Engineered war

Published : Aug 11, 2006 00:00 IST

A REACTION TO an Israeli air strike in a southern suburb of Beirut. - RAMZI HAIDAR/AFP

A REACTION TO an Israeli air strike in a southern suburb of Beirut. - RAMZI HAIDAR/AFP

Hizbollah holds out and civilian casualties rise as Israel continues to wage a war that it planned for over a year.

AFTER devastating Gaza, the Israeli army has now turned its attention to Lebanon. The pretext was provided by the capture of two Israeli soldiers by the Lebanese Hizbollah militia on July 12. The Israeli state, one of the most militarised in the world and the self-proclaimed "superpower of West Asia", has used its full force to flatten Beirut and other Lebanese cities. However, Israel has not succeeded in its primary mission of defeating the Hizbollah militia on the battlefield after more than two weeks of fierce fighting. In fact, according to reports, which have also been corroborated in the Israeli media, Hizbollah has dealt serious blows to the morale of the Israeli military. Israel's much-hyped high-tech army, with its drones and missiles, has not been able to stop Katyusha rockets from landing in the city of Haifa and beyond. It is now widely acknowledged that were it not for the United States' supplies of weaponry being airlifted to Israel in huge quantities, Israeli forces would have found it difficult to sustain their attack on Lebanon for so long. In all previous wars, it was American help that tilted the scales in Israel's favour.

"Operation Just Reward", as the Israelis have named their latest military adventure, appears to have misfired, especially if the number of casualties is anything to go by. Israeli soldiers are dying on a daily basis. Israeli officials now admit that Hizbollah fighters, unlike their Palestinian counterparts, are well armed and highly motivated. "I dare say, based on what we have seen so far, these may be the best Arab troops we have faced," Yossi Olpher, a former Mossad official and a commentator on strategic affairs, said in the last week of July. The fighting in the village of Bint Jbail in southern Lebanon is an illustration. In a single day Israel lost nine of its elite commandos. It was "door to door, window to window" fighting, an Israeli military official said.

This is the first time that rockets have hit major Israeli cities in such large numbers since the first Gulf War. In the first two weeks of the conflict more than a hundred rockets a day were fired by Hizbollah. Haifa, Israel's third biggest city, has been wearing a deserted look since the first rockets landed. Israel, which defeated the armies of five Arab states in a matter of six days in 1967, is now facing a military stalemate in the fight with the Hizbollah militia. Already comparisons are being made in the Israeli media with the quagmire the U.S. has found itself in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is the fifth time that Lebanon has been invaded by Israel. Israel occupied Lebanon in the 1980s, when the enemy was the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and Yasser Arafat. That time Israel's pretext was the assassination attempt on the Israeli Ambassador in London by the Palestinian Abu Nidal group, which was at daggers drawn with the mainstream PLO. That occupation was one of the darkest chapters in the country's tortured history. The Israeli occupation forces under the overall command of Ariel Sharon, supervised the massacres of hundreds of unarmed Palestinians, many of them women and children, in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. The massacre took place despite the U.S. guaranteeing safety to non-combatants after the withdrawal of the PLO from Lebanon. The Israeli newspaper Al Hamishmar wrote at the time that "the slaughter has made the war in Lebanon the greatest disaster to befall the Jewish people since the Holocaust." Former Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban denounced the 1982 invasion of Lebanon "as the most deadly failure in Israel's modern history". More than 100,000 Lebanese perished as a result of the Israeli occupation in the 1980s.

Today the enemy is Hizbollah (party of God) and its leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, and the pretext for the assaults on Lebanon and Gaza is that three Israeli soldiers were taken prisoner. The West has chosen to ignore the fact that thousands of Palestinian and Lebanese political prisoners have been languishing in Israeli jails for years. Israel has also been routinely kidnapping and killing Palestinians in foreign lands.

