Tuesday, August 01, 2006

With Friends Like These

Hopes of an imminent ceasefire, such as they were, have again been dashed today. In an all too familiar refrain, the Israeli government is again claiming that they need just ten to fourteen more days to complete their mission in Lebanon. This time, they say they intend to step up their ground offensive in order to chase Hezbollah out of southern Lebanon.

I'm going to leave aside the humanitarian concerns for a moment, hard though that is given the suffering currently being imposed on the Lebanese, and discuss what's happening from an Israeli strategic point of view. I should make clear that I do not wish to see Israel cease to exist. I would like to see them stop settling new land in the occupied territories, withdraw to the 1967 borders, and allow the Palestinians to have their capital in East Jerusalem. Leaving aside how we got to this point, that seems to me that the two state approach is the most pragmatic and workable solution to the situation from here on in.

So what could Israel actually do about Hezbollah?

Israel last invaded Lebanon in the early Eighties and withdrew in 2000. There seems to be some suggestion these days that Israel's withdrawal was an altruistic gesture of peace. It wasn't; it was a retreat from incessant Hezbollah guerrilla attacks on occupation forces. Despite occupying southern Lebanon for years on end, Israel was unable to defeat Hezbollah militarily. Clearly, they are not going to do so in a few weeks this time round. To suggest otherwise is palpably absurd.

That Israeli retreat in 2000 was widely seen as a victory for Hezbollah and did much to strengthen its credibility and popularity, particularly among Shiite Muslims in the Middle East. It is looking increasingly likely that the current campaign will ultimately have a similar effect.

After Israel's withdrawal, Hezbollah continued to claim that the disputed Shabaa Farms area, still under Israeli occupation, is Lebanese rather than Syrian and that Israel therefore still occupies part of Lebanon. The UN, on the other hand, has determined that the Shabaa area is Syrian and that Israel has fully withdrawn from Lebanon. The Syrian government are somewhat ambiguous on this, party because they don't want Lebanon to conclude a separate peace treaty with Israel while the Golan Height remain occupied.

There has never been a settled border between Lebanon and Syria so this issue isn't clear cut. Nevertheless, Hezbollah's refusal to accept the decision of the UN on this matter is almost certainly about justifying its own continued existence as much as it is about liberating this tiny strip of land (it's about 15 square miles).

What is sometimes forgotten is that an organisation like Hezbollah will not voluntarily disband its fighting forces in the short to medium term even if Israel were to withdraw from the Shabaa area and hand it to the Lebanese government. In fact, Hezbollah will exist for years to come whatever the Israeli government does. This is about basic human nature, group dynamics, and power politics. Consider how difficult it has been to persuade the IRA to disband and you get some idea of the problem. The IRA still exists in 2006. But, crucially, widespread support for the violent tactics they used in the past does not.

The reality is that the best that Israel can hope to achieve in the short to medium term is a weakening support for Hezbollah. You might not like this, I'm not a big fan of it myself, but it's a fact.

Unfortunately for all concerned, Israel's current assault will certainly have the opposite effect. It may weaken Hezbollah militarily in the short term but as long as support for their organisation remains strong, weapons stockpiles can be restocked and fighters can be replaced. The only way to weaken an organisation like Hezbollah (although I'm normally critical of the "no alternative" gambit, here, having studied this stuff, I stress that I mean the only way) is to isolate them from the support of the community they purport to represent. History shows time and again that oppressive or violent measures against that same community will be hugely counter-productive.

And that's exactly what is happening. Support for Hezbollah in Lebanon today is stronger than ever, and not just among Shiites. It is increasingly seen as a national resistance movement defending the country against the Israeli onslaught. Attempts to disarm Hezbollah after the fighting eventually stops are going to be met with fierce opposition from within Lebanon, far more so than before the current crisis began.

What Israel should have done was to continue to engage with moderates from Lebanon and not allow provocation from the more extreme elements to dominate the agenda. Israel needs to demonstrate to the Lebanese that they are willing to live in peace with their northern neighbours if they are ever to convince them that an armed Hezbollah guerrilla movement is no longer necessary. At the moment they are doing the opposite.

