Tuesday, August 01, 2006

What Just Happened? (Lebanon Edition)

One of the problems I have with reporting these days is that stories have no sense of context. Here is my attempt to set out what has been happening in Lebanon the last few weeks in a broader historical narrative.

Israel (the long view)

Nothing in the region makes a lot of sense until you have some idea of the basic conflict around the formation of the state of Israel. Until World War I, the Middle East was, like most of the rest of the world, largely a tribal region. When the European powers, especially Great Britain, decided to get rid of their colonies (for a combination of pragmatic and moral reasons), they took conquered territories that contained many different ethnic groups and artificially imposed upon them national borders and identities. This forced groups together that had nothing to do with one another or indeed had long lived hostilities between them. It also meant that some groups were forced into minority status in new states. In some cases, the British tried to create homelands for some of these groups and in 1917 the British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour declared that a homeland for Jews inside of Palestine was not a bad idea.

European and Middle Eastern anti-Semitism led to a small movement by a few Jews and Jewish organizations to begin to purchase land in British Palestine. These early settlers numbered in the low tens of thousands and were largely socialist. There was little problem until these folks started to amass significant land holdings and create structured permanent farms. At that point, the plan became clear to the Palestinians who had been living there that these were not a few foreigners to be sprinkled amongst them, but an organized group who had designs on the land their families came from. This sparked tensions between the groups.

Then came the rise of National Socialism in Germany and its spread across Austria and Central Europe. The number of Jewish refugees swelled and the Jewish population in the area grew to over half a million. This sparked open conflict between the Arab and Jewish residents of Palestine. Unable to settle this dispute and reeling with guilt in the shadow of the Holocaust, the UN partitioned Palestine, giving 55% of it to the Jews who bought into the plan. The Arab Palestinians did not, arguing that if Heinrich murdered several members of Mordechai's family, how is stealing Mahmoud's house to give it to Mordechai justice? Mahmoud has children and wants to live in his house. Give it back.

This led to wars which pitted not only the Palestinian Arabs against the Jewish settlers and residents, but also the surrounding countries. The Jews, who had largely fled to the region to escape persecution and with the horrors of Nazis still fresh in their minds saw the hatred against them and take as a foundational belief that their enemies are trying to destroy their nation, their religion. From its inception there has been a deeply held fear amongst Israeli Jews, amply justified by word, deed, and historical precedent, that they are facing forces intent on their extermination. This fear is a basic immutable fact at the heart of everything Israel does.

In the wars that followed, Israel captured much of the 45% of the land originally slated for the Palestinians and sent them into exile. This further enraged anger and hatred in the countries bordering Israel. The Palestinian refugees were not only victims of the Israeli occupation and annexation of the bit of land they had left, but were -- like refugees throughout the world -- not received well in their host countries. Living in refugee camps, the Palestinians fought a long struggle against a well equipped Israeli army by targeting military and civilian targets through orchestrated terrorist attacks. The Israelis responded with attacks that killed many civilians and harsher and harsher degrading treatment of Palestinians in camps in their occupied territories.

Lebanon (the long view)

Lebanon is a small country to the north of Israel and was part of a larger French colony until the Germans occupied France during World War II. The French had split the colony into Syria which was largely Muslim and Lebanon which was a mix of Christian, Druze, and Shiite Muslim. Once independent, Lebanon became one of the most prosperous and stable regions in the Middle East.

Then came the escalation of the wars in Israel. This meant a flood of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Palestine including the Palestine Liberation Organization which was largely Sunni. This huge influx caused a power battle between the Israeli supported Christian and Shiite Muslims, on one hand, and the Sunni, Druze, and Palestinians, on the other. This simmered and flared and flared and simmered until 1975 when it burst into all out horrible civil war. The war was ended when Syria sent tens of thousands of troops to occupy Lebanon. Syria, like Iraq, was under the control of a Ba'athist secular regime, and the US saw this as a good thing and was happy to have brutal Syrian strongmen like Hafez al-Assad ruling over Lebanon.

