Fighting the Lebanese War

On February 8, Israel Defense Forces
(IDF) launched a series of air strikes against Lebanon as revenge against
recent Hizbullah attacks in South Lebanon. Three power switching stations,
the most vital electricity facilities in the country, were bombed—one
in the Jamhour district of Beirut, one in Baalbek, and one in Tripoli—effectively
cutting off all electrical power in the country. These attacks on civilian
targets are violations of the rules of war as well as a breach of the 1996
Grapes of Wrath Accord, which took effect after the Israeli massacre of 106
civilians sheltering in Qana, Lebanon at a UN headquarters. The Hizbullah
attacks are, on the contrary, a legally sanctioned response to the 22-year-old
occupation by Israel of South Lebanon.

Reading the news reports in the United States one would never know that Hizbullah
and the Lebanese people, not the state of Israel or Israeli citizens, are
the victims of continuous aggression. Hizbullah, remarked Secretary of State
Madeleine Albright, are the “enemies of peace,” and many headlines
echoed her sentiments.

In addition to the attacks on the power stations, the IDF successfully struck
two military (Hizbullah) targets. Eighteen civilians were reported wounded.
Very little about these events made it into the U.S. national papers that
day, not surprising since the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported
a day earlier that Washington approved an Israeli “action” in Lebanon.
(“Soldier killed in Lebanon; Barak vows to stop this,” by Aluf Benn,
Sharon Gal, and Daniel Sobelman, Ha’aretz correspondents). After
the raids, the usual spokespeople mouthed the usual empty phrase about urging
all sides to “exercise restraint.” Short blurbs appeared in which,
for example, an Israeli Army spokesperson was quoted as saying that the air
strikes were intended as a message to Hizbullah and the Lebanese government
to “stop the escalation and to live in a coexistence as neighbors in
the Middle East” (CNN: staff/wire reports).

According to U.S. State Department spokesperson, James Rubin, “We can
only interpret this action as a deliberate attempt by Hezbollah to wreck the
prospects for peace in the region. Hezbollah’s action is particularly
egregious in the context of Israel’s repeated commitment to withdraw
from southern Lebanon by the middle of this year” (Nitzan Horowitz and
Reuters; 2/13/ 2000). Israel was given no reproach for still being in Lebanon
after all these years, fighting a war whose ostensible purpose (to protect
Israel’s northern border from attacks) had long since ceased to be an
issue, let alone a credible one. No Lebanese citizen was quoted on what it
was like to wake up to bombing raids, to experience the terror that must have
accompanied these raids, or to be suddenly (and for days to come) without
any power. Immediately after the air strikes, U.S. reporters were not anxiously
awaiting comments from Hizbullah spokes-people or members of the Lebanese
government. Instead, Washington absolved the Israelis for their civilian attacks,
reported Robert Fisk, because it was a reaction to the deaths of Israeli soldiers
(“U.S. heaps blame on the victim, say Lebanese,” Robert Fisk, 2/11/2000).

Talk within Israel of a complete withdrawal from Lebanon has grown in recent
years amid the deepening unpopularity of this war. Israeli parents are tired
of worrying about their sons’ safety in a zone that has failed to provide
“security” for Israel; they’re tired of the body bags that
return the unluckiest of the soldiers. Some in Israel are even starting to
wonder whether occupying South Lebanon isn’t something of an ethical
dilemma, international laws prohibiting such occupation notwithstanding. Prime
Minister Barak, nevertheless, vowed revenge after Hizbullah killed five Israeli
soldiers in the nine-mile-wide occupied strip just before Israel’s strikes
on the Lebanese infrastructure. Peace talks between Syria and Israel would
not resume, Barak insisted, until Syria “reined in” Hizbullah. No
one in the U.S. spoke of “reining in” the IDF.

