The sound of war

The Israeli bombardment is not only destroying Lebanon's economy, it could also have a huge impact on the whole region, writes Massoud A. Derhally.

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By  Massoud A. Derhally Published  July 23, 2006

|~||~||~|It is the nightmare scenario most Lebanese people had hoped to avoid; a relic of the past, a return of crestfallen memories from a civil war that had torn their country apart between 1975 and 1990. But what at first seemed to be a response by Israel to the killing of eight of its soldiers and the kidnapping by the militant Shiite group Hezbollah of another two, has become a sordid, daily campaign of indiscriminate bombardment, under the guise of fighting terrorism. "We have no other choice but [to destroy] the huge military infrastructure that they have built in south Lebanon…Whatever we are doing is targeted at Hezbollah, those who support Hezbollah and to make sure that no one in Lebanon in the future will allow Hezbollah to be active and to deploy. We want to consign our efforts to the destruction of Hezbollah. We always remember that Hezbollah was created by Iran as a tool to destroy Israel and fortunately now we are destroying them," Efraim Sneh, a former Israeli army general, and soon-to- be defence minister Amir Peretz's deputy, tells Arabian Business. The Israeli onslaught has been met with scores of rockets, rained by Hezbollah on Israeli cities, threatening to widen the conflict. The crisis has pushed Lebanon to the brink. Not because the Israeli attacks have killed over 260 civilians in Lebanon (as of July 19) and displaced over 500,000, or that Israel has demolished the underlying infrastructure of a country that was already US$40 billion in debt, but because it raises the spectre of civil war and a wider conflict between Israel and the backers of Hezbollah, namely Syria and Iran. For much of the last year and half, since the abrupt and sudden assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, Lebanese leaders from the Druze, Christian and Sunni communities, who largely make up the majority led government of premier Fouad Siniora, have been seeking a way to distance the country from the era of Syrian tutelage. But try as they might to bring the pro-Syrian and Iranian backed Hezbollah group into the fold, in a new period in which it would integrate itself into the new political climate and cede its weapons in line with UN resolution 1559, which requires all militias in Lebanon to be disarmed, they have failed. That failure has culminated in a political gridlock and a shifting of alliances over the past year, as well as heightened cynicism among the anti- and pro- Syrian camps. The country has become polarised. Lebanon's 18 different confessions and communities may make it a rich and diverse melting pot, but they also make the country all the more fragile. "The country is split. You have a very clear split between Shiites and non-Shiites, but there is always an element of nuance and ambiguity because obviously people are not happy to be bombed by Israel," Chibli Mallat, an international lawyer who has nominated himself for the presidency of Lebanon, tells Arabian Business. "But if you want to make things very simple and without nuance, the country is split between the one third which is Shiite and the two thirds which are Sunni, Druze and Christian," he adds. Moreover, in an atmosphere in which Syria is coming under international pressure because of its implication in the assassination of Hariri, and in the wake of mounting momentum on Iran to comply with the demands of the international community because of its alleged nuclear aspirations, it is perhaps no surprise that Lebanon has once again turned into a battlefield on which to fight proxy wars - as was the case during its 15 year civil conflict. "It is a showdown between Hezbollah and Israel, but most significantly, the regional implications of this showdown are profound, because of what it ultimately is. It's a test of Israel's military might, its political standing in the region, and by extension the US' versus Iran and to a lesser extent Syria," Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, assistant professor at the American University of Beirut and author of Hezbollah: Politics and Religion, tells Arabian Business. Ghorayeb believes the kidnapping of the Israeli soldiers was an autonomous decision taken by Hezbollah, but with coordination from Iran. "Ultimately, now is showdown time between the two strategic axes; the so-called axis of terror as the US and Israel dub it (Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas) versus the US, Israeli and European axis." But why now? Why is this happening at this particular time, and more importantly why did Hezbollah, as many Lebanese and analysts see it, play into the hands of Israel and provide it with a pretext to attack Lebanon? There is no clear-cut answer as to how this entire affair has snowballed, but there are certainly signs that both Israel and Hezbollah had prepared for such an outcome. The protracted situation in the Palestinian territories and the election of Hamas in January seem to have heated the political situation in the region to boiling point, especially after the Israeli army shelled a beach in Gaza killing seven family members, prompting Hamas militants to call off a 16 month truce and kidnap an Israel soldier. That event has been seen as a catalyst, paving the way for escalating tensions, and making military action by Israel, and an "adventurous gambit" by Hezbollah, as several Arab governments have described it, all the more a fait-acompli. "The operation launched by Hezbollah was launched without the knowledge of the Lebanese government, which has refused to adopt this operation and accept it. The government has taken its distance from the operation and as individuals so do we," Jawad Boulos, a member of the Lebanese parliament explained to Arabian Business, moments after Israeli warplanes blasted Beirut's port. "As parliamentarians we believe that what the Israelis are doing is a systematic destruction of the country that goes beyond any reasonable use of force. Essentially, it