Lebanon & Gaza: “Nothing Is Safe”

Israel’s continuing military offensives in Lebanon and Gaza are producing a  human catastrophe and have immense political consequences.

First, the human cost, as of July 30:

  • At least 561 dead in Lebanon, the vast majority civilians — with 60 killed (including 37 children) by Israeli air attacks on the village of Qana.  Over 1,000 wounded and 700,000-800,000 Lebanese made homeless.  Lebanon’s infrastructure — including power plants, bridges, roads, the Beirut airport, radio transmitters, pharmaceutical plants, and even a dairy farm — has been methodically destroyed.
  • At least 150 dead and many more Palestinians wounded (mostly civilians) in Gaza.  The power plant supplying the bulk of electricity to Gaza’s 1.1 million inhabitants was one of the first targets destroyed by Israeli bombs and missiles.
  • At least 52 Israelis dead, 19 civilians and 33 soldiers; dozens wounded.

Long-planned in Tel Aviv & Washington

Israel’s initial claims that it went into battle to rescue a soldier captured by Palestinians and then two captured by Hezbollah have proven false.  Instead, as revealed in the San Francisco Chronicle (July 21), the invasion of Lebanon was long planned by Israel in consultation with Washington.  Middle East expert Juan Cole  summarizes:

More than a year ago, a senior Israeli army officer began giving PowerPoint presentations, on an off-the-record basis, to U.S. and other diplomats, journalists and think tanks, setting out the plan for the current operation in revealing detail.  The Israelis tend to launch their wars of choice in the summer, in part because they know that European and American universities will be the primary nodes of popular opposition, and the universities are out in the summer.  This war has nothing to do with captured Israeli soldiers.  It is a long-planned war to increase Israel’s ascendancy over Hizbullah and its patrons.

Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery agrees, and adds: “The very same thing happened two weeks earlier in the Gaza Strip.  Hamas and its partners captured a soldier, which provided the excuse for a massive operation that had been prepared for a long time and whose aim is to destroy the Palestinian government.”

War Crimes, Collective Punishment

Targeting civilian populations and infrastructure is an integral part of Israel’s war policy.  Israeli Army Chief of Staff Dan Halutz announced this publicly, even if the U.S. media (alone in the world) remains in denial about the meaning of his words.  “Nothing is safe,” Halutz declared July 13, “as simple as that.”  A few days later, he added for emphasis that Israel plans to “turn Lebanon’s clock back 20 years.”

Israeli practice has matched Halutz’ declaration. In Juan Cole‘s summary (July 26): 

They hit Tripoli’s port, a Sunni area.  They hit the port at Jounieh, the trendy Christian city near Beirut.  They hit Beirut’s port and its new shiny airport.  They hit the milk factory, the telecom towers, the roads, the bridges, and some clinics and hospitals for good measure.  They hit the fuel depots.  It would be a total war on the Lebanese civilian population, setting 800,000 out of 3.8 million out from their homes or the rubble of their former homes, forcing them to other cities as homeless refugees, or abroad to Syria or Cyprus. . . . Israel’s policy toward Lebanon, of striking at so many civilian targets as to hold the entire civilian population hostage, is unspeakable.

On July 30 Cole added:

Israeli war planes scored a direct hit on a building in Qana overnight where destitute farming folk, including old people, women and children, had taken refuge in the basement from Israeli bombing raids. . . . The Israelis appear to be engaged in a concerted campaign of ethnic cleansing in the Shi’ite towns and villages of southern Lebanon, and are indiscriminately bombing all buildings in the area south of the Litani River…. the Israelis are engaged in collective punishment on a vast scale.

Israeli generals themselves admit (New York Times July 27) using cluster bombs in their operations — munitions which disperse bomblets over a wide area, kill and maim indiscriminately, and are universally condemned by human rights organizations.