Israel in Lebanon

The Syrian takeover had pushed the PLO into southern Lebanon, close to the Israeli border where they began to conduct occasional, but continuing attacks on northern Israel, largely through firing artillery and largely hitting civilian areas. In 1982, the Israeli Defense Forces led by Ariel Sharon invaded southern Lebanon to attack the PLO. During this occupation, Israeli forces surrounded the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila to keep the civilians from escaping and allowed in a Christian militia who viciously murdered thousands of occupants including women and children. Ariel Sharon was found indirectly personally responsible for the massacre and was deemed morally unfit to be defense minister. He was, however, later seen morally fit to be prime minister.

Who is Hezbollah?

The civil war had pushed the PLO to the south of Lebanon making the Sunni population powerful there. The Shiite population became militant against both this Sunni and the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. Inspired by, and then armed and trained by, the Shiite Islamic Revolution in Iran, Hezbollah (the army of Allah) arose as a paramilitary organization. It soon developed a political wing that ran southern Lebanon providing basic social services and functioned as a de facto government. The military wing continued to conduct attacks on the Israeli forces occupying Lebanon and on northern Israel, including civilian targets. Indeed, Hezbollah refuses to admit the existence of civilians, arguing that Israel as a whole is an occupying force and that makes no Israeli (including children) innocent. All Israeli targets are legitimate military targets according to Hezbollah rhetoric.

To point out one bit of sad irony, targeting civilians in northern Israel as a strike against Zionist occupation is like trying to strike at the American religious right by bombing northern California. The university and town of Haifa is Israel's answer to San Francisco and Berkeley. It is a lefty, intellectual, multi-cultural, peacenik kind of place.

The American Diplomatic Vacuum

Up to its very last days, the Presidency of Bill Clinton focused on trying to diplomatically solve the problems of the Middle East. In a last minute push to get a deal between the Israelis and Palestinians, Clinton brought Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian authority chairman Yassir Arafat to Camp David to work out a final settlement agreement. A proposal came from Barak, Arafat deemed it insufficient and it is unclear what happened next, each saying the other refused to negotiate further in good faith, but in the end a new Palestinian uprising (the second entifada) began and violence between Israel and Palestinians escalated.

In his efforts to do the opposite of everything Clinton had done, George W. Bush in his first term had executed what he termed as a "hands-off" approach to the region. Pro-Israeli neo-conservative hawks throughout his administration, especially in the department of defense were convinced that Israel's superior military force was more likely to bring about a quick and desired solution than diplomacy. And so the pot was allowed to boil over.

This brought Ariel Sharon, the former defense minister, to one of the Holiest Muslim sites in Israel to make a speech. Such nakedly belligerent provocation against the Palestinians got the man deemed morally unfit for public office elected to its highest post. His victory was warmly received by President Bush.

New Government in Lebanon

Syria, having ruled Lebanon for 30 years, had become unpopular with the Lebanese who wanted their country back. An anti-Syrian movement had picked up steam and gotten its man Rafik Hariri elected prime minister. After leaving office, Hariri remained a major anti-Syrian voice and in 2005 was killed in a car bombing blamed on, denied by, but most probably carried out by pro-Syrian forces, if not by Syria itself. This led to massive anti-Syrian protests and pro-Syrian politicians were largely removed from power returning Lebanon to the closest it had been to true home rule in over a quarter century. But this new government was weak.

And it had enemies. Hezbollah, which had Syria as well as Iran as major supporters, did all that it could do to maintain the Syrian puppet government in Lebanon, and when Syrian troops ultimately left, Hezbollah became virtually the sole organ of influence by the Syria and the Shiites in Iran.

But Hezbollah was losing power, not only because of domestic politics, but because of the war in Iraq. The US invasion of Iraq is massively unpopular throughout the region, but being radical Shiite, Hezbollah remained largely silent about the conflict because it was deposing Sunni leader Saddam Hussein and allowing a power grab by fellow pro-Iranian Shiites. The more the US screwed up the occupation, the more Hezbollah saw its people rising to power. But this lack of action on behalf of a military organization like Hezbollah is seen as complicity with the US occupation or weakness by the rest of the radical Muslim world. Where were these brothers in the jihad against the Great Satan? Hezbollah had a public relations problem.

