by Reda Benkirane
Aljazeera Centre for Studies, August 2006
The last war conducted by Israel in Lebanon against the Hezbollah fighters is marked by three characteristics: unpredictability, disproportion and powerlessness. The war signals a turning point in the evolution of the region and in the perception of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but, more fundamentally, it indicates the failure of the semantics and the analytical grid used so far by the representatives of the international community in their treatment of the Middle-East geopolitical problems.
Who would have thought that the spectacular Oslo process (1993-2000), awarded by three Nobel prizes, would lead to the bombarding of the offices of the Palestinian government, the capture of its ministers and members of Parliament? Who still remembers that the first suicide attack of the Palestinian Hamas has its origin in the attack perpetrated by a religious Zionist, disciple of Meir Kahane, who killed in 1994 thirty Muslims worshipers and wounded a hundred more in the Hebron Mosque? Who would have imagined that an Israeli prime minister, Itzhak Rabin, the hawk who became a dove, would be shot in 1995 not by an activist of the Palestinian Hamas or the Lebanese Hezbollah but by a Jewish extremist? Who would have believed that during the Camp David negotiations the televised courtesy between Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Chairman of the Palestinian Authority Yasser Arafat would lead to the tragic end of the latter, prisoner in his Ramallah muqata'a? Who would have thought that the politician who considered Arafat as the main culprit of the second Intifada (2000), General Ariel Sharon, would know an end symbolically more pathetic? Who could have imagined that the current minister of defence, Amir Peretz, a member of the movement Peace now – born in opposition to the 1982 Lebanon war – would conduct a war that would devastate again the land of the cedars, killing more children than armed men?
If the scale of this last war demonstrates that it was planned a long time ago – but awaiting a convenient trigger -, unpredictability is increasing along with the course of events and aftermaths of this war fury in Lebanon that Israeli military experts cannot control. Already, instead of being stigmatized and isolated within the Lebanese political-religious scene, Hezbollah has won military and diplomatically beyond all its expectations and hopes.
The force ratio in the region is 1 to 10 regarding the casualties, 1 to 10 000 regarding the number of prisoners and the destructions caused. In retaliation of the capture of two I.D.F. soldiers, an entire country has been devastated and taken hostage. These massive bombing and destructions in Lebanon have been made possible with the full support of the United States and the tacit agreement of the United Kingdom. If this last war is of an existential nature, it is Lebanon that is tragically experimenting it as such – after a fragile exit from a long civil war (1976-1991) and emancipation from its Syrian neighbour (2005). It was Lebanon, whose political and confessional mosaic, before even this last military campaign, that was – and is – likely to deteriorate at any time.
Contrary to what is often asserted, the disproportion of the military reaction is not a condition necessary to the survival of the State of Israel. It is only after the failure of the Oslo process (2000), when Israeli leaders suddenly found out, in their view, that there were no peace partners, that the disproportional approach has been integrated into the military doctrine – when the operations which caused retaliations during the second Intifada never threatened Israel's survival. This military doctrine – a combination of 'search and destroy' and 'shock and awe' – culminated recently in Gaza and now in Lebanon. It has now demonstrated its failure. The disproportion of the military response expressed on many occasions by General Dan Haloutz traduces also a dehumanization of any non-Israeli life and a disregard for any Middle-eastern society other than Israel.
Since the Arab states have definitively abandoned any attempt of military confrontation with the State of Israel and have recognized its right to exist, the overwhelming military superiority of the latter (made possible by the massive and unfailing support of the US) and the impunity of its operations against civilian populations in Palestine and Lebanon are eminently problematic. The Israeli arsenal and the military fire power – without equivalent in the region – threaten civil societies in rapid development – including Israeli civil society – that find themselves hostages of a rigid nationalism.
The Israeli so-called democracy is first determined by the percentage of the national budget devoted to its army and by its dominant weight in the political life – it is 'an army that has a state' rather than the opposite as Israeli citizens ironically assert. Israel is then a 'military democracy' where a soldier's life is infinitely more precious than that of an Israeli citizen, and in the sense that during the last ten years three prime ministers were generals (Itzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon). And we may wonder if it is not their civil status that pushed Ehud Olmert and Amir Peretz in a military build-up – Shimon Perez did the same mistake in Lebanon ten years ago.
