The People’s Struggle in the Middle East
Ramzy Baroud is a US author and journalist, currently based in London. He is the author of The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People's Struggle (Pluto Press, 2006). He is also the Editor-in-Chief of PalestineChronicle.com. Here Baroud talks with Joshua Frank about the latest crisis in the Middle East and how it threatens the US and Israel’s international prowess.
Joshua Frank: So Ramzy, how long is this Lebanon/Israeli ceasefire going to last? Who won, anyway?
Ramzy Baroud: To begin with, one must emphasize that Israel doesn’t believe in ceasefires; it’s understanding of the concept has little to do with the commitment it makes to the international community and more to do with tactical reasoning. This was true with Israel’s earliest ceasefire in 1948 when Zionist gangs agreed to stop their onslaught against Palestinian villages and their fleeing inhabitants, yet resumed killing at will without adhering to dates or the law of war whenever convenient.
The latest ceasefire in Lebanon is no exception. For the first time in its history, Israel suffers a wide scale military setback. I am cautious not to use the word “defeat”, although in many aspects it was a defeat. Not only did Israel discover the limitations of its military prowess (similar to the unpleasant discovery of America’s military limits in Iraq), but it has provided Hizbollah, and any aspiring Arab resistance groups in the future, with its own David and Goliath anecdote, which will cement the argument that was slowly fading among Arabs, that Israel only understands the language of force, and that a peace treaty without strength to back it up, is simply signing terms of defeat. Ironically, Syria’s Bashar Assad reiterated a similar notion in his fiery speech following the war; his self-assured words were paralleled with Ehud Olmert hesitant admission of failure before the Israeli Knesset.
JF: So, Israel has the power to end much of the violence?
RB: Right. The ceasefire shall last as long as Israel gets set to reengage Hizbollah. The opportune moment to do this would be to take on a weakened Hizbollah at the internal Lebanese front. The US and Israel are already leading this planning campaign, with the help of their loyal friends dotting the Lebanese political landscape. If Hizbollah is weakened enough (not necessarily disarmed), and if the Lebanese army (who has little or no real chance in defending Lebanon’s border, no matter how well intended) is deployed in areas that Hizbollah had customized to fit its war tactics, then Israel might be foolish enough to give war another shot. It would then be a war of different objectives, one that is almost solely aimed at renewing Israel’s national pride and the people’s confidence in their once ‘invincible army’, for the Israelis understand well that their state had been established, conquered and subdued their foes using tanks and bullets; if such tools are marginalized, then Israel has very little to justify its arrogance, its dominance. In a sense, this was the main achievement of Hizbollah: 1200 lightly armed men defending their country successfully against 30,000 fully geared Israeli soldiers using the best war technology American money can buy.
Israel, no matter how desperate its future military adventures will be, must realize that its military advantage over its neighbors is neither a guarantee of peace nor of security, even if America’s unconditional aid and loan guarantees increase by ten fold.
JF: It's seems as if Israel is not taking the ceasefire seriously at all. They've continued some military operations in Southern Lebanon. The UN, although upset about it, seems to be doing nothing to stop it. How long before this so-called ceasefire ends and Hizbollah and Israel go at it again?
RB: Israel had no other option but to accept the ceasefire. Abiding by it is a different story. Despite its military superiority over Hizbollah, Israel has miserably failed to translate such advantage into yet another military triumph. Militarily, Israel had one out of two options: first, to carry on with the war unhindered, risking more causalities and further tainting the image of its supposedly undefeatable army; second, accepting a cease-fire package with a few provisions that would allow its leaders to claim a political victory over Hizbollah. It opted for the second option, but it was too little too late.
Moreover, Israel has committed three subsequent strategic mistakes. First, launching a major offensive while underestimating Hizbollah’s military strength; second, prolonging the offensive into a 34-day war knowing fully that military victory was simply unattainable (cementing the Lebanese resistance sense of victory, and amplifying its army’s sense of defeat.) The third mistake is being committed right now: Israel is trying to send a message to Hizbollah and others in the Middle East, which is a mixture of arrogance and desperation, by violating the cease fire in a nonsensical and frankly irrelevant show of strength. These actions are similar to a bully who refuses to accept that the smallest kid in the class beat him senseless, and still, bleeding, battered and all, insists on provoking yet another fight.
Of course, the Israeli bully might end up getting his wish -- provoking Hizbollah into another brawl -- but by doing so, it would, once again further highlight its vulnerability and the limits of its military power. Israeli leaders have for long advocated that “Arabs must be beaten” or “hit hard” in order for them to accept Israel’s dominance; now Olmert among others, are having a very difficult time coming to terms with the exact same logic but reversed.
That said, Hizbollah is also vulnerable, despite its claim of victory; the internal Lebanese front is both shaky and largely infiltrated. Another Israeli military onslaught -- if provoked by Hizbollah -- will not go down as well as the first one, and Hassan Nasrallah knows that well. Israel only ‘success’ in this war – of course from its own point of view -- was upping the ante for Hizbollah by destroying Lebanon and killing and wounding thousands in the process, knowing well that Hizbollah and Nasrallah will seriously reconsider future actions against Israel. I discussed this topic in depth in a recent article entitled: “The Logic of Israel’s War on Civilians”.
