Monday, August 21, 2006

Lessons Learned

Lessons Learned

[Originally published in The Nation, 20 August 2006]

Hours before the UN ceasefire went into effect, Israel quietly announced that it would, after all, be willing to negotiate a prisoner exchange with Hezbollah to secure the return of the two soldiers whose capture sparked the recent war.

Had Israel accepted Hezbollah's offer of a negotiated exchange five weeks ago, more than 1,000 people--the vast majority Lebanese civilians--would still be alive. In addition, more than a million people would not have been displaced from their homes; entire neighborhoods in Beirut and whole villages in the south of Lebanon would still be intact; and the Israeli army would not have reduced Lebanon to an environmentally devastated wasteland.

Rather than negotiating an exchange (as they have in the past), the Israelis launched a wave of air and artillery attacks on civilian targets in Lebanon.

When Hezbollah retaliated with several salvos of rockets, Israel angrily announced that no country--other than Lebanon, presumably--can tolerate such attacks, and it stepped up its bombardment of Lebanon, striking the international airport in Beirut as well as other civilian targets, and threatening to set the entire country back twenty years.

Far too many people in the US accepted Israel's claims at face value.

Hardly anyone bothered to put the capture of the Israeli soldiers (which was referred to as a "kidnapping," not a term normally used with reference to soldiers in wartime) in historical context. It was depicted as having come out of the blue, rather than being understood as one event in a continuous series originating with Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982-in whose aftermath Hezbollah was born. When the rockets started flying, no one seemed to notice that Israel had brought punishment on its own civilians by having chosen to respond disproportionately to a minor border skirmish, and to an attack on its army by bombing defenseless civilians.

Overnight, as the captured soldiers faded into the background, a consensus seemed to emerge in the US, according to which the bombing of Lebanon was really about Israel's need to protect its northern border from Hezbollah rocket attacks.

We were saturated with the message that Hezbollah is a shadowy terrorist organization that has spent years showering northern Israel with rockets--and that Israel had both the right and the duty to protect itself from such attacks once and for all. Thus was history instantaneously rewritten to Israel's own specifications.

In fact, from the moment that Israel ended its last military occupation of Lebanon in 2000 until the explosion of the current war on July 12, UN observers report that there was not a single casualty as a result of a confirmed rocket attack by Hezbollah on civilian targets in northern Israel.

A number of alternative explanations for Israel's bombardment of Lebanon have been proposed, most of them involving the Bush administration's regional ambitions. It may have been another attempt to create "a new Middle East," or, as Seymour Hersh suggests, it may have been a dress rehearsal for a future US war on Iran.

Whatever its real motivations, however, Israel failed. For all the damage it inflicted on innocent civilians, Israel's lumbering army was resolutely beaten back by Hezbollah.

We may never know the real reasons for Israel's attack, but there are lessons to be learned from the past few weeks of violence.

First, we should learn never to accept at face value any government's justifications for its own actions. Government claims need to be viewed skeptically, placed in context, read against the grain.

Second, we need to learn not to assess Israel's actions using Israel's own discourse. Not only, for example, do hundreds of millions of people not see Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, but to accept the Israeli designation is to ignore the material fact that Hezbollah is a massive social movement that gained prominence by resisting what would have been recognized in any other context as a brutal and illegal military occupation.

Third, it is essential for us to disentangle American interests from Israeli ones. Our government supported Israel's war on Lebanon. We financed and supplied it; our Congress affirmed it; our representatives repeatedly blocked international appeals for a ceasefire that would have saved hundreds of lives. It is childish for us to imagine that we will not have further prices to pay for our blind support for Israel. We should demand from our government an explanation of what we receive in turn--especially if that is nothing.

Finally, we must learn to see Israel for what it is. A state that punishes an entire population, flouts international law, commits war crimes, refuses to allow aid to reach beleaguered civilians, destroys ambulances, attacks civilians, and orders terrified people from their homes only to bomb them as they flee, is a rogue state. We need to ask ourselves what we gain by associating ourselves with it.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Israel Should Call it Quits

Israel's Raid on Baalbeck's Hospital: Time to call it Quits

[Originally published by Saree Makdisi in Counterpunch, 3 August 2006]

Israeli commandos staged a daring raid the other night on the ancient Lebanese town of Baalbeck, catching Hassan Nasrallah asleep, bundling him into a waiting helicopter, and spiriting him back to Israel.

But as the dust settled and reports from the ground began to emerge, it turned out that the Hassan Nasrallah that Israel's most elite military unit had captured-with the assistance of the formidable intelligence capabilities of the legendary Mossad-was apparently not Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizballah, but rather Hassan Nasrallah, the owner of a small toyshop on the dusty outskirts of Baalbeck. They also nabbed his son, another relative, and a neighbor for good measure. Israel claims that the men are members of Hizballah, albeit not the ones they were hoping for. Their relatives and neighbors, and Hizballah itself, deny this.

The raid was focused on the Dar al Hikma hospital, which was heavily damaged by the Israeli raiders and supporting fire from aircraft. The hospital, however, was found to be empty. The kidnapped men were, according to local sources, taken from their homes.

To provide cover before and during the raid on the hospital, Israeli aircraft subjected residential neighborhoods of Baalbeck and neighboring towns to a withering bombardment, in which seventeen people, almost all of them civilians, were killed. The dead included the son of the mayor of al Jamaliyeh, his brother, and five other relatives. The mayor of al Jamaliyeh, incidentally, held a distinctly anti-Hizballah position in local politics.