New Government in Israel

Meanwhile Israeli politics went through its own transformation. After decades of trench warfare between Labor (the Israeli democrats) and Likud (the Israeli republicans) and an economic downturn largely the result of the war, the Israeli population voiced anger with politics as usual. Sharon was trying to keep Likud from going what he saw was too far right and Shimon Peres, the Michael Dukakis of Israeli politics, was trying to keep labor from going what he saw as too far left. When Peres was forced out of his leadership role in favor of the more liberal Amir Peretz, Sharon sensed an opening and joined forces with Peres to form a new centrist party called Kadima (imagine John McCain and Joe Lieberman defecting to start a new party). Then Sharon has a massive stroke, taking him out of the picture, and leaving Ehud Olmert and Peres in the leadership of the nation.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian authority which had been ruled by relative moderates were overwhelmingly defeated in a surprise election by Hamas, like Hezbollah, a hybrid political/social service organization and paramilitary group that carries out attacks on military targets and terrorist attacks on civilians. Hamas' rhetoric dedicates the group to the elimination of the state of Israel and when taking power refused to renounce violence of any sort. This led to further diplomatic alienation between the Palestinian political structure and the rest of the world, especially Israel and the US.

The Fuse and the Match

In a raid on a military checkpoint on June 25, an Israeli soldier was kidnapped. Kidnapping Israeli soldiers for prisoner exchange is not entirely unusual, but because there is mandatory military service for al youth (except the orthodox) kidnapping is especially politically charged in Israel.

The call for action in Israel was great and the scene on the political ground had shifted. Sharon was the hawk's hawk. No one could accuse him of being soft on anything but knishes and so he was able to keep the extremist hawks in the military in check. But with his departure, Kadima was run by Olmert and Peres, neither of whom have military background -- something very unusual for top position holders in Israel. As such, they had reason to want to look tougher and had less control on the military. As a result, where negotiations usually took place around kidnappings, tougher measures began to be put in place.

Then on July 12, Hezbollah in some skirmishes with Israel in southern Lebanon found the solution to its pr problem and it outdid Hamas by kidnapping two Israeli soldiers. Already dealing with major fallout from the first kidnapping, the pressure from what looked like a trend and weakness on the part of the new Israeli leaders lead them to let loose the military in a major way, not only on Hezbollah and its infrastructure in the south, but on Lebanon as a whole.

The Bush administration refused to comment much at all on the situation at first, the President preferring instead to ignore direct questions and joke about the roasted pig dinner he was to get while on a trip to Germany. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice disparaged the idea of shuttle diplomacy to resolve the conflict even though such diplomacy is precisely what her job is. Instead, the American reaction was to see if Israel could quickly rout Hezbollah militarily. Eventually, the international pressure mounted and some words were floated. Rice said that a ceasefire would be nice, but "not at any price" -- apparently in contemporary warfare, no one pays retail anymore.

Outgunned, Hezbollah began using human shields, firing its missiles from residential areas, daring the Israelis to come after them with their superior airpower which they knew would kill many innocent Lebanese civilians. The Israelis took them up on it and Hezbollah continued to fire missiles into civilian areas killing innocent people in northern Israel with missiles fired from civilian areas in southern Lebanon where the Israelis then drop bombs killing innocent people.


There have been a couple of reports of atrocities by Israel in the fighting. On July 24, clearly marked Red Cross ambulances were bombed by precision weapons that struck the directly on the red crosses on top. UN observers killed in a position well known by Israel to be a neutral, non-military UN site.

But the most unfortunate incident of the war happened on July 30, when an apartment building in which civilians were hiding from the war was bombed by Israeli Defense Forces which claim that the area had been used to fire over a hundred missiles at Israel in the last two weeks. 56 people, 34 of whom were young children were killed by the airstrike.

Let us hope for an end to all the violence and saner heads on all sides to come to power.