is going to cause a backlash by the Lebanese population against the Israelis. People are not going to accept the systematic destruction of their livelihood and their infrastructure and country." Israel's bombardment has destroyed over 20 bridges (as of July 19), the runways of the Beirut airport and part of the country's power grid, as well as sparking a humanitarian crisis. It has also taken its toll on Lebanon's economy, which until the outbreak of hostilities had been rebounding from the fall out of the assassination of Hariri. Thousands of tourists who visit the country in the summer and contribute over US$4 billion to the economy have fled, according to a senior analyst at a leading Lebanese bank, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "There is at least US$3 billion in infrastructure damage and loss of work. All the stock markets in the Arab world are down and this shows that this is a regional conflict," says the analyst. Some Lebanese are convinced part of the reason Israel has been so relentless in its blitz of the country is the resurgence of the tourism industry in Lebanon and its growing economy. Sneh, the former Israeli deputy defence minister, denies that. "We are not jealous of Lebanon. On the contrary, we want Lebanon to prosper. We want the Lebanese economy to grow. We want to have a rich neighbour, not an angry neighbour. We have an interest in the growth of the Lebanese economy. But we cannot allow in Beirut a little Paris, and in south Lebanon a Kabul or a Kandahar." Rami Khouri, editor at large of Lebanon's Daily Star believes Israeli policies are inherently flawed. "If there is a Nobel Prize for promoting terrorism it should be given for the last quarter century to the Israelis. They are the masters at implementing policies that generate a counter policy of increasingly militant resistance, and hard-line Islamist politics," says Khouri. "They can't do anything else except use their military power and talk tough and generate resistance. Every time Israel goes in with its army it leaves wreckage, out of which emerges a much stronger resistance movement and much more forceful popular support for it." According to the latest report from one of Lebanon's leading banks, Bank Audi, because of the adverse security developments "the monetary situation and mood on capital markets [has] shifted from [a] favourable to a wait and see mood that has not been reported since the assassination of ex-prime minister Rafik Hariri." Banque du Liban, the Lebanese central bank, has been forced to draw on its foreign reserves because of the crisis, selling part of its US$12.75 billion assets. The Beirut Stock Exchange (BSE) has thus far declined 11% and, in an effort to prevent a drastic plummeting in market capitalisation, has cut the daily limit for price fluctuations to 5% from 15%. But these are the immediate effects. The wider implications include the heightening of nervousness among investors, who will either put a freeze on their projects in the country or simply not enter the market if the violence continues unabated. This daunting scenario has not only led to an exodus of Lebanese, ironically to Syria, or to the mountains of Lebanon, but has also vexed many, who blame Hezbollah for their collective punishment. "While I do blame Hezbollah it seems that Israel was looking for a reason, a catalyst to do what they're doing," says Ali Fadlallah, a 32-year-old Shiite and a relative of Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah and Shiite spiritual leader Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, who the Israelis have tried to kill. "A lot of people who used to back Hezbollah are now fed up, but I can't see the situation turning as serious as a civil war." Karim Farra, a Saudi-born Syrian Lebanese Muslim is devastated by the events in Lebanon. "I was scheduled to be interviewed by Commerce Du Levant about the new wave of entrepreneurs who have moved back to Lebanon. A couple of days later, I find myself taking refuge in France," he says. But he adds: "Hezbollah is not to be entirely blamed; a massive Israeli onslaught of this sort can only be premeditated and intended." Rana Ballout, a 31-year-old secular Shiite, who fled Lebanon to Dubai via Syria, doesn't apportion blame to anyone. She is jaded with politics in Lebanon, and believes what is taking place is an inevitable consequence of the political gridlock between those who support Syria and those who don't. "This is Resolution 1559 on the battlefield," Ballout says. "The [anti-Syrian] parties were unable to disarm Hezbollah through politics, so Israel is forcing the issue on the battlefield, as are those that support Hezbollah. This has a regional dimension with Iran and Syria on the one hand, and the US and some Gulf States and Israel on another. A Hezbollah victory will change the dynamics in the region and a defeat will further marginalise the Islamists." But many Lebanese are incensed at what they see as a blatant violation by Hezbollah of the Lebanese state, and that the organisation's leader secretary general Hassan Nasrallah acted outside the realm of his authority when he ordered his cadre to attack the Israeli soldiers. Boulos, the Lebanese parliamentarian, is one who is angry. "The operation that was launched by Hezbollah was a major blow to the government because essentially the way it was launched and the reaction of Hezbollah after it was launched, was more or less a statement that they can completely bypass the government and that they don't believe the government exists in practice, or that it has any role to play. It has completely sidelined the government and rendered it impotent," he says. "The first victim of this operation was the Lebanese government and the second victim was the Lebanese people. I believe it is completely unacceptable that the decision to go to war should be left in the hands of any individual Lebanese or party. This is a decision that the government has to take and the government has to ensure it is the only party that can make a decision like this." Ghorayeb, who is an expert on the Shiite group, believes Hezbollah could not have miscalculated and was planning such