Regarding Israel’s assault on Gaza, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights declared that “the use of force by Israel during its military operations into the Gaza Strip has resulted in an increasing number of deaths and other casualties amongst the Palestinian civilian population, and significant damage to civilian property and infrastructure.”  Another U.N. agency “believes that Gaza is on the brink of a public health  disaster.”  Israeli Jewish peace activist Gideon Levy wrote in Israel’s largest newspaper: “A state that takes such steps is no longer distinguishable from a terror organization. . . .  Everything must be done to win the captured soldier’s release.  What we are doing now in Gaza has nothing to do with freeing him.  It is a wide scale act of vengeance.”

For its part, Hezbollah has also violated international law by firing missiles indiscriminately at civilian areas of Israel.  Hezbollah’s attacks came after the first Israeli missiles killed civilians in Lebanon.

Throughout, Washington has backed Israel 100%.  Within days of Israel’s assault the U.S. rushed Tel Aviv precision bombs and jet fuel in direct violation of this country’s own Arms Export Control Act and Foreign Assistance Act.  And while  Lebanon’s Prime Minister (hailed by Washington when he first took office) leads most of the world in calling for an immediate cease-fire, Washington stands alone blocking international action to stop the bloodletting.

Israel’s Goals, U.S. Goals

Avnery says “the real aim” of Israel’s invasion “is to change the regime in Lebanon and to install a puppet government.  That was the aim of Ariel Sharon’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982.  It failed. But Sharon and his pupils in the military and political leadership have never really given up on it.”

Juan Cole says that Israel is acting on a number of considerations:

The Right in Israel is determined to permanently subjugate the Palestinians and forestall the emergence of a Palestinian state.  This course of action requires the constant exercise of main force against the Palestinians, who resist it, as well as threats against Arab or Muslim neighbors who might be tempted to help the Palestinians. . . . Likewise, the Israeli Right has never given up an expansionist ideology.  For instance, the Israelis have a big interest in the Litani River in south Lebanon.  If and when the Israeli military and political elite felt they needed to add territory by taking it from neighbors, they wished to retain that capability.

In Gaza, Avnery’s argument that Israel’s goal is to destroy the elected Palestinian government is widely accepted.  Many analysts have argued that it was the prospect of Hamas agreeing to the “prisoner’s manifesto” and by doing so implicitly recognizing Israel (depriving Tel Aviv of the argument that it had “no one to talk to”) that was the immediate trigger for Israel’s all-out assault on Gaza.

There is speculation that Israel’s actions are the first step in a larger plan for military action/”regime change” against Syria and a strike against Iran’s nuclear program.  Though it does not seem at this writing that Israel is about to take such steps, the danger is present especially in light of the U.S. regional agenda.  Washington has been up front that it aims to create a “New Middle East” where all states and movements that resist U.S. domination are weakened, brought into line, or destroyed.  Washington’s “frame” is that “freedom and democracy” are battling against an evil Iran/Syria/Hezbollah/Hamas axis.  The Bush administration is therefore quite enthusiastic about using Tel Aviv to “send a message” to this alleged axis and to assault all who resist with hi-tech weaponry.

Other calculations figure in for Washington as well.  The debacle in Iraq has been eroding support for the Neoconservative project of employing force everywhere to dominate the world.  The far right hopes that massive use of force which can be trumpeted as “defense of Israel and Western civilization” may revive Neocon prospects.  Domestic electoral considerations also play a role, as Republicans and Democrats strive to outdo one another in showing how committed they are to Israel.

Last, in both Israel and the U.S., deep currents of anti-Arab racism play an unmistakable role.  Glib talk about “remaking the Middle East” and the capacity to accept the loss of Arab lives as one accepts the daily weather — “Are we children of a lesser God?” cried Lebanon’s Prime Minister — is of a piece with  the worst “white man’s burden” chauvinism of the 19th century. 

Will They Succeed?

For all the death and destruction they are causing, it is not at all clear that Israel or the U.S. will be able to achieve their political goals.

