Saturday, July 15, 2006

promises and rewards

The continuing maelstrom on the Lebanon-Israel border is known as Operation Just Reward to the Israelis and Operation True Promise by Hezbollah, the violent Shiite 'Army of God' organization. Of course, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza has been totally conflated and overshadowed by the ongoing attacks. This difference in nomenclature reveals how differently each side views things. To the Israeli narrative, this was the result of Hamas adopting the relatively new and successful Hezbollah tactic of kidnapping soldiers to trade for prisoners. It was suggested that these came as directives from either Damascus or Tehran, but the facts on the ground indicate that it was more of a rare opportunity:
Hezbollah and Israel stand along this border every day observing each other through binoculars and waiting for an opportunity to kill each other. They are at war. They have been for 25 years, no one ever declared a cease-fire between them. … They stand on the border every day and just wait for an opportunity. And on Tuesday morning there were two Humvees full of Israeli soldiers, not under observation from the Israeli side, not under covering fire, sitting out there all alone. The Hezbollah militia commander just couldn’t believe it -- so he went and got them.

The Israeli captain in charge of that unit knew he had really screwed up, so he sent an armored personnel carrier to go get them in hot pursuit, and Hezbollah led them right through a minefield.

Now if you’re sitting in Tehran or Damascus or Beirut, and you are part of the terrorist Politburo so to speak, you have a choice. With your head sunk in your hands, thinking "Oh my God," you can either give [the kidnapped soldiers] back and say "Oops, sorry, wrong time" or you can say, "Hey, this is war."
Israel thus unleashed a 'finely calibrated' attack on the infrastructure of Lebanon, home to Hezbollah, which destroyed selectively, such fuel depots without their adjacent station. This was to be the 'just reward' for tacit governmental support of Hezbollah, a milita established in Lebanon to defend Shiites there and punish Sunnis and Christians. The attendent collateral damage was considerable, but still not the turning back the clock that some in the IDF proposed. Like in Iraq, it is hard to make a bullet or a bomb discriminate between people based on who they think Muhammad's legitimate descendant was. Thus, Sunni and Shiite alike suffer about the same. Not really 'just' is it?Olmert, the Israeli PM who was not an army officer, feels the need to prove himself as capable of insuring security. Meanwhile, Hezbollah claims its new rockets can hit Israeli targets in Haifa, further away from the border than ever before. Rightful criticism has been directed at the disproportionate attack, but of course, disproportion has long been Israeli policy. But what is Hezbollah's strategy, what is the 'true promise'?

Hezbollah, it has been suggested, has done all of this to force Israel to respond as if they were the state of Lebanon, rather than a party within Lebanon, so that the rest of the country will rally behind them and this perception would be true. Of course, some within Lebanon have been to wake up to this threat to the integrity and autonomy of the state. Hezbollah, founded after the 1982 invasion with Iranian funds, has bad blood with the US going back to the 1983 bombing of a Marine barracks which left 241 Corpsmen dead. they remain one of the meddling Syrian government's main allies in Lebanon, and there are persistent rumors that the final destination of the Israeli soldiers is either Iran or Syria. Hezbollah effectively controls the most populous areas of Lebanon, building schools, clinics and hospitals. Hezbollah refuses to hand over the soldiers and Lebanon cannot disarm them.

Hezbollah's military strength exceeds most of its neighbors. They have working drone kamikaze aircraft! The true promise appears to be to provoke Israel into a apocalyptic overextension, a mission creep which alienates it from the world. One benefit for the Iranians as a counterstriek for the attention over its nuclear ambitions. Stirring up Sadr and his Mahdi army in Iraq to kill more Americans is just another ancillary benefit.

