H.D.S. Greenway

Israel's perilous overkill

By H.D.S. Greenway
July 18, 2006

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IT HAS not quite been a quarter of a century since the day I sat on a hillside watching the Israelis shell Beirut. The image that came to me then, as the smoke and dust rose up from the city after every salvo, was that of a huge rug being beaten. The target was Yasser Arafat and his PLO, which had become a state within a state, but, as usual, ordinary Lebanese civilians were dying. In those days Israel harbored grander ambitions to change the face of the Middle East by creating a Lebanon friendly to Israel.

Arafat was indeed driven from Lebanon, but Palestinian nationalism did not die. The peace treaty that Israel imposed on Lebanon in league with its Christian minority soon fell apart, and Israel's 18-year occupation of the Shia south remained nothing but an open wound for Israel. Most notably, Israel's occupation of the south resulted in the creation of a new organization of resistance among the Lebanese Shia called Hezbollah, which won the backing of Iran and Syria.

And so it has come to pass, a generation later, that Israel is attacking Lebanon again -- this time to root out Hezbollah.

There is no doubt that Israel was sorely tried by Hezbollah's inexcusable provocation. But Israel's response is an over reaction that will make things worse for Israel by enhancing Hezbollah's power as Lebanon's economy, infrastructure, and state power are weakened.

Israel is the regional super power in the Middle East. The possibility that the state could be over run by a combination of Arab armies ceased to exist three decades ago when Egypt opted out of confrontation and made peace -- later to be followed by Jordan. Yet, like a giant beset by a swarm of bees, a host of non-state actors is rising to bedevil Israel as the PLO once did.

Israel's deterrent strategy has been to hit any transgressor hard and fast with overwhelming force. It's not just an eye for an eye, but both eyes, the teeth, and nose for an eye. This can work to deter nation states. When Syria's army was virtually in control of Lebanon, Syria recognized Israel's red lines and stayed north of them. You don't see cross-border incidents or rockets fired from Syria, which has complete control over the means to violence.

This strategy does not work with non-state actors, such as Hezbollah, however, who stand to gain as the Lebanese state is weakened.

No doubt, in a perfect world Lebanon should have disbanded Hezbollah's militia as ordered by the United Nations. Israel's frustration is understandable. But the reality is that Lebanon hasn't the power. So by attacking the Lebanese state, Israel runs the risk enhancing Hezbollah as it reduces Lebanon. Most Lebanese may resent that Hezbollah got them into this, just as many Arab states deplore Hezbollah's dangerous adventurism. But as Israel uses its forces to inflict pain on all Lebanese, Hezbollah's prestige will increase as the only entity putting up a resistance.

Israel has seen this strategy backfire before. During the second intifadah in the occupied territories, Israel demanded the Palestinian Authority reign in terrorists. It then proceeded to reduce whatever authority the PA still had -- as if the governor of New York decided the answer to crime was to bomb a police station a day in New York City until crime stopped.

The Lebanese state is not what Afghanistan was under the Taliban. It is a fragile democracy which managed, with pressure from America and France, to get out from under Syrian control and hold free and fair elections. Hezbollah was part of that election and now holds a minority position in the government, but refuses to disband its militia. The Bush administration should have some sympathy with Lebanon's dilemma . America's own creation in Iraq, a democratically elected government, hasn't the power to disband militias. Should the Americans respond by bombing Baghdad International Airport?

Which does the bombing of Beirut's civilian airport hurt more, Hezbollah or the vulnerable economy of Lebanon?

The Lebanese election was held up by the Bush administration as an example of democracy on the march. President Bush, in his only caveat to backing Israel's attack on the country , said that he hoped it would not damage the government of Fouad Siniora , but that is exactly what is happening.

It is in everyone's interest now, especially Israel's , to take a step back from this encounter that undermines all our moderate friends in the Middle East and furthers the interests of radical Islam.

H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe.