It’s war by any other name

By Sami Moubayed, Jul 15, 2006, Asia Times – DAMASCUS: Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert described what is happening in Lebanon as saying. “This is an act of war.” Olmert is correct. This is war. It has been war, non-stop, since 1948. What is happening in Lebanon today is yet another chapter of bloody Middle East events that will last for generations to come, because it is impossible, after so many years of conflict, for the Israelis and Arabs to forgive and forget.

In this week’s events in Lebanon, the one set of parties, which include Syria, the Palestinians, Iran, Arab nationalists in the Middle East and North Africa, along with jihadi Muslims in the Muslim World, believe that escalation is the only solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

They claim that the Arabs tried to talk peace with the Israelis after the Palestinians signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1993, and ended up with nothing. They say that war is correct, justified morally, politically and religiously.

To them, it is legitimate self-defense. They back this argument by saying that Israel still controls the Sheba Farms, which are part of Lebanon, and still has Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails. Also, they add that the Israeli tank destroyed by Hezbollah, and the soldiers captured and killed on July 12, had trespassed into Lebanon’s side of the border with Israel.

They argue that if the Arab world cannot fight Israel, then the least Arab countries can do is permit -or facilitate – a proxy war with Israel through the Hezbollah resistance in Lebanon.

US President George W Bush, who commented on Lebanon from Germany 24 hours after violence had spiraled out of control, described the situation as “pathetic”. He also expressed concern that Israel’s offensive into Lebanon could destabilize or even topple a Lebanese government that Washington supports. He made things worse and further infuriated the Arab street by expressing Israel’s “right to defend herself”.

The other party (centered mainly in Lebanon) argues that Lebanon is paying a high price for a war that does not concern all Lebanese. The Christians of Lebanon, along with a majority of the Sunni Muslims, want a war-free Westernized country that thrives on tourism and sound economic policies.

The Christians in particular were never too fond of the Shi’ites of Lebanon. They treated them as an underclass in the 1950s and 1960s, allocating no more than 0.7% of the budget for construction and health care in their districts, waged war against them in the 1970s and 1980s, then tried to mend relations with them from 1990 onwards.

The Christians were worldly, well-educated and worked in business, politics, literature and the arts, while the Shi’ites were mainly laborers, farmers and ordinary citizens with limited social mobility. Even their deputies in parliament were feudal landlords who cared little for the community’s welfare.

These Christians today – despite all the unity talk heard in Lebanon – do not feel that the Hezbollah prisoners in Israeli jails concern them. Nor do the Sheba Farms. They dislike the Shi’ite south of the country in as much as the Shi’ite leaders dislike the Christian districts of Lebanon.

Therefore, they feel indifferent to the plight of Hezbollah. They do not want Lebanon to become the “Che Guevara” of Arab politics. They argue that all this military escalation does is wreck plans for Lebanon’s rebirth. On July 13 – as the Christians feared – tourism suffered tremendously after the Israelis struck at Beirut Airport. In one day, over 15,000 tourists fled Lebanon by land to Syria.

Both pro and anti-Hezbollah arguments are valid, depending on where one stands today in the Arab world …

… Relevant to all that is happening in Lebanon today is the degree of support Hezbollah and Nasrallah have in the Shi’ite community – and the amount of animosity in non-Shi’ite districts. One reason the Shi’ites support Hezbollah is religion. It is not the only one, however, because a study conducted by Dr Judith Harik, a professor at the American University of Beirut in 1996, showed that 70% of Hezbollah’s supporters saw themselves only as moderately religious, and 23% said they were religious only out of obligation.

Pragmatism, nationalism and charity networks, rather than Muslim ideology, are the secrets of Hezbollah’s success. Hezbollah enjoys authority and commands unwavering loyalty among Shi’ites because it always appears to be a confident political party that is doing an honorable job in fighting Israel. Adding to the nationalist aspect is the social one, which is that many people in the Shi’ite community, mainly at the grass-root level, rely on Hezbollah for charity and welfare.

Hezbollah has succeeded in promoting itself through the media, igniting confidence, safety and security among the 10 million viewers of al-Manar television, for example. Many of those viewers are Shi’ites. Not once does al-Manar, for example, show viewers a member of Hezbollah defeated. Rather, it shows pictures of dead Israelis, real footage of Hezbollah operations and programs highlighting Hezbollah’s charity organizations. Hezbollah is a movement inspired by nationalism rather than religiousness.

Precisely for these reasons it would be difficult for anyone to tackle Hezbollah. The only way to disarm is for the Shi’ite group to wait until the Israelis leave Sheba, then free all prisoners. They would then have to modify their agenda, after quiet discussions with everybody in Lebanon, and transform themselves from a military party into a political one.

That would have been the logical response, but Nasrallah proved otherwise. What he has done in the past few days is show the world that if he so wishes, he can create havoc in Lebanon and the entire Middle East.

Nasrallah is sending a message to the world – and to his opponents inside Lebanon – that he is still strong and a force to be reckoned with. He is also sending a message to the United States, Israel and the Lebanese that the Shi’ites are still there – still strong, still a force and still visible to the rest of the world.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst. (By Sami Moubayed, Jul 15, 2006, Asia Times Online / FULL TEXT).

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