By Jonathan Steele (THE GUARDIAN, 28/07/06):
A rally of well-dressed middle-class ladies, perhaps 40 in all, protested outside the UN’s offices here on Wednesday, calling for a ceasefire. Representing the Lebanese Council of Women, they handed out leaflets appealing to Kofi Annan to get something done.
They were fewer in number than the recent anti-war demonstrators in Tel Aviv, but more representative. While today’s peaceniks in Israel are a lonely, though perhaps slowly growing, minority, the cry for a ceasefire is overwhelming in Lebanon. Why bother to demonstrate when the issue is so obvious?
So my strongest impression of the rally came from Lamia Osseiran, one of its organisers: “The Israelis are radicalising Lebanon, even liberal democrats like me. I took part in last year’s demonstrations against Syria. I was a critic of Hizbullah. Now I cannot help but support Hizbullah’s fighters who are defending our country.” What about Hizbullah’s rocket attacks on Haifa? “It’s right,” she replied. “It’s not only Lebanese who should have to suffer. Are human rights available only to Israelis? You can’t have winter and summer on the same roof.”
Similar views can be heard from many Shias. They have closed ranks behind Hizbullah under the weight of Israeli bombing. Among Sunnis the mood is more complex. The port town of Sidon, south of Beirut, is 90% Sunni. Over the past week it has taken in 70,000 Shia refugees, most of them militant supporters of Hizbullah. They are eager to convince their new Sunni neighbours of the justice of the Hizbullah cause. Whether they have succeeded will not be known until the bombing stops, but every new day of Israel’s air strikes on the south lessens the force of the argument that it is all Hizbullah’s fault.
The stronghold of anti-Hizbullah feeling is in Lebanon’s Christian areas. They have suffered little bombing, and many people argue that Hizbullah is reaping what it sowed. As Youssef Haddad, a young teacher at the American University of Beirut, put it: “If you want a war with Israel, you have to pay the price. I didn’t take the decision to attack Israel.”
Yet what counts most for now is not the popular reaction but what is happening inside the Lebanese government. Condoleezza Rice seems to have little understanding of the country’s political forces. Last year’s so-called cedar revolution, with its simplistic “people power” image and the election victory of anti-Syrian parties, apparently led Washington, and alarmingly Downing Street as well, to believe that Lebanon has a radically new and pro-western government.
In fact, Lebanon has a government of national unity in which Hizbullah has two ministers. Being anti-Syrian is not the same as being anti-Hizbullah, and the election winners from the March 14 movement, which developed after the car-bomb murder of the former prime minister Rafik Hariri, wisely recognised that the party is an authentic part of Lebanese society. It was better to have it in the government rather than outside.
Demonising Hizbullah as terrorists or Iranian and Syrian agents confuses the picture. Moreover, the only party that declined to take part in government, the Maronite Christians led by Michel Aoun, made a tactical alliance with Hizbullah. Since the Israeli attacks Aoun has been one of Hizbullah’s most vocal defenders.
While accepting Hizbullah’s political weight, no Lebanese politician believes that its military wing can be disarmed against its will. Their view has to be the starting point for any discussion of an international force for southern Lebanon, whether it is a beefed-up version of the current UN force, Unifil, or some sort of “coalition of the willing”.
In one sense Israel created Hizbullah. Its occupation of Lebanon after 1982 turned a group of suicide bombers into a resistance movement like Europe’s second world war partisans. Expecting foreigners to remove Hizbullah’s weapons is a non-starter. Israel is taking heavy casualties in attempting it. How would other foreign occupiers have more success?
Earlier this year Lebanese parties were holding a “national dialogue” to work out, among other issues, how to strengthen the Lebanese army and find a different role for Hizbullah’s guerrilla forces. “One option would be to absorb the militia into the Lebanese army and another would be to turn it into a national guard under government control,” Michel Faroun, an MP from the March 14 movement, said last week.
The dialogue on Lebanon’s defence strategy was only exploratory, since the government agreed that no decisions could be taken until Israel withdrew from the land known as Shebaa farms, occupied since 1967. The latest two weeks of Israeli attacks have reinforced Hizbullah’s argument that it cannot disarm until the Lebanese army is stronger.
It is not a question of redeploying the Lebanese army in Hizbullah’s place. Only Hizbullah knows the terrain well enough, and has sufficient experience and motivation to defend Lebanon against any future Israeli invasion.
The Lebanese government’s position on the idea of an international force is not yet clear. Hizbullah and Amal, the other Shia party, insist that the prime minister, Fouad Siniora, only had a mandate in Rome on Wednesday to call for a ceasefire and a prisoner exchange. Although Siniora expressed support for strengthening Unifil, analysts assume he thought this position was safe as long as the mandate and mission are still to be agreed. If the idea took off he would have time to argue that it can only come in with the consent of Hizbullah and Amal.
Attempts to impose a force would risk destroying the Lebanese government and revive the danger of a civil war. Perhaps this is Israel’s intention. It has shown great skill in exacerbating splits between Fatah and Hamas in the Palestinian territories, and may think of doing the same in Lebanon.
European governments should resist the idea. Jacques Chirac has rightly said a Nato force is out of the question since the alliance is seen as “the armed wing of the west”. Even without this association, any force would risk being seen as Israel’s instrument. Israel’s plan seems to be either to use foreigners to do its work or, if that fails, to turn south Lebanon into a giant Rafah – the city in Gaza where it demolished hundreds of homes and created a free-fire zone in which anything that moved was shot.
What Lebanon needs, as Siniora said in Rome, is an immediate ceasefire and an Israeli withdrawal so that refugees can go home before any more destruction is wrought. The world should take its cue from that.