an operation as far back as November 2005. "Hezbollah must have been aware that they would provoke an Israeli reaction of this kind. Of course they envisioned such a scenario. Many Lebanese are very angered that they would go ahead and take the risk," she says. But whilst the dichotomy of Lebanese politics persists, there appears no indication that Hezbollah is willing to capitulate to Israeli demands or balk under the intense bombardment. If anything, the destruction of the infrastructure and the obliteration of the Shiite stronghold neighbourhood of Harit Hrayk have strengthened the resolve of the group and its leader. "I don't think Hezbollah is, like any other Lebanese group, really interested in public opinion. We are such a divided and polarised society that it is virtually impossible for any group in Lebanon in such a sectarian society to really cater to all the different sects," points out Ghorayeb. "There is no public in Lebanon. When you talk about a public opinion in Lebanon you presuppose a unified nation. We don't have a nation. We have many publics and Hezbollah has support of its public. Hezbollah was banking on the following and this could very well materialise; that even among the non-Shiite Lebanese, many of them with time will forget who started this thing. Hezbollah triggered this cycle of violence but if we keep on bearing the brunt of Israeli attacks then most Lebanese are going to be more incensed at Israeli reaction than Hezbollah's abduction, which did not warrant an attack on civilians. A lot of Lebanese are saying 'let Israel kill Hezbollah fighters, let them retaliate in that way'. Disproportionate is a terrible word to use because it implies that you could kill some civilians but not in that proportion. They should not be killing civilians, period." But while the present crisis may have increased the tenacity of Hezbollah, it also brought tears to the eyes of Lebanese premier Fouad Siniora as he pleaded in a televised address to his cabinet for the international community to intervene and the UN Security Council to implement a ceasefire. His calls went unheeded. Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert did, however, make what Israel and its allies consider an overture and softening of its stance on July 17, when he announced Tel Aviv would agree to a ceasefire should Hezbollah release the Israeli soldiers, retreat from the Lebanese-Israeli border and be replaced by the Lebanese army. Israel's previous condition was the disarmament of Hezbollah as per UN Resolution 1559. What this indicates is that the Israeli government is toying with different proposals and has definitely backtracked from an earlier comment by Olmert to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan that Israel would accept nothing short of the implementation of Resolution 1559, which calls for disarmament; not just troop redeployment. Hezbollah has so far been unfazed by the Israeli proposal, and says it would only give up the soldiers in exchange for Lebanese prisoners in Israel. The Shiite group is also not going to accept pulling away from the southern Lebanese border, because that would fundamentally be tantamount to disarmament. "It's inconceivable, because it would mean that Hezbollah is paralysed. What use are guns if it can't launch them across the border? It's not going to use them internally," says Ghorayeb. "The talk of moving back from the border and not asking Hezbollah to disarm, that would really put Hezbollah in an even more awkward position. It would make it look more like a militia and mount further pressure on it to disarm. At least now it is on the border and has justification for being armed." The present impasse is ugly and difficult. In many ways it illustrates what Hezbollah has been arguing all along; that the Lebanese state cannot defend the country in times of crisis and Israel has been able to qualify this with its offensive. It has effectively proven what Hezbollah has maintained all along in Lebanon's national dialogue ― which was supposed to bridge the divide between the various Lebanese factions ― that Israel is a continuous threat to the region and would wait for the trigger to demolish Lebanon. More importantly it validates another point of the Shiite group, that the Lebanese army is inept and the state non-existent. The unstoppable attacks by Israeli planes and the use of ground troops by Israel on July 19 has only served to reinforce Hezbollah's argument. "As far as Nasrallah is concerned, there is no state. Israel has thrust him into this role of national statesman and reduced the Lebanese government to nothing more than a lame duck puppet regime now," says Ghorayeb. "It has become an existential struggle." The outcome of this conflict will be significant not only domestically but also regionally. It is likely to change the face of the region. If Hezbollah loses then the Iranian-Syrian-Islamist axis will be marginalised and the strategic balance of power that the US seeks in the region will be stronger more than ever, according to Ghorayeb. On the other hand, if Hezbollah succeeds in forcing Israel to unconditionally accept a ceasefire, and then engage in a prisoner exchange (which doesn't seem plausible) then that would be an incredible defeat for Israel and a major political victory for Hezbollah and would change the regional power equation dramatically. But for Lebanon, whether Hezbollah succeeds or fails, the government of Fouad Siniora has been proven to be impotent, and is likely to be dissolved at the end of the crisis. "The weakness of this government has been exposed flagrantly to the entire world. Not only is it weak, its main patron the United States has clearly turned its back on it. The US democracy promotion agenda is false and inconsistent," says Ghorayeb. "What kind of democracy are they trying to build when they don't give a damn about how our economy in a matter of days has been destroyed? By refusing to call a ceasefire they are not bolstering the Siniora government. It's very much an apocalyptic war, because of the profound impact it's going to have on many levels." ||**||

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