The general surprise that Lebanese civilians are taking
the brunt of Israel's onslaught – and the unwillingness in some quarters
of the media to report the fact – reflects a poor understanding of Israel's
historical use of violence. Since its birth six decades ago, Israel has always
been officially "going after the terrorists," but its actions have
invariably harmed civilians in an indiscriminate manner.
The roll call of dishonor is long indeed, but its highlights include: the
massacre of some 200 civilians in Tantura, as well as large-scale massacres
in at least a dozen other Palestinian villages, during the 1948 war that established
Israel; Ariel Sharon's
attack on the village of Qibya in 1953 that killed 70 innocent Palestinians;
the Kfar Qassem
massacre inside Israel when 49 farm workers were gunned down at an improvised
army checkpoint; a massacre in the same year in the refugee camp of Khan
Yunis, in Gaza, in which more than 250 civilians were killed; attacks on
dozens of Palestinian, Egyptian and Syrian villages during the 1967 war; the
killing of six unarmed Arab
citizens of Israel in 1976; the massacre of hundreds of Palestinian civilians
in the Lebanese refugee camps of Sabra
and Shatilla in 1982; the unremitting use of lethal force by the army against
unarmed Palestinians, often women and children, during the first intifada of
1987-93; the aerial bombardment
of Qana in south Lebanon in 1996 that killed more than 100 civilians; and
the endless "collateral damage" of Palestinian civilians during the
second intifada, including a half-ton bomb that killed a husband and wide and
their seven children a week ago.
The true reasons for these deaths are concealed from credulous observers by
Israel's use of Orwellian language. When it says it is destroying the "infrastructure
of terror," Israel means it is crushing all Arab resistance to its territorial
ambitions in the region. The "infrastructure" includes most Arab men,
women and children because they continue to support – against Israel's
wishes – their peoples' rights to self-determination without interference
from the Israeli army.
In this sense, and others, there is very little difference between what Israel
is doing in Gaza to overturn the democratic wishes of the Palestinian electorate
and what it is doing in Lebanon to smash any hopes of a democratic future for
its northern neighbor. In Gaza, it wants Hamas destroyed because Hamas is prepared
to counter Israel's unilateral policies with its own unilateral agenda; and
in Lebanon, Israel wants Hezbollah obliterated because it is the only force
capable, possibly, of preventing a repeat of Israel's long invasion and occupation
of the 1980s and 1990s.
up the Palestinian cabinet, Israel is not destroying terror, it is clipping
the political wings of Hamas, those in its leadership who are quickly learning
the arts of government and searching for a space in which they can negotiate
with Israel. Through its rejectionist behavior, Israel is only confirming the
doubts of those in the Hamas military wing who argue Israel always acts in bad
Similarly in Lebanon, Israel is holding Hezbollah less to account with its
attacks than the Lebanese people and their government, despite the latter's
transparently shaky grip on the country. Israel's military strikes polarize
opinion in Lebanon, weaken Fouad Siniora and his ministers, and threaten to
push Lebanon over the brink into another civil war.
Israel is keen to talk about "changing the balance of power" in
Gaza and Lebanon, implying that it is trying to strengthen the "democrats"
against the "terrorists." But this impression is entirely false. Israeli
actions are destroying what little balance of power exists in Gaza and Lebanon
so that the two areas become ungovernable.
In Gaza, Israel has been engineering a debilitating struggle for power between
Fatah and Hamas, while in Lebanon whatever hollow shell of national unity has
existed till now is in danger of cracking under the strain of the Israeli onslaught.
Superficially at least, this seems self-destructive behavior on Israel's part,
given that it has also been striving to detect the fingerprints of outside actors
in Gaza and Lebanon.
In the case of Gaza, Israel points to Syria as a safe haven for the exiled
Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, to Hezbollah and Iran as sponsors of Hamas "terror"
and even to a new al-Qaeda presence. In the case of Lebanon, Israel additionally
identifies the strong ties between Hezbollah and Damascus and Tehran.
So why would Israel want Lebanon and Gaza to be ravaged by factional fighting
of the kind that might make them more vulnerable to this kind of unwelcome interference
A history lesson or two helps clarify Israel's reasoning.
In the occupied Palestinian territories, Hamas was born during the upheavals
of the first intifada and encouraged by Israel as a counterweight to the unifying
secular Palestinian nationalism of Yasser Arafat.
In Lebanon, the Shi'ite militia Hezbollah was the inevitable byproduct of
Israel's occupation of the south and its establishment of a mostly Christian
proxy militia, the South Lebanon Army, against the Muslim majority.
In both cases it is clear Israel hoped that, by Islamizing its opponents in
these regional conflicts, it would delegitimize them in the eyes of Western
allies and that it could cultivate sectarianism as a way to further weaken the
social cohesiveness of its neighbors.
Recently Israel has encouraged the slide deeper into Islamic extremism through
its policies of unilateralism and its refusal to negotiate.
The same set of policies is being continued now in the Palestinian territories
and Lebanon: the shattering of these two societies will only deepen the trend
toward radical Islam. Islamic movements not only offer the best hope of local
resistance to Israel for these weakened societies but they also offer a parallel
social infrastructure of health care and welfare services as state institutions
There is immediate advantage for Israel in this outcome. With secular society
crushed and Islamic resistance movements filling the void, Israel will be able
to reinforce the impression of many in the West that Israel is on the front
line of global "war of terror" being waged by a single implacable
enemy, Islam. Israel's ability to persuade the world that this war is being
waged against the whole "civilized" Judeo-Christian West will be made
that bit easier.
As a result, Israel may be able to drag its paymaster, the United States,
deeper into the mire of the Middle East as a junior partner rather than as an
honest broker, giving Israel cover while it carves up yet more Palestinian land
for annexation, puts further pressure on the Palestinians to leave their homeland,
and destabilizes its regional enemies so that they are powerless to offer protest
For some time President Bush has found himself in no position to criticize
Israeli actions when Tel Aviv claims to be doing no more to the Palestinians
than the US is doing to the Iraqis. If the US allows itself to be handcuffed
to Israel's even more extreme version of the "war on terror," the
consequences will be dire not just for the Palestinians or the region, but for
all of us.