True, Syria controls most of Lebanon. Also true, it opportunistically uses
Hizbullah’s resistance activities against the Israeli occupation to further
its own interests. Syria does indeed have a certain amount of control over
Hizbullah—channeling money and arms to it from Iran. Ultimately, however,
Hizbullah is an autonomous Islamist organization indigenous to Lebanon, whose
ideology is not particularly conducive to those who might opt for a secular
democracy. That its fighters are in the vanguard of the resistance movement
in Lebanon, and indeed are the only group, besides the Lebanese armed forces,
to have arms legally in Lebanon, is a sorry situation for anyone who might
have hoped that Lebanon’s future be free of fundamentalist religious
authoritarianism. How tragic then that Hizbullah is the symbol of Lebanese
resistance. For this reason, then, one can rightfully claim that Lebanon is
the primary casualty of the cold war between Israel and Syria. Hizbullah is
the means by which this war is being fought and prolonged. Keep sending the
group arms until all the Golan Heights are promised back to Syria. Keep bombing
Lebanon until Hizbullah stops resisting the occupation. Hizbullah is thus
able to maintain a life of its own separate from, and yet connected to, the
frail sub-structure of Syrian-controlled Lebanese politics. Unless and until
the occupation of the Golan and the occupation of South Lebanon by Israel
end, Hizbullah will manifest the glorious wound of endless warfare. Lebanon
will continue to bleed perpetually because of regional rivalries whose source
is the arrogance of a self-aggrandizing, fully subsidized, and yet capricious
U.S. regional ally. Few understand that a terrible, incalculably costly war
is being fought daily on Lebanese soil because the point of view presented
most consistently in the press is that of a besieged and beleaguered Israel.

Let us look at a small example of what does not get reported in the U.S.:
According to the AFP in Tyre, Lebanon, the day after five Israeli soldiers
died, and two days after SLA second-in-command Akl Hashem was killed, Israeli
warplanes launched heat-seeking missiles north of the occupied zone while
Apache helicopters flew over both Sidon and Tyre (neither in the occupation
zone) terrorizing the local civilians. The missiles were fired near the villages
of Kafra, Qana, Jebel Botom, and at the Iqlim at-Tuffah hills near the central
occupation zone. Helicopters flew over Tyre and Sidon for as long as two hours
causing confusion on the highways and panic within these cities about the
possibility of a major offensive while parents rushed to get their children
out of school. This minor offensive was but a preview of what happened on
February 8.

As I read this report I remembered seeing the bombed Awali Bridge outside
of Sidon last July, and the shell of an automobile in which two civilians
had been killed while driving across that bridge. I remembered the multiple
blackouts every single day in Beirut during my visit the result of a bombed
power grid (yes, the same that was just destroyed again) hit by Israel in
“retaliation” for Hizbullah attacks. I remembered the mass grave
at Qana where the pictures of the murdered civilians now stand above their
cement tombs. But mostly I remember the anger and the defiance expressed towards
Israel for its constant, arrogant, military intimidation of Lebanon, and it
was suddenly so easy to understand how even the most secular Lebanese would
cheer every time Hizbullah struck at the IDF/SLA targets in the south. Equally
clear was how the quiet but pervasive presence of Syria in Lebanon cynically
underpinned the outrage of the majority towards its belligerent southern neighbor,
complicating the predicament of the Lebanese national battlefield.

Support for Hizbullah in Lebanon and elsewhere is not diminishing. Under the
circumstances those who rally to its successes are at least superficially
justified: It would be legally irresponsible to ban its actions. This is perhaps
the unavoidable irony of a victorious Hizbullah. The laws created to permit
the resistance to occupation are, by whomever they are carried out, intended
to uphold justice. Whether that will be the outcome of their use is a separate
issue. Failing to acknowledge the existence of these laws, as we do in the
United States, may render us ignorant but not immune to their effects. One
might therefore consider how one’s judgment of this crisis would be tempered
were the truth of Lebanon’s plight made understandable in our media;
were the brutality and self-interest of those managing this war exposed. One
might at least be allowed to hope for a viable, independent, and peaceful
Lebanon were the facts allowed to contest the on-going fiction.                    Z

Jennifer Loewenstein is a senior lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
School of Business.