There is contention over just what the goals and endgame of the regional powers are:
There is no question that the U.S. will suffer economically from war in the Middle East -- we've already seeing gas prices jump over the past few days -- and that the U.S. public (rightly) already has no appetite for further foreign entanglements. A reorientation of U.S. foreign policy from agitating for a conflict with Iran to soothing the conflict between Israel and Lebanon is very much in Iran's interests. That Israel gets a hail of rockets and international condemnation along the way is a plus, as is the damage to the U.S. economy from increased energy costs. Recall, too, that we're already at high risk of recession in the wake of the Federal Reserve Bank's rate-raising spree, and experiencing income stagnation everywhere but at the very top of the scale. A war-related energy shock on top of that would be a disaster for the average American -- and that's not even counting the possibility of another hurricane season like last year's in the Gulf of Mexico, which already has one energy analyst predicting crude oil prices of more than $80 a barrel by fall. Recall, too, that broadly-shared economic pain tends to get domestic political parties ousted from power, and that America's ruling party is already facing a serious challenge to its grip on power in elections that are just three and a half months away.

Syria is a whole different question, and focusing international attention on Syria's role in fomenting the present violence may actually aid the Lebanese in their desire to finally get Hezbollah to disarm, as required by U.N. resolution 1559. Michael Young lays out that case in today's New York Times, as Matt noted below, and there is a real opportunity here for both the Lebanese and the Israelis to create international pressure on Syria and support for Hezbollah disarmanent. But, as Young notes, that would require Israel to focus its attack on Hezbollah and stop putting pressure on Lebanon as a whole. Taking out the airports and bridges and blockading the port is a strategy designed to make all of Lebanon -- beautiful, resurgent Lebanon, the vacation destination of choice in the Middle East and for more than a million people a year -- suffer. Israeli intelligence and military officials know very well where most of the Hezbollah encampments along the border are -- heck, you can see them from Israel, along with the yellow Hezbollah flag -- and could take those out if it wanted to focus its attack on the terrorists. Instead, its early military moves have nationalized the attack on Lebanon, when the solution would seem to involve strengthening, not weakening, the Lebanese government's position vis a vis Hezbollah.

Note: It is possible to point out that the Israeli response and actions have been excessive, but this is not a criticism against all Jews, or even all Israelis. They may have been justified, but it still was not the wisest course of action. Just because someone steps on your toe doesn't mean you should cut their head off. I think it is best to quote Josh Marshall in full for a response:
For some of my Jewish friends and, it seems, more and more non-Jews of a certain political persuasion, there is just an inability to recognize that the dispossession of Arabs was an essential element to the fulfillment of the Jewish people's national aspirations in Palestine. (That was a blindness that a ben Gurion or a Dayan never made. Read their writings, their speeches, especially their letters. They understood this.) There is too often an inability or I suppose simply a willfull refusal to recognize the roots of Palestinian militant violence and terrorism (and I don't equate the two) in the fact that the population of the West Bank and Gaza have been living under military occupation for some forty years.

As some of you know, before I became a journalist I was studying to be an historian. And the topic of my doctoral dissertation was the nexus of economic relations and organized violence between Indians and English settlers in mid-17th century New England. And over several years as I researched and wrote and pulled together my ideas on the subject there were troubling and disconcerting moments because I could see the echoes and patterns of what happened there in the 17th Century in what happened between Jews and Palestinians in the 20th. There continues to be this dangerous obtuseness among the political classes in this country that 'terrorism' is just terrorism whether it's bin Laden's buddies trying to figure out how to blow up the world or Palestinian militants trying to drive settlers off the West Bank.

But on a day like today I see a different picture, though magified perhaps by the febrile intensity of email. It comes when I'm again exposed to the other side of the coin. American politics leans heavily in Israel's direction; and so does the American media. But there is out there a broad constituency of ignorant and malevolent hatred of Israel and, really, Israelis, that, I think, masks its malevolence even to itself through being awash its own self-righteousness. I think I understand the Palestinians' rage. In any case, I respect it. For this trash from Americans who only seem able to see Jewish evil in the midst of this protracted conflict I can't have anything but contempt. And it puts me on my guard.

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At 5:08 PM,

just to put a feather in your cap... I was preparing for some bbc talkback segment I was going to be on.. and among my sources of inspiration.. this post was a useful read. So go you!

At 6:27 PM,

Man I am such a sucker for praise...usually all I can see are the grammatical errors. I really am glad for the chance to be a part of a larger conversation: it always reminds me of how great writing is for one's mental health. I may not have a killer beret like you but I will try to make your feather look just as good in my Red Sox cap.




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