JF: What's been the reaction in Lebanon and other Middle Eastern countries to Israel's most recent invasion? Has it only emboldened Hizbollah? There have been reports that Hizbollah, most likely with funding from Iran, is rebuilding infrastructure in southern Lebanon. Do you think that these sorts of actions are making Hizbollah a more powerful force in the region? They sure seem to have support across sectarian lines.
RB: The Hizbollah’s daring capture of the Israeli soldiers on July 12 took most Arabs, notwithstanding Lebanese by complete surprise. Unfortunately, the dread of military defeat has been so ingrained in Arab psyche that a few expected that Israel would be humbled to this extent by a small resistance group, even if assisted with the exaggerated firepower of the Iranian anti-tank missiles.
The initial indecision and fear of the Arab public gave rise to a defeatist interpretation of the war, offered by religious circles known for its loyalty to corrupt regimes. Some went as far as issuing religious rulings (Fatwas) forbidding the support of Hizbollah on the ground that it’s a Shia (as opposed to Sunni) faction.
The tide quickly turned when Hizbollah exhibited steadfastness never displayed by entire Arab armies of well-armed legions with extensive political and material support. Every Arab I know watched in disbelief as events folded in Lebanon. The best they’ve hoped for is nominal resilience from Hizbollah, enough to thwart Israel’s overall objectives. A few went as far as predicting an Israeli defeat. Needless to say, Hizbollah’s victory has managed to help most Arabs and Muslims rise above their religious and sectarian divides, and has helped the group re-establish itself as a formidable political power and a military force not to be reckoned with.
That said, it’s important not to underestimate Arab factionalism, but especially Lebanese factionalism and its feasible role in helping Israel and the US achieve what they’ve failed to achieve through war.
In Lebanon, a redoubtable elite, representing various sects is greatly alarmed that the balance of power -- struck in Lebanon through years of civil wars and subsequent treaties (fair to some, utterly unfair to others) -- might be hindered with the re-rise of Hizbollah.
At one point, it was hoped that by removing the Syrian factor from the Lebanese equation, and weakening Hizbollah militarily, a pro-American Lebanon would effortlessly emerge: the old neoconservative calculation. That is yet to happen. However, Saad Hariri, son of former prime minister Rafik Hariri’ condemnation of Syria, calling it a greater threat to Lebanon than Israel, just a day after the end of the Israeli onslaught, speaks volumes regarding the nationalistic priorities of this crowd.
JF: How is the US and Israel attempting to capitalize on all this?
RB: They are both hopeful and actively trying to ensure that a post-war Lebanon will give rise to a pro-American stance, and that is only possible through undermining Hizbollah and its Iranian benefactors. Hizbollah understands this well, and will do their outmost to maintain strong presence both politically and militarily (even after the deployment of international forces), notwithstanding playing a larger part in rebuilding what the Israeli war has destroyed.
In fact, I strongly believe that the ‘rebuilding of Lebanon’ will become the unparalleled mantra for the various leaderships in the country, vying for power and recognition, and those who finance and back them outside. Though their intent might be partly humanitarian, it’s most certainly largely political. Remember that Hizbollah is already being blamed by some within the Lebanese political landscape for inviting Israel’s wrath and destruction; just imagine, if the anti-Hizbollah forces managed to take credit for ‘rebuilding’ what Hizbollah has ‘destroyed’.
Hizbollah’s open war with Israel might be over for now, but the internal conflict it’s likely to face in Lebanon itself is yet to begin.
JF: So what does this mean for the plight of the Palestinians? How will Hizbollah's holding off of the Israeli military effect Hamas and other groups in the region?
RB: The humiliating nature of the Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon in May 2000, under intense Hizbollah strikes affected the relationship between the Israeli army and Palestinian resistance groups in the Second Palestinian Intifada, which commenced merely a few months later. I discussed this relationship in the entry to my recent book, The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People’s Struggle.
Those who had advocated armed resistance to Israeli military occupation were empowered by the Lebanese resistance; the Hizbollah achievement renewed confidence in the armed option. The Hizbollah yellow banner suddenly became a major symbol for Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, and some factions, like Hamas introduced the yellow color to its own banners.
Israel was also wary of the possible affects of its military failures in Lebanon on the behavior of the Palestinian resistance; various Israeli army officials, including Shaoul Mofaz warned Palestinians from expected a repeat of the Lebanese scenario in the Occupied Territories. This, in part, explains Israel’s use of unprecedented violence against Palestinians in the territories, as early as the first days of the uprising, thus sending a clear message that “Lebanon is not Palestine.” (The Israeli military used F-15, F-16 and helicopter gunships against Palestinian towns and refugee camps). It also explains why Palestinians upgrading their methods of resistance, going beyond rocks and slingshots.
Once again, Israel is preparing to send another clear message packed with violence to the Palestinians should they feel inspired by Hizbollah’s recent victory in Lebanon. In fact, Israel might not even wait for a provocation to send that message, especially as the politically besieged Olmert is in desperate need for an outlet, a distraction and an easy victory. By postponing its ‘disengagement’ plan in the West Bank, the isolation of the elected Palestinian government and the lack of any peace initiative (or the interest to start one), the Israeli government is fully equipped to upgrade its violence against the Palestinians. Though Palestinian factions, due to the political uncertainty and the ongoing struggle between the government and Fatah, might not be ready to change tactics or amend styles any time soon, the success of the armed resistance in Lebanon shall leave an impact on Palestinian and Arab psyche for generations.
Since Israel has already ruled out a just peace with Palestinians, such a realization could only mean one thing: another military onslaught.
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