Regarding Lebanon, Israeli newspapers are now full of reports that Hezbollah has offered more effective resistance than expected. Non-Shi’a constituencies in Lebanon that Israel hoped to terrorize into turning against Hezbollah have instead closed ranks against Israel: the latest polls show Lebanese support for Hezbollah’ resistance shooting up to 85% or more.  Lebanese political leaders who were targeted as potential anti-Hezbollah rallying points have aimed their main fire at Israeli brutality.  In the wake of this morning’s massacre at Qana fury at Israel and the U.S. has intensified further.

The initial harsh criticism of Hezbollah for being irresponsible or worse that came from Arab regimes such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt (pro-U.S. Sunni governments increasingly worried about growing Iranian and Shi’a strength) have been replaced by even harsher criticism of Israel.  This is largely a response to public opinion throughout the Arab world, where pro-Hezbollah sentiment is exploding.  Many commentators say Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah is now the most popular figure in the entire Muslim world, among Sunni and Shi’a alike.  European governments have  begun to move — cautiously — to criticize Israel’s “disproportionate” actions and to press for a cease-fire.  Antiwar sentiment (and demonstrations) while still small, is growing within Israel itself.

The Israeli government’s own statements seem to indicate a scaling back of expectations.  Initially Tel Aviv talked about totally destroying Hezbollah.  Now they speak only of achieving a narrow “security zone” in Lebanon much smaller than the area they occupied from 1982 to 2000.

Palestinians in Gaza, meanwhile, are experiencing levels of misery unprecedented even compared to the horrors they have suffered in the past.  The world has paid much less attention to this front of Israel’s two-front war.  It is not clear what assistance to Gaza will be forthcoming — or what Israel will allow — once this phase of Israel’s offensive is over.  It is also not clear how the complicated political relationship between Hamas and Fatah will be transformed by current events.  Yet Palestinians capacity to endure appears undiminished.

Altogether, with matters still fluid on the ground, in public opinion, and in the world of international diplomacy, it is too soon to draw up any kind of firm balance sheet.  Any illusions Israel and the U.S. had, however, of winning a victory in the world court of public opinion are dashed.  To the contrary, the idea that Israel  is a rogue state and a militaristic bully has wider and deeper reach than ever before.  So does the knowledge that Washington facilitates Israel’s war crimes.

U.S. Media & Opinion Out of Step

Only in the U.S., and Israel, are the mainstream media and public opinion widely out of step with this global sentiment.

Regarding the media, the range of debate on Israeli op-ed pages is significantly wider than in the U.S.  Most Israeli media — especially TV — dutifully echo the government’s justifications for its war.  But the basic fact that Israel is explicitly punishing civilian populations is rarely denied in the way such denial pervades U.S. newspaper columns and TV.

Regarding public opinion, backing for Israel’s war is overwhelming among Israeli Jews (though near non-existent among Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship, one-fifth of the country’s population).  In the U.S., the latest Zogby poll shows that 51% of the populace sympathizes with Israel in the current fighting in Lebanon, while 13% said they sympathize with Lebanon.  Asked who is more to blame for the  fighting, 61% blame Hezbollah, 12% blame Israel, and 20% were not sure.  Regarding the conflict in Gaza, 50% said they sympathize with Israel, compared to 15% who  take the side of the Palestinians.

Among figures in mainstream, two-party politics, the situation is even more one-sided.  Besides Republicans overwhelmingly lining up behind Bush’s policy, most Democrats — including many who oppose continuing the U.S. occupation of Iraq — express unqualified support for Israel.  Many used the occasion of the Iraqi Prime Minister’s refusal to criticize Hezbollah during his recent visit to Washington to position themselves as even more strongly pro-Israel than Bush.

Among progressive and grassroots organizations and individuals, opposition to Israel’s attacks is narrower than protest against the U.S. war on Iraq.  In some cases this is due to self-conscious sentiment in favor of Israel’s policies; in more it is due to relative lack of information about the history of this conflict or confusion; in others it stems from fear of attack — political, financial, or even physical — from powerful forces who consider any criticism of Israeli policy to be outside the boundaries of “respectable” politics and/or anti-Semitic.

