Saturday, July 22, 2006

What Hezbollah is fighting for - A reality check

Norman Geras (in a post headed An unambiguous message) quotes some passages from a piece on Lebanon by Fred Halliday in openDemocracy ("A Lebanese fragment: Two days with Hizbollah"). Like anything written by Halliday, his whole piece is worth reading. But here is one especially interesting and thought-provoking passage:
The next day I was taken on an intense field-trip by one of the Hizbollah military commanders to the key installations and battlesites of the Lebanese south. Beyond a certain stage, there was no sign of the Lebanese army or police, only Hizbollah roadblocks with the yellow flag of the organisation fluttering above. [....]

Towards the end of the day, my guides took me [to] a hill overlooking the Israeli frontier, and the town of Metulla. [....] From one roadside vantage-point, they had pointed to the still unresolved Shebaa area to the southeast. As we looked over to this Israeli town, with people clearly visible walking in the streets, the chief guide turned to me with an unambiguous message: "It took us twenty-two years to drive them out of here [Lebanon]... and it may take us up to forty years to drive them out of there [occupied Palestine]".

I long ago decided, in dealing with revolutionaries and with their enemies, in the middle east and elsewhere, to question their motives and sense of reality, but to take seriously what they stated to be their true intentions. Those words, spoken on the hill overlooking Metulla in 2004, were sincerely meant, and carried within them a long history of fighting, sacrifice and killing. In light of recent events, it would be prudent to assume that much more is to come.
This passage usefully highlights a few fundamental facts in the background to the current Lebanese/Israeli crisis. It's clear that many people would prefer to ignore or or distort some of these fundamental underlying facts, but unless they are faced squarely and honestly, no realistic or useful discussion of the crisis is possible.

Hezbollah calls itself a "resistance" movement, and too many other people in Lebanon and elewhere are foolish enough to accept this designation, but this claim is entirely untrue. It had some plausibility in the period before 2000, when Israel was occupying a "security zone" in southern Lebanon and Hezbollah conducted a highly effective campaign of guerrilla warfare against Israel (mostly targeting Israeli troops, not civilians) which ultimately helped to make this this occupation unsustainable. But Israel withdrew completely and unconditionally from Lebanese territory in 2000, pulling back to the other side of the internationally recognized border between the two countries. (The fact that Israel had done so was explicitly certified by the UN, which no one can accuse of being an institution with a pro-Israeli bias. Incidentally, a string of subsequent UN Security Council resolutions on these matters--including 1559 in 2004 & 1680 in 2006 ---have also called for the Lebanese state to resume its sovereign responsibility for governing southern Lebanon and for the disarmament of independent militia organizations, including Hezbollah's.)

Since 2000, the only thing that Hezbollah has been "resisting" is the continued existence of Israel itself--and this is, indeed, its explicit agenda.

The Israeli/Palestinian conflict is a struggle in which both sides have morally valid claims and grievances. With Hezbollah, the situation is fundamentally different. It is essential to understand clearly that Hezbollah has no "legitimate grievances" or "legitimate demands" against Israel. What it does have are some pretexts it has fabricated to justify continuing its open-ended "armed struggle" against Israel, and some people are sufficiently gullible or uninformed to believe that these pretexts have some plausibility, so it is worth examining them briefly.

=> After Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah claimed that the ownership of a sliver of land that Lebanese call the Shebaa Farms area remained unresolved, and therefore that Israel was still "occupying" part of Lebanon. But this claim is completely bogus. The area in question was captured by Israel in 1967 from Syria, not Lebanon, and it is overwhelmingly recognized--by the United Nations as well as most of the world's governments--as constituting part of the Syrian territory currently occupied by Israel. If the Lebanese want to dispute this, the way to resolve the question is through diplomatic negotiations with Syria, Hezbollah's patron (as called for in UN Security Council Resolution 1680).

Hezbollah seized on the "Shebaa Farms" issue simply as a pretext for continuing armed confrontation with Israel. Unfortunately, ever since 2000 other Lebanese political tendencies, including groups that are strongly opposed to Hezbollah, have echoed this rhetoric and colluded in the pretense that Israel's occupation of Lebanese territory was not unambiguously over. It is easy to understand some of the political reasons that might lead them to do this, but it has been abundantly clear since 2000 that if they kept it up they were unwisely and irresponsibly playing with dynamite--which has just blown up in their faces.

