The Fire Next Time

Like 1967 and 1982, the summer of 2006 may serve as a watershed in the history of the modern Middle East. As in those previous summers, Israel is now intent on pursuing political goals through military means, eschewing diplomacy for a massive show of force. Unfortunately, Israeli military victories have had the unintended consequence of unleashing more radical movements.

In June 1967, Israel attacked and defeated the armies of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria during the Six Day War. It also delivered a devastating blow to the ideologies of pan-Arabism and Arab nationalism as espoused by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, whom Israel considered a mortal enemy. After the war, Israel occupied Syria’s Golan Heights and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, and along with the West Bank and Gaza Strip it fully controlled the entire Mandate of Palestine. However, the military gains did not translate into a political victory. Nasser was supplanted by Yasser Arafat‘s Fatah movement as a symbol of Arab nationalism, and the issue of Palestine and the Palestinians returned to the center of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Fatah eventually took over the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and transformed it from an Egyptian tool into a national liberation movement that garnered wide-scale international support for Palestinian self-determination, as well as opprobrium for its tactics.

Fifteen years later, Israel, with support from Washington, invaded Lebanon in the hopes of destroying the PLO. Then Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon believed this would enable them to redraw the map of the Middle East and annex the West Bank, quelling the hopes of its restive Palestinian population for their own state. Yet again, military victory did not achieve Israel’s political goals, and the unintended consequences of its actions had far-reaching implications. Within five years, the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza launched their first Intifada, or uprising, against Israeli military occupation.

During the first Intifada, as it had over the previous 20 years, Israel targeted Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza who were affiliated with the secular PLO for arrest, exile, and assassination, while promoting religious organizations. One result of these policies was the emergence of Hamas, or the Islamic Resistance Movement, as a force in Palestinian politics. Similarly, Hezbollah, or the Party of God, emerged out of the crucible of the 1982 war and the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon.

Indeed, Israel’s exile policy resulted in Hamas and Hezbollah coordinating for the first time, when in 1993 Israel exiled 416 Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists into southern Lebanon. Abandoned by the world community to live in limbo on a Lebanese hillside, the activists eventually received support from Hezbollah. Contacts between the two organizations emerged when the second Palestinian Intifada erupted in 2000, and Hamas adopted some of Hezbollah’s tactics in confronting the Israelis.

What forces will Israel’s current invasions of Gaza and Lebanon, as well as its continuing occupation of the West Bank, unleash? At the very least, Israel’s invasion is unlikely to achieve its stated goal of destroying Hezbollah. Five factors serve to make the repercussions of Israel’s actions and Washington’s unwavering support for them even more disruptive than in the past, with dire consequences:

First, the U.S. occupation of Iraq has become increasingly untenable. Continuously marked by accounts of atrocities, corruption, and ineptitude, America’s misadventure has served to undermine its standing in the region and around the world. In addition to the horrendous cost in Iraqi lives, the destruction of Iraqi society and an undeclared civil war, the occupation has also served to embolden al-Qaeda. Moreover, while American politicians and pundits continue to insist that Iran is behind Hezbollah’s actions, none have addressed how Iraq’s Shi’ite political parties and militias, who also maintain strong ties to Tehran, will respond to an Israeli invasion enthusiastically backed by Washington.

Second, the gap between rhetoric and reality has never been wider. Israel claims to be destroying Hezbollah’s “infrastructure of terror,” a template Israel adopted in the West Bank and Gaza during the second Intifada. As in the occupied Palestinian territories, Israel has used this claim to justify the destruction of Lebanon’s basic civilian infrastructure and the targeting of the Lebanese military – the very organization it claims must replace Hezbollah on the Lebanese-Israeli border. Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Dan Gillerman, even had the audacity to claim Lebanon would “benefit” from Israel’s invasion; however, no one in Lebanon or the broader Middle East believes Israel’s ludicrous assertions. Indeed, the high civilian death toll, more than 15 times as high as Israeli civilian deaths, undermines any pretense that Israel is merely defending itself or attempting to recover its abducted soldiers.

Third, the ineffectual responses of conservative Arab regimes in Riyadh, Amman, and Cairo toward Israel’s actions serves to further demonstrate their dependence on American support and the distance and antipathy between rulers and ruled in the Arab world. Note the callous non-response of G-8 leaders to one-time White House guest and Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora‘s teary-eyed plea for a cease-fire. In sharp contrast, Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, directly challenged Israel after a failed assassination attempt and pointed to a burning Israeli warship off the coast of Beirut as proof that he and his organization would not be cowed. One need not be a foreign policy specialist to analyze which leader garnered more respect among viewers across the Arab and wider Islamic world. While the mainstream U.S. media has focused on Hezbollah’s base of support among Shi’ites in Lebanon and connections to Iran and Syria, they have ignored the group’s widespread appeal across the Middle East for leading the resistance against Israel’s occupation of Lebanon. Although Washington and Tel Aviv believe they can severely diminish Hezbollah’s military capacity, they again underestimate the appeal of national liberation and resistance movements to the oppressed. This leads to the question: what if Hezbollah has already won?

Fourth, satellite television and the Internet have had a dramatic impact on public opinion across the Middle East. Not only have the factors described above been broadcast in real-time, but they are accompanied by scenes of horrible carnage from Lebanon, Gaza, Nablus, and Baghdad. Although these images are rarely seen on American television, they are viewed by a rapt but largely powerless audience. Compounding the anger and helplessness generated by these images is the chorus of support from American politicians and pundits for Israel. In addition, the U.S. media downplays the suffering of Lebanese civilians, while Palestinian civilians are forsaken altogether. Although the Bush administration has disdainfully written off the coverage by stations such as al-Jazeera as propaganda, the impact and influence of these mediums cannot be underestimated or dismissed.

Finally, al-Qaeda is now able to point to the actions of the U.S. and Israel as further proof of its claim of a “Crusader and Zionist War” against Islam, with the tacit support of the regimes in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt. Yet, al-Qaeda’s demagoguery only gains further credence in the region when posturing American politicians with presidential ambitions claim that the U.S. is in the middle of “World War III.” This facile and cynical attempt to re-brand an unpopular war in Iraq and a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan with Israel’s invasion of Gaza and Lebanon does little more than reassure a neoconservative political base while undermining what little standing moderates in the Middle East have. Indeed, it is unclear whether the Bush administration has declared a war on radical Islamists or a war on Arab and Islamic moderates. However, what is evident is that by the time the president’s term is over it is the latter, not the former, who will be an endangered species, if not extinct. Should this occur, the militarism that has plagued the post-colonial Middle East will be the only acceptable form of political discourse.

But of course, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice informed us, this is the “new Middle East,” an announcement made with a bland detachment more suited to new linoleum flooring than a grand political vision. One need only look at the pillars of American policy she cited – Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt – to recognize that the new Middle East reeks of the collusion, corruption, and authoritarianism of the old Middle East. The results of Washington’s vision can be found in Iraq and Gaza: governments in name only, under military occupation, experiencing escalating civil strife and large-scale human suffering. Lebanon has only begun to experience some of these “birth pangs” of the new Middle East, and as Israel’s invasion expands, it is only a matter of time before they are all realized. The implications for the region and the world of this myopic vision and the delusional policies that accompany it are immeasurable.

Read more by Osamah Khalil