In the last decade, Lebanon emerged painfully from the rubble of the 1980s war. A government dominated by pro-Western politicians was elected last year, displacing a pro-Syrian government. Hizbollah is part of the government and has been playing a constructive role in domestic politics. However, it has never given up its right to resist Israeli occupation or show its solidarity with the Palestinian cause. Hizbollah is the only force in the region that can boast of having compelled Israel to vacate the territory it occupied - Israel withdrew from south Lebanon in 2000, which it had occupied for 18 years. This was declared the first Arab victory against Israel. Today Israel's strategic vulnerability has been exposed as never before.

In January 2004, Hizbollah and Israel agreed to a prisoner swap as part of a negotiated deal. An Israeli spy captured in Lebanon along with the bodies of two Israeli soldiers killed in action were to be exchanged for 400 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners. Israel did not adhere to its commitment fully.

At the last minute, then Prime Minster Ariel Sharon kept three Lebanese prisoners back as political chips to be used to extract more concessions. Nasrallah's immediate response was to announce that Hizbollah would retain the right to target Israeli soldiers until Tel Aviv fulfilled its part of the agreement. The issue became an emotive one in Lebanon. A recent poll in the country revealed that the "prisoner issue" evoked more support than the return of Shebaa Farms, a sliver of land between Lebanon and Syria occupied by Israel.

The capture of two Israeli soldiers on July 12 should be seen in this context. Hizbollah issued a statement saying that the capture of the Israeli soldiers was "fulfilling the pledge to liberate the prisoners and the detainees". The Israel military chief of staff, Dan Halutz, issued a warning on July 13 that "if the soldiers are not returned, we will turn Lebanon's clock back 20 years". The capture of two Israeli soldiers also came in the wake of Israel's "Operation Defence Shield" against the hapless residents of Gaza. It was the biggest military operation Israel had undertaken since 2002 against the Palestinians. Palestinian fighters captured an Israeli soldier in June mainly to emphasise Israel's failure to adhere to earlier agreements to release the thousands of Palestinian political prisoners incarcerated in Israeli jails.

It was said that for every Israeli casualty, 50 Arabs would be killed in retaliation. Now, ostensibly for the "kidnap" of two Israeli soldiers, an entire nation's infrastructure is being destroyed. Though the Shia-dominated parts of Beirut and the rest of Lebanon are bearing the brunt of the Israeli blitzkrieg, all sectors of the population are affected. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan's call for a ceasefire was cynically rejected by Washington. At the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg, U.S. President George W. Bush was heard making sarcastic comments about Annan. Bush dispatched Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the region after giving the Israelis more than two weeks to damage Lebanon. In a belated show of self-respect, none of the Arab countries, barring Lebanon, welcomed Rice. Rice had the gall to describe the plight of Lebanon as "part of the new birth pangs of the Middle East". Evidently democracy is no longer the chosen instrument for the West to reshape West Asia.

The Lebanese Prime Minister told the media that his country was being cut to pieces by Israeli bombings. The U.N. wants an emergency peacekeeping force to be deployed to separate the two warring forces. Washington is instead pressing for the deployment of a NATO peacekeeping force. There are very few Arab takers for this proposal, given Israel's strong links with the West. Besides the Lebanese have bad memories of U.S. and French forces stationed in their country in the 1980s who preferred to further the interests of Israel and their proxies in Lebanon.

Annan's legendary patience seemed to have snapped after the Israeli military targeted unarmed U.N. peacekeepers, killing four of them in the last week of July. Annan said that it was a "deliberate" attack on a clearly marked U.N. post. The U.N. observers had told the Israeli troops repeatedly not to direct their fire at the post. In a similar incident, Israeli troops shelled a U.N. post packed with Lebanese refugees near Qana on April 18, 1996, killing more than a hundred. The U.N. described it as a "massacre".

