Wednesday, July 19, 2006

It's raining in my heart - Rockets on Beirut

Rain at last! Today was the hottest July day in England since 1911. I have met searing heat like this before in Singapore, Texas and Florida and even south of Boston in midsummer, but this is 51 degrees north and on the coast. I remember it very hot in 1957 and 1967 and 1976, but today was something special. Then this evening as we were driving into Bournemouth suddenly the skies opened and lashings of soft summer rain. (Lashings is a good word, isn't it? Remember the famous five and their lashings of ginger beer?)

I feel the need to say something about the rockets raining down in the Middle East. The BBC is careful to call the Hezbollah fighters militants not terrorists, though the Israelis have no such inhibitions. The trigger for the current round of violence was Israel withdrawing from Gaza. This prompted Hamas to invade Israel and kill some soldiers and capture another. Not to be outdone Hezbollah did the same in the north. They proclaim themselves as heroes for driving Israel out of southern Lebanon whereas the Israelis would say that they withdrew of their own accord to encourage the peace process.

Peace process? What peace process? It looks as though Ariel Sharon's policy of land for peace is dead in the water.

Who is in the right here?

It depends on how far back you want to go in history. I may have a totally wrong opinion about the history, but this is how I see it. If I am mistaken, I've no doubt someone will correct me. Undoubtedly, Israel is a land once owned by the Hebrews. They achieved supremacy through conquest at the times of Joshua, Samson, David and Solomon. They, themselves, suffered conquest at the hands of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes and Persians, Greeks and Romans, with only short periods of independence under the Maccabees. They were finally expelled by the Romans in AD 70.

As the Roman Empire decayed the area was controlled by an Islamic empire, which spread across the whole of North Africa, southern Spain and north into Europe to the gates of Vienna. The Otterman Empire controlled this area until it fell at the end of the First World War when the great powers (principally France and Britain) divided up the empire between them. France had responsibility for Lebanon and Syria, Britain for Mesopotamia and Palestine. This was not expansion of the British and French Empires, but what would have been called in those days, 'taking up the white man's burden'. No doubt a mistaken viewpoint steeped in paternalism, but a fair description of what was felt at the time.

In World War One, Britain had made the mistake of promising Palestine to both Arab and Jew. After the Holocaust the Jews took them up on the offer and started moving in by the boatload. Britain held a UN mandate at the time to keep order in the country and tried diplomatic means to find an agreement. I believe a home in Uganda was offered. The Jews would have none of this sort of delay and using a series of terrorist atrocities achieved a homeland in Palestine. It would be fair to talk about Jewish terrorists in this context. Throughout 1948 battles with the Arabs raged and during this period there is no doubt that some Jewish atrocities against Arabs occurred. A lasting enmity between the two was laid down then, but even though Jew and Arab had lived in peace together in Palestine for years, there was a history of conflict. Most of those who were displaced in 1948 are dead, but it has become a folk memory, steeped in resentment. It is fueled by poverty and unemployment. It smarts all the more when you see what the Jews have done with the land. The dessert blooms while the refugee camps seethe with the poor whose only relief is religion. Exactly as Marx said, it is the opium of the people; it takes away their pain.

In 1956 Britain, France and Israel together attacked Egypt when Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. America stepped in and threatened the Europeans with bankruptcy if they did not withdraw. From then on it was apparent that America was top dog, and that Britain would never act on the world stage against America's national interest. (In a rare show of independence Harold Wilson refused to send troops to Viet Nam and Margaret Thatcher sent a task force to the Falklands against American advice). Suez was half way to India. With Suez gone the Empire was dead.

In 1967 and again in 1973 Israel defeated Arab armies seeking to destroy it. The subsequent occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights and later (in 1980?) southern Lebanon, have all been strategically important as matters of defense. Putting settlements on the West Bank and in Gaza muddied the waters - the land was no longer kept as a military necessity for protection, but as conquered assets for living in.

Can an argument be made for sustaining the settlements? I suppose it is true that everyone lives everywhere because of conquest. Certainly Britain has been settled by a succession of conquerors. America, Canada, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand: sometimes the conquest has been very brutal, resulting in genocide. We can hardly claim to be holier than thou. Nevertheless, in return for peace the settlements might go; without peace they are a bargaining chip.

Who owns the land? Frankly, the answer is whoever has possession of it at the moment, however they obtained it. Whenever did anyone voluntarily give up a land they were living in?

From Israel’s point of view, the occupation of surrounding land is a safeguard against being attacked. Their current policy is to withdraw if peace can be secured. The policy of the Hezbollah and Hamas is that Israel should remain under constant attack. Israel’s response is to reoccupy land that they have withdrawn from. The current destruction of Lebanon appears disproportionate, but in Israel it is deemed necessary to diminish Hezbollah. Generations of international politicians have attempted to find a peaceful solution to the problem. Nobel peace prizes have been won for what in retrospect appear to have been nothing more than temporary truces.

Can Israel destroy Hezbollah bet all this bombing? Of course not. They will inflict a lot of damage to the infrastructure of Lebanon that will make it difficult to replace the rockets. They will give the country a bloody nose as a warning not to harbor a private army. They will kill a small number of terrorists. They will for a while sterilize the borderland.

These are not fundamentalist Jews. They have no time for the Bible’s restriction of an eye for an eye. They seek ten eyes for every single Israeli eye. They have been exposed to that sort of arithmetic and they have learned.

Could the Palestinians drive out the Israelis by force of arms? Whether they use conventional war or what people now call asymmetric war, this is not going to happen, not while America exists.

What is the best they could hope for? They might get the return of most of the West Bank. Jerusalem would be a sticking point, the best that they could hope for there is for it to be declared an international city with access for the three major monotheistic religions.