Israel's aerial torment of a population entirely lacking in air defenses and even proper air raid shelters has now killed some 900 people, the overwhelming majority of them civilians, and about a third of them children. It has displaced almost a million people from their homes. It has devastated Lebanon's civilian infrastructure. It has reduced entire towns in the south-including Bint Jbeil, once home to 30,000 people-to rubble. And it has left block after block after block of Beirut in total ruins. (All this while Israel is at the same time holding the 1.4 million destitute people of the Gaza Strip in the world's largest prison, bombarding them day and night, and sadistically depriving them of sleep at night by repeatedly breaking the sound barrier at low altitude).

After three weeks of devastating bombardment, Israel's much vaunted army finds itself unable to fight its way more than a few kilometers into Lebanon. The heavy resistance they have encountered on the ground is the most obvious explanation for why the Israelis prefer on the whole to go on dropping bombs on children from a safe distance: not only is it less dangerous, it also involves much less effort.

The "deep penetration" raid on Baalbeck was meant to show off the capabilities of Israel's armed forces, to make up for their humiliating performance on the ground and their repeated massacres of civilians from the air, including the refugees sheltering in Qana (an event whose cover story has gone through at least three variations, none of them convincing to anyone other than the Israelis themselves).

Instead, it left a hospital in ruins, more than a dozen civilians dead, and elite forces in possession of an unfortunate middle-aged shopkeeper and an assortment of his friends and relatives.

Surely this would be the right moment for Israel to give up and call it quits

US Should not Abet Violence in Lebanon

The US Should not Abet Violence in Lebanon

[Originally published by Saree Makdisi in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, 22 July 2006]

Never has the gulf between U.S. and Israeli interests been clearer than during the present crisis. And not since the shameful coverup of the 1967 Israeli bombing of the USS Liberty - in which 34 Navy crewmen were killed - have our politicians done so much to protect Israel's interests at the expense of our own.

We have not been standing idly by as Israel destroys Lebanon's civilian infrastructure, obliterates entire neighborhoods and kills dozens of innocent people.

Not only has our government provided Israel with the weapons with which it is now bombarding Lebanon, it also has provided virtually unlimited financial, military, political and diplomatic support to enable - even encourage - Israel to continue.

Our government intervened to remove criticism of Israel from the G-8 Summit statement on the crisis. It stymied European efforts to call for a cease-fire to protect civilian life. It vetoed a U.N. resolution calling on Israel to stop its attack on Gaza's civilians. It rushed an additional $210 million of aviation fuel to Israel to help it "keep peace and security in the region." And it even granted Israel an additional week to continue its unrestrained pounding of Lebanon, according to diplomatic reports.

Lebanon is facing a humanitarian catastrophe; 335 people have been killed. The United Nations estimates that up to half a million people have been displaced from their homes. With Israel having reduced Lebanon to a large-scale version of Gaza - cut off from the outside world, denied water and electricity, unable to import essential supplies of food and medicine - the country is on its knees. Four million people are now not merely terrified, but increasingly hungry and thirsty.

It is absurd to consider this level of violence a legitimate act of self-defense. During its war with the IRA, Britain could have used the same argument to destroy Ireland's roads, bridges, ports and airports on the pretext that they were being used by the IRA to move weapons and supplies; it could have used it to launch massive bombardments of Catholic neighborhoods both in the Republic and in Northern Ireland.

The absurdity of the justification aside, Israel has bombed targets in Lebanon that have no possible connection to Hezbollah. It has killed sleeping Lebanese army soldiers in the north of the country, even though the Lebanese army is not involved in the conflict and is, moreover, supposed to be the key to the solution, according to Israel itself. It has bombed milk factories, cutting off the supply of a vital nutrient to Lebanon's babies and children. It has bombed a desperately needed aid convoy heading toward Beirut from the United Arab Emirates. It has bombed hospitals, schools and ambulances. All of this, of course, is in blatant violation of the U.S. Arms Export Control Act, under which our weapons are provided to Israel.

Why is our country supporting Israel's unlimited violence not only against an entire population, but a population that has historically been the most friendly to the United States in the entire Arab world? For decades, America has been a beacon of hope and liberty to the people of Lebanon. Its foremost university is an American institution. Its people have emigrated in tens of thousands to America (the majority of Arab-Americans are Lebanese), tying our two nations together.

Justice aside, what do we gain from the bombing of these people?

Are we really to believe that this attack will destroy Hezbollah? Israel enforced a draconian military occupation of Lebanon for over two decades; just as it failed to destroy Hezbollah then, it will fail again now.

Are we then to believe that this attack constitutes a slap in the face for Iran and Syria? The destruction of Lebanon's infrastructure hurts neither of them. On the contrary, it will provide them another chance to give generously during reconstruction.

This attack has nothing to do with Israel's self defense. Preparing for eventual negotiations, it is showing how it deals with those who dare question it: It reduces their country to rubble. In the name of combating one form of extremism, we are backing another - Israel's.

We gain nothing in the process. But we will pay a price.

Three hundred million Arabs and 1 billion Muslims are watching as one rational and peaceful and moral argument after another to restore peace is either denied or deflected or contemptuously spurned by our leaders in order to allow Israel to continue its bombardment. The next time one or three or 10 of them take it in their heads to launch a horrific attack on the United States - which they will regard as justified retribution - no one need bother to ask why they hate us. We will all know the answer.