In the last week of July, Washington vetoed a strongly worded U.N. Security Council resolution tabled by China condemning the killing of the four unarmed peacekeepers, one of whom was a Chinese citizen. Earlier Israeli jets targeted Red Cross vehicles and civilian refugees heading for sanctuary in Syria. Arab media outlets have been targets of the so-called Israeli "pin-point" attacks. Even a Christian-controlled television station was bombed.

The head of Israel's northern command, Major General Udi Adam, warned on July 12 that once Israeli forces get inside Lebanon "everything is legitimate - not just southern Lebanon, not just the line of Hizbollah posts." The number of civilian casualties in Lebanon as a result of the carpet-bombing by the Israeli forces has been rising by the day. The Israeli army has ordered people to "flee" from their homes. At the end of July, one in five Lebanese has become a refugee.

The humanitarian situation has been made worse by an Israeli sea and air blockade. Beirut airport was among the first targets to be bombed and all the major highways and bridges have been rendered unusable. The Israeli government has ordered its air force to destroy 10 buildings in Beirut for every Katyusha rocket the Hizbollah fires into Israel.

The rocket attacks started after Israeli forces entered Lebanese territory and the air force began its merciless aerial bombardment. U.N. Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland, said in Beirut in the third week of June that Israel was in clear violation of humanitarian laws. "This is destruction of block after block of mainly residential areas. I would say that it seems to be an excessive use of force in an area with so many civilians," he said. One-third of civilian casualties are children, according to U.N. estimates.

The Israeli media have reported that Israel was preparing for an invasion of Lebanon for more than a year. It would seem, therefore, that the "kidnap" of the two soldiers was an excuse it fabricated. Independent news sources, including some Western news agencies, have reported that the two Israeli soldiers who are currently in Hizbollah's custody were part of an Israeli unit that had penetrated into Lebanese territory. The real aim of the Zionist state is to usher in regime change in Lebanon and install a puppet government.

The 1982 "Operation Peace of Gallilee", backed by Washington, had the same goal and failed miserably. The influence of pro-Israeli right-wing politicians in Lebanon actually diminished. Israel succeeded in briefly installing a puppet President, Bashir Gemayel, but he lasted for a very short period. His mentors could not save him from being assassinated. In fact, it was during the Israeli occupation that Hizbollah grew as a fighting force.

Most Arab commentators have written that Hizbollah takes its own decisions, especially on military strategy, though Tel Aviv and Washington continue to insist that it takes orders from Teheran and Damascus. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and some other countries seem to have fallen for the U.S. propaganda about the impending rise of "an emerging Shia crescent" in the Sunni dominated region.

According to reports in the U.S. media, senior Israeli officials made power point presentations of a "three-week war" in Lebanon to prominent think tank members, diplomats and journalists in the U.S. last year. If the Israeli state succeeds in its mission of crushing Hizbollah, it could then move on to its foremost priority - denying the Palestinians a state.

Nasrallah, in an address to the Lebanese people immediately after Israel launched its barbaric attack, said that the people of Lebanon are faced with two choices, "either to submit today to the conditions the Zionist enemy wants to dictate to us all, using the pressure, support, and backing it has from America, from around the world, and, I am sorry to say, from Arabs. Either we submit or remain steadfast. That is the other choice - we persevere and confront."

New Delhi has reacted cautiously to the Israeli attack on Lebanon. The Ministry of External Affairs initially termed the Israeli action as "disproportionate retaliation". After the Left and other parties, barring the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress, demanded stronger criticism of Israel's actions in Parliament, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh condemned "in the strongest possible terms" the "excessive and disproportionate military retaliation by Israel." At the same time, he also criticised the "abduction" of two Israeli soldiers by Hizbollah. The Left parties demanded immediate sanctions against Israel and the suspension of arms purchases from the country.

In some sections of the government and the Indian establishment, there seems to be admiration for the "hot pursuit" tactics and "pin-point" bombings being undertaken by the Zionist state against the civilian population of Lebanon. An Indian citizen has already been killed as a result of the bombings.

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