[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.