Watching events unfolding in Lebanon over the last month, it has been impossible to avoid a sense that we have seen it all before, that what is now happening is merely a replay of what we have seen so many times already. Lebanon’s modern history has been dominated by Israeli attacks and interference, most notably in 1982, when the Israeli military devastated the country with air strikes and occupied Beirut itself. Gradually, over the next 18 years, it was forced to withdraw from the lands it had occupied by the popular resistance led by Hizbullah, the Islamic movement inspired by the Revolution in Iran. The deaths of over 50 members of just two families, most of them children, in an Israeli air strike on a house in Qana on July 30 merely emphasises the sense of deja vu, coming as it does ten years after the first Qana massacre, in which more than 100 Lebanese civilians were killed by Israeli shelling as they sheltered in a UN base. From now on, Qana will symbolise Israeli brutality and Lebanese resistance in Muslim minds, not for one appalling and tragic war crime, but for two.
There is, however, a major difference between this episode of zionist brutality and previous ones. Israel has long been recognised as a Western creation in the heart of the Muslim world and a key US ally in undermining and destabilising the Middle East. However, the degree of cooperation between the two has been debatable, with arguments possible about whether theUS is the dominant partner, using Israel as a regional agent, or Israel the dominant partner, bending US policy to its purposes by means of the power of the Jewish vote, dollar and lobby in the US. As so often, the truth has probably been a combination of the two. In the past, Israel’s actions could be explained primarily by its zionist agenda and local geo-political considerations, with the US’s unbending support for it attributed to the influence that zionists wield in the corridors in Washington. Questions have regularly been raised about whether theUS gains any significant strategic advantage from Israel’s presence in the Middle East, or whether it is actually a liability to US interests.
This time, however, the Israeli offensive against Lebanon, which is clearly a full-scale invasion, can only be explained in terms of wider American policy in the region, all Israel’s claims to be pursuing a limited agenda in pursuit of its own security notwithstanding. The timing of the attack was clearly determined in advance, rather than being a spontaneous response to the capture of two Israeli soldiers by Hizbullah; it is now clear that the troops were actually captured in Lebanon during an Israeli incursion, not during a Hizbullah raid into Israeli territory. It is also clear that an attack of this scale of the attack must have taken months of preparation. And, for all Washington’s denials, Israeli officials and other sources have let it be known that the US had had prior knowledge of the plans and had approved them, and as well as authorising Israel to maintain its murderous bombing even as the world was reeling in shock at the Lebanese losses and demanding a ceasefire.
This being the case, how do we explain the development? First thing to note is that there is no particular Israeli interest that explains it. Israel was not particularly threatened by Hizbullah’s strength in Lebanon, particularly having succeeded in pushing the Syrians out of the country last year. It was no more troubled by the Katyusha rockets now than at any other time in the last couple of years. Indeed, given its problems in Ghazzah and the West Bank since the election of Hamas, it could be argued that it is actually a bad time for Israel to launch a new adventure in Lebanon. Given the potential for a long and unsuccessful involvement in Lebanon, it is highly unlikely that Israel would view such a development as a merely useful distraction from its on-going war in Ghazzah. For the same reason, it would make no sense from an Israeli perspective for prime minister Olmert and his new team to take such a strong stance against Hizbullah merely to create the impression of a strong government, as some commentators have suggested. Even if it were true that Hizbullah had captured the two missing soldiers in a raid on Israeli soil, it is clear to everyone that a more limited response would have had more chance of achieving their freedom. Even as most of the Western media and analysts have followed the Israeli line that they are acting to free the soldiers and destroy an intolerable terrorist threat on their borders, many commentators have discreetly questioned the coherence of such as explanation.
What is interesting, however, is the constant US and Israeli attempt to draw Iran into the Lebanon war. While it is true that the Islamic State and the Hizbullah have close ties, few knowledgeable observers regard Hizbullah as an Iranian proxy; on the contrary, it is a highly credible, popular movement with deep roots in southern Lebanese society and culture, and clearly independent of outside pressure in terms of setting its policies and priorities. Even its ties with Syria, which had forces in Lebanon until last year, have been exaggerated; to suggest that it merely an extension of Iran, and an unwelcome foreign presence in Lebanon, is nonsensical.
Yet the Israelis’ and Americans’ parroting of this nonsense provides a clue as the best explanation of the reason for the Israeli attack on Hizbullah at this time: it is first and foremost part of the US’s attempts both the increase the political pressure on Iran, at a time when its attempts to pressure Iran on the nuclear issue have foundered, and to distract attention from its manifest failures in domestic issues, in Iraq, Afghanistan and against al-Qa‘ida. Faced with the reality of failure in so many arenas, and the unpalatable realization that the American people are beginning to recognise this failure, despite the best efforts of the right-wing media to distract attention from it, the Bush administration’s natural instinct is to go on the offensive against some new target, some new enemy that can be presented as posing a serious threat to the US and its interests. The creation of a new foreign crisis at this time is perfect, given that midterm elections due to take place in November, the first primaries for which begin on August 1.
The Israeli attack on Lebanon is perfect for this purpose in so many ways: Iran has already been cultivated as a hate figure for Americans, but attacking Hizbullah is not attacking Irandirectly, which the US dare not do after their embarrassment in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hizbullah is a far smaller and less scary proposition, with any possible complications being restricted largely to Lebanon, a country with little direct US involvement. And, an attack on Hizbullah can easily be portrayed as a response to terrorism rather than an act of aggression. What is more, from Washington’s point of view, this is an American war fought by Israeli troops, so America’s own exposure is limited. The American public has already been primed with the belief that any attack on Israel is an attack on America (although many refuse to accept this canard), and that Israel is an ally in the fight against terrorism, so they can easily be persuaded that the US must support poor little Israel against the terrorist threat. It is also an opportunity to draw more countries back into the supposed alliance against terrorism, as allies will be far more willing to contribute forces to an international force promoting Israel’s interests in southern Lebanon under UN auspices that to follow the US into Iraq or Afghanistan again. The image of the US leading an international coalition against terrorism, and doing so successfully and firmly, is maintained for the US electorate.
As we have said so often before, the US knows that Iran, and Islamic movements following its revolutionary line, of which Hizbullah is the main example, are the real leading edge of the Islamic movement, even as they prefer to focus on marginal and irrelevant figures such as Usama bin Laden and Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi.The attack on the Hizbullah is best seen as another front opened by the US against this wing of the movement, with numerous other benefits to boot. The Israelis have no doubt been promised even more US support for their own plans inPalestine as a reward for their cooperation, and must know that they cannot afford not to cooperate with their main ally and benefactor in the world. The suffering people of Ghazzah andLebanon, meanwhile, are just more victims of a ruthless political Leviathan that minds not whom it crushes nor what suffering it inflicts in singleminded ed pursuit of its selfish goals.