First Published: 2006-07-16

Changing the rules of the game

This time Israel is confronted primarily by popular resistance movements, and the international community appears incapable of interceding. The situation calls for new policies from the international community, and from Israel, says Patrick Seale.


Middle East Online

For the moment at least, the divided international community seems unable to call a halt to the latest bloody trial of strength between Israel and its Arab enemies.

The contestants seem determined to slog it out, impervious to calls for restraint from the G8 meeting in St. Petersburg at the weekend, or the UN Security Council, paralysed by a U.S. veto, or the threat of a veto, in favour of Israel.

The UN mission, which Secretary-General Kofi Annan is sending to the region, is almost certain to be ineffective -- if indeed it ever manages to reach Lebanon, now cut off from the outside world by an Israeli land, sea and air blockade.

Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert appears to have given his army carte blanche to bomb Lebanon and Gaza into submission, to which Hizballah's leader, Hussein Nasrallah, has responded with characteristic defiance: "If you want an open war, you will have it!"

Hizballah rockets have rained down on Israeli towns close to the border, such as Nahariya and Safed, and have even reached Haifa. An Israeli naval vessel has been disabled by a Hizballah bomb, apparently dropped from a drone, and four sailors are missing, presumed dead.

Unlike earlier Arab-Israeli wars, which Israel was able to win with relative ease, this time it is not confronted by Arab states -- at least not yet -- but by popular resistance movements, enjoying wide support among the Muslim masses of the Arab world. This is one reason international security mechanisms seem powerless to bring the crisis under control.

Non-state actors such as Hamas and Hizballah -- and indeed the still more extreme al-Qaida -- have arisen precisely because of the inability of Arab states to deter Israel from its brutal treatment of its captive Palestinian population or America from its aggression in Iraq.

Hamas and Hizballah are attempting to "change the rules of the game" by establishing a measure of deterrence, in effect some sort of a primitive balance of power. The message delivered to Israel by the two cross-border raids, which triggered the current crisis, is simply this: If you hit us, we will hit you.

The raids -- one by Hamas from Gaza, the other by Hizballah from southern Lebanon -- resulted in the capture of three Israeli soldiers and the death of a dozen others. Hamas offered to trade the captured soldier it is holding for some of the 10,000 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, especially the Palestinian women and children. Hizballah also offered to trade its two Israeli soldiers for long-term Lebanese prisoners in Israel.

Olmert immediately rejected any such exchanges, not because he feared they would establish a precedent -- such exchanges have taken place in the past -- but because he and his army chiefs are resolved to retain intact Israel's own deterrent capability, based on overwhelming force.

Israel is as eager as Hamas and Hizballah to "change the rules of the game" -- but to its own advantage, by making such attacks even more devastatingly costly for their perpetrators, and for the societies from which they spring.

Hence Israel's "wholly disproportionate" response (in the words of French President Jacques Chirac), to the cross-border raids, its collective punishment of Gaza and Lebanon bordering on war crimes, its destruction of power plants (depriving some 800,000 Palestinians of electricity in the scorching summer heat), of roads, bridges and fuel dumps, its bombing of Beirut's international airport, of the Damascus-Beirut highway, and of Beirut's southern suburbs largely inhabited by Shi'is, its blockade of Lebanon's ports, and the killing at the time of writing of at least 150 Palestinians and Lebanese civilians and the wounding of scores of others.

The inevitable question is whether such wholesale killing and terrorizing of its neighbours can produce the desired results, or whether the time has come to consider a change in Israel's security doctrine. Resolving conflicts on an equitable basis, and a scrupulous policy of good neighbourliness, are better recipes for Israel's long-term integration in the region than the use of brute force.

The cross-border raids of Hamas and Hizballah -- as well as the latter's extensive rocket arsenal -- should perhaps serve as a wake-up call to Israel because they point to a change in the nature of warfare.

The challenge posed by the two resistance organisations is not entirely new. It was prefigured in the suicide bombings with which Hamas countered Israeli repression during the second intifada, and the guerrilla harassment with which Hizballah ended Israel's 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000.

There has now, however, been a qualitative shift: Resistance to occupation has given way to offensive operations against Israeli territory, although still on a very small scale. Unless Israel grasps that it may not always be able to dictate terms to the Arabs and that the time may have come to negotiate a global settlement involving Syria as well as Lebanon and the Palestinians, down the road may lie mass-casualty terrorism, longer-range missiles, potential Islamic revolts in neighbouring countries such as Egypt, and even -- in a catastrophic scenario -- "dirty bombs" against Israeli cities.

Changes are taking place in Arab society -- greater wealth, more education, an angry impatience with Israeli violence and the passivity of Arab regimes -- which must inevitably erode the unchallenged supremacy Israel has long enjoyed.

The cross-border raid by Hamas, and its launch of Qassam rockets against Negev towns like Sderot, did not come out of the blue. They were a response to Israel's ferocious attempts, aided and abetted by the United States, to destroy the democratically-elected Hamas government by all possible means -- the severe financial boycott of Gaza, the targeted assassination of Palestinian leaders (like the Hamas security chief Abu Samhadana on 8 June), the intensive shelling of civilian targets, and the reducing of a whole population to abject poverty. Long before the raid which captured an Israeli soldier, Gaza had been turned into an open prison and a defenceless killing field.

We are witnessing the result of bankrupt policies -- Israel's unilateral land-grab and its cruel siege of Palestinian society, and now of Lebanon; and America's abdication of its role as 'honest broker' in the Arab-Israeli conflict, as well as its blood-stained adventure in Iraq, which is only the most spectacular casualty of its grossly ill-advised "war on terror."

Patrick Seale


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