=> Hezbollah also claims that it needs to kidnap Israelis (civilians as well as soldiers) to exchange for "Lebanese prisoners" held by Israel. Given the uncritical way that these claims are reported, one might get the impression that Israel is holding significant numbers of Lebanese prisoners. In fact, Israel long ago released almost all the Lebanese prisoners it had been holding.

When it gets specific, Hezbollah tends to mention three names (yes, that's 3), but there is no evidence that one of these has ever been an Israeli prisoner. So that leaves two.

One of these is a convicted murderer, Samir Kuntar, who led a 1979 terrorist attack against Israeli civilians in the northern town of Nahariya that killed two children, their father, and two policeman. Kuntar personally shot the father in front of one daughter and then bludgeoned the 4-year-old girl to death by crushing her skull. The mother managed to hide in the attic with her other daughter, a 2-year-old, but in trying to keep the girl quiet she accidentally suffocated her. If Samir Kuntar does not deserve to be in prison, who does?

The second is actually an Israeli citizen of Lebanese origin who was convicted of spying for Hezbollah. I can understand why Hezbollah would want to get him released, but it is harder to see why anyone else would consider this desire to be valid grounds for committing acts of war against Israel. Furthermore, Hezbollah itself has been holding Israeli prisoners (or their remains) since the 1980s. As Yossi Alpher recently summed it up in a discussion on the Americans for Peace Now website:
In fact, there are not even three Lebanese in Israeli jails--only one and a half. One of the three names cited by Hizballah is a missing person but was never jailed by Israel. A second, a Lebanese born to a Jewish mother, immigrated to Israel in the 1990s in accordance with the law of return and was subsequently arrested and tried as an Israeli on charges of spying. The third is Samir Kuntar, a Druze who as a teenager participated in a murderous terrorist attack in Nahariya in 1979. The Sharon government agreed in 2003, as part of the Tenenboim swap, to release him if Nasrallah would provide information on missing navigator Ron Arad [captured in the 1980s --JW]; Nasrallah never fulfilled that promise.
Actually, Hezbollah's central focus has been to obtain the release of the child-murderer Samir Kuntar. For any other Lebanese to take this demand seriously, let alone to support it as a morally admirable goal, is not just appalling but monumentally perverse. Lebanese are understandably upset about the Israeli invasion of 1982 and its aftermath. But Israel would never have gotten pulled into Lebanon in the first place if southern Lebanon--then under the control of the PLO--were not being regularly used as a base for terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians. Samir Kuntar symbolizes the whole dynamic that provoked a disastrous confrontation between Lebanon and Israel--a dynamic that Hezbollah is now doing its best to duplicate. Do any Lebanese, other than Hezbollah, really want to celebrate this?

=> In short, one should not make the mistake of confusing or simply conflating the Israeli/Palestinian conflict (and the Gaza crisis that grew out of it) with the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel (and the Lebanese/Israeli crisis that grew out of that). The two situations are quite different--morally, legally, politically, and strategically--in very important ways.

And Hezbollah itself is not in any meaningful sense a "resistance" movement with defensive or potentially valid goals. It is an effective and dedicated political, military, and terrorist organization, armed with thousands of rockets that it has shown itself willing and able to use against civilians throughout northern Israel (a straightforward war crime, by the way), which is determined to continue open-ended military conflict against Israel with the ultimate goal of Israel's destruction. It has no valid grievances or legitimate demands against Israel, and this should be emphasized as flatly and unambiguously as possible. Any claims to the contrary are dishonest or (when other people repeat them) mistaken. If Israel should satisfy one of its demands or another, as it has done in the past, Hezbollah will always find other pretexts for continuing an open-ended violent conflict with Israel. Sorry if that sounds depressing, but those are some basic realities of the situation.

Before someone misunderstands or deliberately misconstrues my point here, let me also emphasize that acknowledging these facts and paying serious attention to them is not sufficient, by itself, to tell us whether or not the current Israeli operation in Lebanon is wise (as opposed to justified) or what steps the rest of the world should be trying to take. Those are much larger and more complex questions. But any discussion of the present Israeli/Lebanese crisis that does not start by acknowledging these facts, taking them seriously, and trying to grasp their implications is not facing reality--and does not deserve to be taken seriously itself.

--Jeff Weintraub