The disproportion of this war transforms into disequilibrium a certain number of demographic and geographical facts beginning with the fact that Israel – with a 7 million population – is surrounded by some 300 million Arabs. The unilateral annexation of Jerusalem is opposing some 14 million Jews to 1.2 billion Muslims. In this context, to justify the disproportionate use of military violence by Israel, the metaphor that best describes the situation is that of 'a villa in the jungle' formulated by Ehud Barak. The jungle is a hostile environment that needs to be cleared, normalized and it is therefore the mission devoted to the Israeli leaders who are at the forefront of the 'battle of the western civilized world', against the 'oriental obscurantism'. This perception of an Islamic and Arab jungle, filled with the forces of evil, fits with the projection of the hypothetic 'Great Middle East'. This geopolitical 'mock-up' is inspired by the biblical messianism of US President Bush who, in a certain manner, is trying to impose in the complex post-September 11 world a form of 'American theocracy.' Bush’s obsession with fighting the 'axis of evil' is only proportional to the chaos it generates.
For the ordinary citizens of Amman, Cairo or Casablanca, the destruction of the Iraqi nation, the relentlessness of the Israeli army against the Palestinian population and the war fury in Lebanon tragically put in evidence the powerlessness of the Arab political leaders when it comes to articulate a collective political response. In this context, the Hezbollah resistance appears in their eyes as the sole legitimate attitude.
Whereas from Beirut one of the few coherent initiatives of the League of Arab States was the peace offer in 2002 – a proposal rejected by Israel –, the apparent powerlessness of Arab leaders to engage in any form of tangible action in solidarity with Lebanon is even more incomprehensible and intolerable in the eyes of the Arab public opinions. After all, Arab states are not deprived of means of pressure since they possess what currently is a powerful weapon of dissuasion – oil and gas.
The powerlessness of these regional leaders is strangely mirrored in the powerlessness of the G8 leaders and the convoluted attitude of the European Union and the United Nations to impose a cease-fire and to constitute an international peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon. This powerlessness comes from the asymmetric perception and treatment of Middle-East problems, the famous ‘double standard’ that establishes an ethnological distinction between Jew-Israelis and Arab-Muslims. This prism – which has its origins in the colonial period and is alimented by the guilty feeling that came just after the Nazi genocide of the Jews – is responsible for maintaining tension and the pursuit of the conflict.
But the most tragic powerlessness can be attributed to the State of Israel which, after almost 60 years of existence, despite its unquestionable and incomparable military force, its colossal – nuclear – arsenal, the unconditional support of the US and UK, is still not capable of offering security and peace to its inhabitants. Israel, whose raison d'être is to be the secure State of all the Jews, remains for them the most dangerous (meta)physical territory.
The asymmetrical nature of the conflict that is opposing the Israeli army to the Hezbollah guerrilla and the Palestinian resistance reinforces even more this coupling between power and powerlessness. Tsahal, the army which defeated the Arab armies in six days in June 1967 has been unable, after a month of intensive aerial bombing and fierce battles, to eliminate the Hezbollah forces which have neither navy, nor aviation, nor tanks.
The Israeli existential cul-de-sac is symbolized in the relationship to the Self at work, more particularly in the circular link between military power and political powerlessness. The more the State of Israel increases its technological and military power, the more its society feels weakened, the more it is afraid and perceives itself as a victim ('the whole world is against us' syndrome) within a hostile and foreign environment.
By vainly trying to resolve a problem that is essentially political (the denial of independence and sovereignty of the Palestinian people), the devastating process of the Israeli military doctrine is furthermore creating hatred in the entire Arab-Muslim world, something that can be extremely destructive in the long term. Any military victory, under the current circumstances, is a political defeat that creates a new increasing threat for the future.
The powerlessness symbolized by the ineffectiveness of military force – because or despite of its destructive capacity – as well as the dead end represented by the separation wall built in the West Bank, such is the horizon for those who have forgotten their own prophetic wisdom : 'For not by strength does man prevail'. When will the time come in which wise men lead the destiny of the country to engage it not in a tactical peace but in a definitive reconciliation with its neighbors and in the integration into a Middle-East that has a huge potential? Where are the prophets of Israel?