Friday, August 11, 2006

Israel fights Hezbollah: An attempt to understand

I have found the last month's news very depressing. I simply can’t understand what Israel think that they are going to achieve by attacking Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon. Every day I get more and more angry about the destruction wrought in a recovering and increasingly vibrant Lebanon. The Middle East is an entangled spiral of complex problems which defy clear analysis, but in an attempt to understand Israel’s reasonaing and mentality in this conflict I have identified three possible underlying causes, one geopolitical, one psychological and one religious cause for the Israeli Government’s actions. Hopefully I will end at least being able to empathise with the Israeli position.

1. Geopolitical. To fight Hezbollah is to fight Iran. The links between the two since Hezbollah’s formation in 1982 are irrefutable. These are not purely funding links (although these are substantial), but also command and strategy links, which mean that all important decisions are made in conjunction with the highest members of the Iranian government. In addition the two share similar interpretations of Sh’ia ideology. Iran are the other major power alongside Israel in the Middle East. Iran is a rich, well educated country, with a much greater sense of national identity than any Arab nation. Since the 1920s Iran and Iraq have always acted as counter-balances to each other in the region, but the power vacuum in Iraq means that Iran are firmly in control of that see-saw at the moment. From Iran’s point of view the time is right to extend their economy, political and military hegemony. Until now Israel have always had two trump cards to counter the hegemony – American support and the bomb. They must be scared stiff that they’re about to lose the second. For Israel, any chance to show pre-bomb Iran that they are not to be cowed looks attractive.

2. Psychological. It is a natural instinct to want to obtain security by doing whatever is necessary to remove an enemy. The attraction of an offensive into Southern Lebanon must be considerable to the Israeli electorate. The idea of a buffer zone from Katusha rockets looks great on paper and no-one else was going to go and create it for the Israelis. One British journalist asked an Israeli in Haifa how many Hezbollah rockets had ever landed in his town in the 13 years he’d lived there before the current conflict. Answer: zero. But that’s not the point. No one wants to live in the constant fear of the front line – much better if you can to move the no man’s land into someone else’s back yard and let them deal with the consequences.

3. Religious. Long standing underlying attitudes reduce Israel's options.The Tanakh (laws, prophets and other writings that make up what Christians know as the Old Testament) is ambivalent at best about the right of other nations to exist in ‘the promised land’. Judaism has an honourable and living tradition embodied in the Tanakh of caring for the alien in the land. However, although the vast majority of Jews are not Zionists most have some belief that God grants Israel an inalienable right to eventually possess territory in the region at least partly at the expense of other people groups. For instance, the traditional orthodox stance is that Israel will not gain political control of the region until the Messiah comes. So although this view does not explicitly rule out a Palestinian land it colours the mindset and attitude which makes negotiation on land issues with neighbours interminably difficult. Therefore arguments continue not just with the Palestians, but with Syria and Lebanon over the Golan Heights and the Sheeba Farms, which have an underlying influence on the current crisis.

None of the three explanations above excuse what the Israeli government are doing, which is not only morally reprehensible, but politically pointless. Indeed its political futility makes it more morally outrageous for the deaths are utterly futile. Like other guerrilla forces Hezbollah will not be beaten by a conventional army. As all parties know without political progress we will be in the same situation in a few years. Both sides are fighting for a better negotiating position - to invert the aphorism politics will be the war continued by other means. But in all probability in a few years Israel will fight a renewed Hezbollah, guided and funded by an Iran with nuclear capability. Longer range missiles and suicide bombers will still penetrate into the day to day lives of Israelis. They will be no more secure. There is a growing movement among younger Israelis especially (witness the Israeli soldier protest petition 2002 and the grass roots movement that led to the founding of Kadima) which may challenge the underlying religious attitudes around right to land. (The Kadima's 2006 election statement is an interesting read in this regard). However, until this enters the mainstream Israelis will not live in a land of peace and justice, milk and honey.

It is obvious that Israel has been much wronged in its 60 year history. However as one of the few fully formed democratic nation state backed by the most powerful country in the world it has the responsibility to make moves towards peace and begin to unravel the knots in the Middle East. It must start by addressing the focal point of the Middle East web by recognising the majority of the pre-1967 borders and declaring its intention not to retaliate to suicide bombers and missile attacks. This is an extremely difficult, complex and risky thing to do and I did not write this entry to delve into possible solutions. It will not stop attacks on Israel immediately or even for years, but it will start to drain the poison at the centre of the boil and allow the region to address some of its other myriad problems. It is Israel’s only chance of the long term peace and security that it desires.

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