So here we go again, it seems. Blood-thirsty Arabs – Lebanese fundamentalists of the Hizbollah, "the Party of God" – bombed the Israeli town of Shlomi (10.8), killing a 15-year-old boy and injuring several others. Terrorist attack on civilians, three years after Israel has withdrawn its very last soldier from Lebanese soil. Isn't it the ultimate proof for the inherent terrorism of the Arabs, the decisive evidence that no peace can be made with Muslims? If you follow the media, it probably is. If you take a closer look at the facts – well, not quite.
Who's Afraid of Hizbollah
Despite its name, the Hizbollah are definitely no saints. Mother Teresa would not have been able to drive the Israeli army out of Lebanon after almost 20 years of ruthless occupation. The Hizbollah has its own agenda and interests, political and otherwise, and a limited fighting with Israel may well be among them. (But, as analysts usually forget, Israel and its army have their interests too, and peace might not be their top priority either.) An independent militia is indeed something that no sovereign state can tolerate; Israel is right in pointing that out. This, however, is not Israel's, but Lebanon's problem – a small, weak country, torn between conflicting religious and ethnic groups (including 300.000 Palestinian refugees), and regularly invaded and terrorised by its stronger neighbours Israel and Syria. When Israel expresses concern for Lebanon's sovereignty, one doesn't know whether to weep or laugh. The existence of Hizbollah is none of Israel's business: It becomes Israel's business only if it violates the rules of good neighbourliness.
Precisely this is the aim of Israeli propaganda: to portray the Hizbollah as a terrorist group that violates the rules of the game. The facts, however, are that the Hizbollah pretty much follows the rules of good neighbourliness; it is Israel that breaches them. Since Israel's withdrawal from South Lebanon, Hizbollah has been concentrating on two kinds of actions: anti-aircraft fire, and a limited fighting against Israel confined to the Shaba Farms. Let's see what it's all about.
Since the Israeli withdrawal, Hizbollah has fired no missiles at Israeli towns, though it undoubtedly possesses such weapons. The Israeli boy killed this week was hit by an anti-aircraft bomb that failed to detonate in mid-air and exploded on the ground. "Collateral damage", if you like.
Hizbollah's anti-aircraft fire has a clear target: Israeli fighter jets that regularly enter Lebanon's airspace, flying over the entire country from south to north as if it were theirs. The intrusion flights started in October 2000, just five months after the Israeli withdrawal, following Hizbollah's kidnap of three Israeli soldiers at the Shaba Farms. Last November, based on Lebanese sources, Israeli journalist Daniel Sobelman reported how up to seven Israeli jets at a time were flying in the skies of Beirut, drawing smoke-pictures over the Lebanese capital and repeatedly breaking the sound barrier in what Lebanese citizens conceived as humiliating and enraging provocations. Hizbollah leader Nasrallah said the anti-aircraft fire would cease as soon as the Israeli flights stopped; Israeli army spokesman refused to comment on its operations (Ha'aretz, 26.11.2002).
Now who is the aggressor here, who is the terrorist? Sending fighter jets across the border is the most obvious violation of sovereignty. No country on earth would tolerate that. Hizbollah's ineffective flak is a totally legitimate and justified act of self-defence. Israel's accusation that Hizbollah aims its anti-aircraft fire so that the left-overs fall on Israeli towns – even if true – is chutzpah incarnate: if you break into my house, don't complain that the wall I shove you at is rough.
Just imagine Israel's reaction if a foreign jet had dared enter its airspace. Actually, why imagine? When a Libyan airliner – no fighter jet, mind you – entered the country's airspace by mistake in February 1973, the Israeli Air Force shot it down, killing 106 civilian passengers. Israel claimed that it simply followed international law. Asked whether it would do it again, PM Golda Meir replied: "without a doubt".
The other Hizbollah front is the Shaba Farms, a 14km-long and 2km-wide strip along the Israeli-Lebanese-Syrian border. The Hizbollah claims that it is occupied Lebanese soil. Israel denies this, and is supported by the United Nations. Knockout victory for Israel, then? Not quite. Even Israel concedes the area is occupied, but it claims to have taken it from Syria, not from Lebanon, and that it should therefore be negotiated with Syria. Great excuse to keep the fighting going, isn't it. Syria, for its part, says it has given it to Lebanon. Anyway, all parties agree that the area is indeed occupied by Israel. Violent resistance to occupation is considered morally and legally legitimate; it does not matter who carries it out. (Otherwise, the liberation of the Netherlands in World War II should have been left exclusively to Dutch forces, etc. – obviously absurd.)
So if we put aside Hizbollah's problematic position within the Lebanese State, Israel's northern neighbour is in fact clearly playing by the rules. It is Israel who is breaking the rules over and over again, both by its occupation of the Shaba Farms and by violating Lebanon's sovereignty.
The Recent Escalation
The recent escalation was initiated by an assassination of a Hizbollah leader in Beirut on August the 1st. Israel was the prime suspect. As PM Sharon said when asked about assassinations (perfectly reflecting his "integrity"): "Some of the things we do we'll admit, other things we'll deny…" In this case, Israel neither admitted nor denied. Typical terrorist conduct, by the way, precisely like Al-Qaeda's: terror attacks without taking responsibility.
In fact, the signs were on the wall well before it started: A leading critical Israeli expert for the labour market, Dr Linda Efroni, predicted it more than a month ago. In a television interview regarding the rising protest in Israel against welfare cuts, she warned that if social unrest did not stop, the government might initiate an escalation along the Northern border.
Whether aimed at distracting from social unrest, or (more likely) from police investigation into criminal offences by Sharon's closest allies including his own son, or simply expressing the desire of the army, frustrated by a certain restraint imposed on its actions in the Occupied Territories in the past weeks, to open a new front in the North – we have not heard the last of this story. Though the recent round seems to have been contained by international diplomacy (after all, given the fiasco in Iraq, the US doesn't need another front right now), it will be used to prepare the hearts for the next escalation, till the time is ripe for an overall attack on Lebanon and Syria. After all, Israel has never made secret of its refusal to tolerate the so-called "terrorist Hizbollah threat" along its Northern border, and that it would sooner or later have to "deal with it". When official Israel says "deal", it means war – in this case, as I explained in an earlier column, war against Syria.
– Ran HaCohen