Could they get rid of the settlers? I doubt that they will get rid of them all, but this is at least something to negotiate about. A separate Palestinian state that is economically viable is in Israel’s interest as much as it is in the Palestinians’.

Is Israel subject to the World’s opinion? Not really. She will respond to pressure from America, but American public opinion is hardly likely to favor Shiite Arabs over Jews.

Are Syria and Iran behind this? Undoubtedly there is some connection. They continue to be strongly anti-Israel and anti-America. With the American army tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan and vulnerable to Shiite groups there, a proxy war in Lebanon suits the Shiite purpose. However, if you blind yourself to the day-to-day horror of the war and the hundreds killed and thousands injured, strategically, this is just a skirmish in a bigger ideological confrontation.

How will it end? I suspect that some time next week the Israelis will discover that at least some of their military objectives will have been achieved, they will agree to an American brokered cease fire. Syria will put pressure on Hezbollah to stop firing rockets. There will be a prisoner exchange, with the Israelis releasing some of their Palestinian prisoners and the Arabs giving up the three Israeli soldiers. Both sides will claim a victory. The Israelis will claim to have damaged Hezbollah significantly. Hezbollah will show the release of prisoners as evidence that their little war was successful. The Lebanese government will make an accommodation with Hezbollah that gives them more power over policy in return for at least some control over the young men who actually fire the rockets. A stronger, though not strong enough, UN force will be placed in Southern Lebanon. It will include contingents from Norway, Yemen and one of the former Soviet Republics.

There will be a boom in the Lebanese construction industry. Money for reconstruction will come from the EU and Saudi Arabia. And America.

Cripples will become a common sight on the streets of Beirut.


Roger Bourland said...

Penetrating insights, Terry! Thank you gor them. I have a suspicion that you are right across the board.

Anonymous said...

Your analysis, and remarkable knowledge of the facts and history of the conflict, is amazingly accurate.

One element that you did not mention is the unfair advantage that one side has over the other. They lived displaced for so many centuries among different nations and they had to be wiley to learn all the tricks they could to survive. They use their store of "knowledge" to advance their cause.

An anthropologist, who digging in Israel/Palestine to find who was mentioned earlier in the artifacts of the land, was killed by extremist Israelis after he found something that he did not have time to publish.

In an ideal world they would live together happily and use the money they spend on armament to make the land a promised heaven for Jew, Christian, and Moslem.

Anonymous said...

I find it particularly revealing that you refer to "rockets on Beirut" without a single reference to the "rockets on Haifa." I live in the U.S. and if a neighboring country were kidnapping our soldiers and showering us with rockets, I would expect, no demand, that they do something. You are obviously on another side than me.

Terry Hamblin said...

Actually no. My symapthies are more with the Israelis. After all Hezbollah started this particular round of atrocities.

I say nothing about the tactics that the Israelis are employing because I know nothing of the reason for them. Ostensibly it seems like an over-reaction, but that is one of the hazards of asymetric war. It is clear that Hezbollah and therefore the Lebanese governement are guilty of war crimes. The indiscriminate rocketing of civilians in Haifa and northern Israel is a criminal act, and since the Lebanese government has done nothing to restrain Hezbollah, indeed even has Hezbollah members as part of the governing coalition, the Lebanese government is implicitly involved in the guilt although not complicit in the activity.

Israel could well argue that it does not get a fair hearing in the court of world opinion and since the UN force actually present in south Lebanon has done nothing to restrain Hezbollah either, it was justified in taking matters into their own hands.

They could well argue that their prime interest is in securing the safety of their citizens when attacked and to do that they need to diminish as much as possible the ability of Hezbollah to fire rockets of them. In asymetric warfare it is a common tactic for the weaker side to hide munitions in heavily populated areas in the hope that will deter 'civilized' people from attacking them. This is an effective weapon against people with Christian sensibilities. The Lebanese terrorists appear to have miscalculated; Israelis don't have Christian sensibilities., they have Jewish ones which demand an eye for an eye rather than turning the other cheek.

This Mosaic injunction was meant to restrain revenge to just one eye for an eye, so a 10 to 1 ratio of casualties seems extreme. However we are not certain of the reasons for this, nor whether military targets are being attacked or civilian ones. In asymetric wars it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference.

On the question of destruction of the infrastructure, there may be a valid reason for this. We do know that Iran is trying to resupply Hezbollah via Syria. The Israeli may legitimately try to prevent this. There is always the option fro the Lebanese army to prevent this if they want their bridges left intact.

All that being said one would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the plight of children with faces scarred by shrapnell wounds.

If terrorists in British Columbia were sending rockets into Seattle, would Washington bomb Ottawa? Probably not, but if Ottawa said it was unable to contain its terrorists I have no doubt that America would invade Canada and try to put them down.

For many years terrorists operating out of Ireland committed atrocities in the United Kingdom. They even sent mortar bombs into the garden of 10 Downing Street. They attempted to assasinate the British Prime Minister and did assasinate members of her cabinet. My own father narrowly escaped being blown up by the terrorists. One of the greatest hematological oncologists in the world, Gordon Hamilton Fairley, was blown up by them.

The UK did not send rockets to Dublin, even though there were members of the Irish government who were covert supporters of the terrorists. They did not bomb Washington even though America was funding the terrorists and even though members of Congress were overt supporters of the terrorists.

So, we in the UK need no lessons about how to deal with people sending bombs on our country. We learned about that when we faced Hitler alone.

On another occasion I will write about my attitude to violence and a lot more needs to be said about asymetric warfare. But for today I would just say that we should not jump to conclusions from just reading headlines.