It is a challenging and complex task for the anti-empire, anti-racist wing of the antiwar movement to tackle and overcome this problem.  Skillful work on many levels is required: building the broadest possible unity of those who can be won to support an immediate and unconditional cease-fire and to press Washington to stop supporting Israeli aggression; educating within and outside this alignment on the roots of  these conflicts and the centrality of Israel’s dispossession of the Palestinian people to all politics in the Middle East; and at the same time working to sustain and develop the broad anti-Iraq war front, which is crucial for ending that bloody occupation and which remains the most vulnerable point of the right-wing’s militarist foreign policy agenda.  Stepping up to the urgency of the moment while strategically building capacity for the long haul is no easy feat.  But it is our collective responsibility at this extremely dangerous time.

Iraq: All Over But the Bloodshed?

Meanwhile, the Fiasco in Iraq (the title of a new book likely to be a best-seller) unfolds in all its bloody horror.  Reuters reports (July 21) that “Iraqi leaders have all but given up on holding the country together and, just two months after forming a national unity government, and talk in private of ‘black days’ of civil war ahead. Signaling a dramatic abandonment of the U.S.-backed project  for Iraq, there is even talk among them of pre-empting the worst bloodshed by agreeing to an east-west division of Baghdad into Shi’ite and Sunni Muslim zones.”

No wonder Republican congressional candidates are joining even one-time Neocon intellectuals in “distancing” themselves from Bush’s Iraq policy.  The crisis in Iraq — and the crisis it poses for Washington’s entire “war on terror” agenda — is far from over. Rather, its most explosive phase is likely yet to come.

Bush Defies Supreme Court

This last month also saw major developments in the fierce battle over the rule of law, civil liberties and democratic rights within the U.S.  A blockbuster Supreme Court ruling June 29 held that the military commissions the Bush administration had planned to try terror suspect were unauthorized by federal statute and violated U.S. and international law.  Going even further, the Court ruled that Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, to which the U.S. is a signatory, applies to all terror suspects and that the Conventions have the force of U.S. law.

The decision was hailed by civil liberties advocates as meeting their maximum hopes.  But following in the footsteps of President Andrew Jackson when one part of his extermination campaign against Native Americans was ruled unconstitutional — “The Justices have made their decision, now let them enforce it” — Bush immediately set out to defy the nation’s highest Court.  The White House’s draft legislation for tribunals that supposedly follow the Court’s ruling has provisions which nakedly defy the Geneva Conventions, including allowing evidence obtained through “coercive interrogation techniques.”  And as legal analyst Marty Lederman points out, this legislation “does not appear to be limited to aliens, nor  even to Al Qaeda and other groups and individuals covered by the September 18, 2001 AUMF — it covers any and all “enemy combatants” against the U.S. and  its allies in any conflict, anywhere and at any time.”

Conservative Andrew Sullivan summarizes: “Consider yourself warned.  This kind of legislation enables the government to seize, imprison, and torture anyone, including U.S. citizens, without the legal protections accorded for centuries by Anglo-American principles of justice. . . .”

On fronts from Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq to Guantanamo Bay and every courtroom and community in the U.S., forces of reaction are attempting to impose their “might makes right” agenda.  Whether they will make further headway or be stopped and then thrown back is not yet decided. 

Max Elbaum Max Elbaum is the author of Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che (Verso 2002).  Elbaum is also a member of War Times/Tiempo de Guerras, a group represented on the steering committee of United for Peace and Justice.  War Times/Tiempo de Guerras invites you to sign on to its announcement list (3-4 messages per month) to receive regular reports, interviews, flyers, and news recaps.  Go to the War Times website at war-times.org.  War Times/Tiempo de Guerras is a fiscally sponsored project of the Center for Third World Organizing.  Donations to War Times are tax-deductible; you can donate on-line at war-times.org or send a check to War Times/Tiempo de Guerras, c/o P.O. Box 99096, Emeryville, CA 94662.