The Lebanese people, habitues as few people are of the lethal, violent and unexpected, yesterday awoke to the kind of news they thought they had put behind them. Their brand-new airport, the pride of their postwar reconstruction, had been bombarded by Israeli war planes along with a host of other infrastructure projects, bringing death and devastation on a more than Gazan scale.
For some it inevitably brought to mind a bleak winter day in 1968 when, out of the blue, helicopter-borne Israeli commandos landed on the old airport and blew up 13 passenger jets, almost the entire fleet of the national carrier. The pretext: of two Palestinians who killed an Israeli at Athens airport, one came from a refugee camp in Lebanon, then an entirely peaceable country. The significance of this most spectacularly disproportionate reprisal was something the Lebanese could hardly even have guessed at then. But it was a very early portent of the long nightmare to come: military conflict with Israel, eventually to be compounded with an atrocious civil war that it did much to engender.
There is something ominously similar, in possible consequences, about yesterday’s repeat Israeli performance. Ever since the Israelis ended their occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000, this weak and diminutive country has enjoyed an almost unmarred respite from the turbulence of the region to which it so easily and habitually falls victim. But overnight it has been plunged back into the role it endured for a quarter century and more – that of hapless arena for other people’s wars, as well as pawn in the ambitions and machinations of regional players far more powerful than itself.
It is only the players who change. After 1968 it was to be the Palestinian resistance movement, with Lebanon as its principal power base, that was Israel’s antagonist in Lebanon. Now it is Hizbullah. To be sure, Hizbullah is Lebanese in everything that defines nationality, and it has cabinet ministers and members of parliament. That is why Israel could so plausibly blame the Lebanese government for the seizure of its two soldiers. Yet blaming Lebanon was as about as futile as blaming President Mahmoud Abbas for the earlier capture of an Israeli solder in Gaza. If Islamists act on their own in Palestine, Hizbullah does so even more blatantly in Lebanon. It is a virtual state within a state, with a militia more powerful than the Lebanese army. Of course, in its Lebanese self Hizbullah places that army in the defence of Lebanon. But it has another self – another identity, mission, agenda – that it always tries to reconcile with its Lebanese one, but in the final analysis cannot: that of universal jihad and all that now implies in terms of non-Lebanese regional ambitions, allegiances, obligations and constraints. Palestine now looms largest in that. Hizbullah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, openly asserts it: Hizbullah’s task is not merely to liberate the last pocket of Lebanese soil, the Sebaa farms, it is to help shape the outcome of the Arab-Israeli struggle.
There have been growing links between Hizbullah and its Palestinian-Islamist counterparts, for which it is a source of advice, arms, training and practical aid. Its latest exploit has long been coming. Of course, Nasrallah dutifully furnished a strictly Lebanese justification for it: a few Lebanese prisoners still in Israel’s jails. But real motivation lay elsewhere, in the havoc Israel has been wreaking in Gaza, and the need for a display of solidarity with its suffering people. That furnished the clinching impulse, the opportunity for maximum political and emotional impact.
The other regional parties to this Hizbullah agenda are the Syrian and Iranian governments. Hizbullah didn’t consult its own government, but it certainly wouldn’t have done so daring and dangerous a deed without the encouragement or approval of the two governments to which it owes so much. Both have long been eyeing the ever-deteriorating Palestinian situation as a platform for the advancement of their own strategic or ideological agendas. For Iran, Palestine has been a top foreign-policy priority, not just for its own sake, but as an instrument in its drive for regional ascendancy. A long-standing sponsor of Hizbullah, it has more recently become one of Hamas too. It is said to exert its influence mainly through Khaled Meshaal, head of the Hamas leadership in Damascus. It is also said that Meshaal, with his hand over the military wing of Hamas, ordered last month’s capture of the Israeli soldier to which the Hizbullah one was very likely the intended sequel.
All that the cynically pragmatic Syria Ba’athist regime wants, it seems, is to get out of Washington’s doghouse and earn recognition that it is a key regional player that the US cannot ignore – and whose services, for a quid pro quo, it could usefully employ in places, such as Iraq, where it is in desperate trouble.
When Hizbullah did its deed it must have known that Israel’s military response would out-Gaza Gaza. For if one such episode had constituted such a huge blow to what Israel calls its “deterrent power”, which had at all costs to be restored, this second one surely multiplied it several-fold.
Hizbullah must also have known that it would exacerbate already very serious political and sectarian tensions inside Lebanon, putting itself and its basically Shia constituency at yet more dangerous cross-purposes with other communities who bitterly resent the way in which, with this single, sensational act on others’ behalf, Hizbullah may have dragged the country into new miseries of death, destruction and woe. And, finally, it must have known that it has taken the whole of the Middle East another step towards the unprecedented region-wide tumult that very likely awaits it.
Lebanese apart, many Arabs, especially Islamists, are applauding Hizbullah’s act, bring what it may – and none more so than its chief intended beneficiaries, the Palestinians, especially those doing battle in Gaza. As for its target, Israel, there could hardly be a more apt example of a nation reaping what it has sown. Israel took 18 years to extricate itself from the Lebanon morass – and only then at the price of leaving in place a triumphant Hizbullah of which, along with Iran and Syria, it justly ranks as a co-founder. Even as, on its new Gaza front, it is likewise turning Hamas and other Islamists into more formidable future foes than they already are, it suddenly finds itself confronted, in alarming and maddening fashion, with this monstrous legacy of an old one.
· David Hirst reported from the Middle East for the Guardian from 1963 to 2001. He is the author of The Gun and the Olive Branch: The Roots of Violence in the Middle East.