza Rice has been trying on her watch to return the Bush administration back to the use of diplomacy, but Rome meant "two steps back" on that -- and Rice's repeated "new Middle East" mantra has been grimly ironic. It's hard to see how Bush's, and his poodle Blair's, refusal to try to cool down the situation has been anything other than cruel for Israel and Lebanon and disastrous for America's public image in the world. It's also hard to see how the spotlight on Lebanon has succeeded in distracting attention from the Iraqi quagmire. That's another strategy that's failed, since front page headlines still daily show out-of-control violence in Iraq -- and a move toward civil war now even pointed out to Congress by top American generals led by John P. Abizaid of the US Central Command. Is this US-encouraged assault on Lebanon meant by proxy to scare Iran? No signs of that being likely to work either.

Mideast specialist Juan Cole in a Salon piece has rightly said that Israel had a right to respond -- proportionally -- to Hezbollah's soldier abductions, but by its extreme overreaction has done terrible damage of all kinds. He writes, and I also must conclude, that "if, as Abba Eban once said, the Palestinians never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity, it is equally true that the Israelis, with their reflexive instinct to shoot first and negotiate later, never miss an opportunity to make a bad situation worse. The Israelis have responded the same way to military threats for decades -- with overwhelming force. This is perhaps understandable, but each time they overreact they create future catastrophes for themselves. Just as their 1982 invasion of Lebanon and occupation of the south haunted them for a generation, they will be living with the blowback of their ill-considered war on hapless little Lebanon for decades to come. Tragically, the United States, as Israel's closest ally, will also have to suffer for its actions."

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