Before going off into a frothing rage, please note that I am not suggesting that Israel needs to engage with the extremists. It seems clear that many Hezbollah fighters do not want Israel to exist. These people are irreconcilable; they won't be won over by engagement and moderation. All that can be done is to isolate them.

Let's go back to the not quite analogous IRA to demonstrate the point. Hardcore IRA republicans wanted the British out of Northern Ireland. They didn't get what they wanted but they still had to give up the "armed struggle". Those men of violence who wanted to continue the armed struggle still exist, many freely walk the streets, and many would undoubtedly still prefer to be perpetrating violence today in furtherance of their cause today. But they have been isolated from their support base.

The wider Republican movement no longer supports violence as they can see that there are other better ways to live. They see the British prepared to compromise and to offer new solutions to address the injustices they believe have been perpetrated against their community. As a result, the IRA no longer has a stream of new recruits volunteering to participate in the armed struggle. They no longer operate in a community which will shelter and support them as they perpetrate violence and that makes their position untenable.

Israel could attempt a similar approach in order to deal with Hezbollah. It wouldn't be easy, far from it, and it wouldn't be quick either but with patience, courage and commitment it would offer the possibility for a lasting peace.

Instead, they've chosen to react to Hezbollah provocation by essentially attacking the whole of Lebanon. This can only fuel the circle of violence. Resentments are growing, moderates are becoming marginalised or radicalised, and the prospect of a peaceful solution is ever more remote. Israelis, sadly, will have to endure the violent consequences of this for years to come.

The irony here is that those who claim to be friends of Israel have egged them on in this new military campaign. I've always thought that a real friend is someone who'll tell you when you're about to shoot yourself in the foot and attempt to stop you doing it.

There is, of course, a question as to whether the Israeli government actually wants peace. I'm starting to believe that the syndrome they suffer from is something akin to that of a serial criminal who longs to be incarcerated (not that I'm implying that the Israeli government are directly comparable to criminals, you understand. I do believe war crimes have been committed in the current attacks, the bombing of ambulances for example, but whether the Israeli government itself is responsible is open to question.).

Just as a criminal may subconsciously commit crimes and get caught in order to return to the comfort of the familiar prison enviroinment, the Israeli ruling parties may subconsciously act in ways which are likely to ensure the continuation of the familiar environment of conflict. It's hard to see any other explanation for their continually self-defeating behaviour.

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Jherad said...

mGreat post, that mirrors what I'm sure many of us feel about the Hezbollah situation (especially with regards the history of the IRA) whilst drawing some insightful conclusions as to where it will lead and how it should be (or rather: have been) tackled.

I keep coming to three possible conclusions as to the reasoning behind this Israeli onslaught:

a) They haven't learned what many countries have been painfully learning about tackling terrorism, ie. airstrikes and artillary don't work. Public pressure or outright stupidity mean that they try it anyway.

b) As you've put your finger on, the possibility of a subconsious need for a neverending cycle of conflict.

c) Pressure from 'the west' to redefine the entire middle east, which would involve more than simply taking out Hezbollah, and involve dragging other countries into the conflict (with Big Brother stepping in later, if Syria/Iran get involved).

Point A) involves one heck of a lot of stupidity, which (perhaps unfairly) I don't credit the US/UK/Israel with enough of. Point C) sounds too much like an unachievable conspiracy theory. Which leaves B) and the question why the heck we're encouraging it.

Perhaps it is simply about B) with a touch of C). A neverending cycle that 'we' (the US and UK) are hoping will do something for the good ole War on Terror without any of our troops being involved and a certain level of deniability when it comes to explaining the civilian casualties.

What a complete mess.

Parlicoot said...

What an excellent post with some thoughtful analysis.

I too believe that Israel has a "need" to define itself in terms of an armed struggle of conflict, a continuation of the spirit in which it was founded.

That the US, with the support of the UK, takes advantage of Israel's predeliction for its own purposes, encouraging the instinct for conflict to meet its own ends, is morally obscene. The child in the playground encouraging the fights of others is a revolting role for a country to play.

We've seen the fate of others who've asked "do you wanna be in my gang?" before.