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Lebanon, Islamism and the Hezbollah-Israel War

By Amotz Asa-El

As the IDF’s counter-attacks against Hezbollah’s outposts, personnel and materiel entered their third week, it was still difficult to predict how long the skirmishing would last and what its outcome would be. However, several facts did emerge early on - and suggested that in its military challenge, regional roots and global image, the latest round of Arab-Israeli violence is markedly different from the many that preceded it.

Israel's war is widely seen as related to the fight against Islamic radicalism

Since the 1990s, Hezbollah has taken its successful guerrilla strategy a step further, by training, equipping and deploying an artillery force opposite Israel’s northern border. Inspired and supplied by Iran via Syria, this effort was carefully monitored by Israeli intelligence, and openly discussed in the Israeli media. Still, the situation remained on the back burner of Israeli statecraft as long as Hezbollah kept the northern border quiet, as it had for most of the six years since Israel’s unilateral evacuation of south Lebanon.

All this changed overnight on July 12. Hezbollah killed eight Israeli soldiers and kidnapped two, in the aftermath of a series of incidents which both sides agree the Shi’ite organisation initiated. Still, from a strict military viewpoint, this attack was nothing Israel had not seen previously. The novelty was in the subsequent shelling of cities and communities across northern Israel, from the Sea of Galilee in the east to the Mediterranean coastline in the west, and from Kiryat Shmona in the north to Nazareth in the south.

This challenged Israel in two ways: On the civilian front, the need arose for the first time since the 1967 war to shield large populations from bombardment, while militarily, the IDF was expected to counter Hezbollah’s unconventional artillery tactics. With its rockets fired in some cases from trucks that can be easily disguised and quickly relocated, and in other cases from private houses, locating Hezbollah’s rocket launchers was physically difficult, and targeting them was morally problematic.

This is where the situation took its second unexpected twist.

In a statement made shortly after the beginning of Israel’s operation, Defence Minister Amir Peretz said Israel would consciously target Hezbollah personnel and equipment even when they are shielded by civilians. Peretz added that this attitude surprised Hezbollah, whose habit had been to abuse Israel’s self-imposed moral limitations.

Clearly, this Israeli decision is the result not only of Hezbollah’s challenge, but also of more than half-a-decade of suicide bomber attacks on its own population.

Nahariya: For the first time since 1967, the IDF has had to protect civilians from large scale bombardment

Such a strategic decision would have been much more difficult to execute, let alone announce, by a right-wing government, since the Israeli left would have immediately challenged it with the support of sizable parts of Israeli society in general, and the elite in particular. However, this decision was taken by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defence Minister and Labor leader Amir Peretz. Olmert’s Kadima Party had just been elected on the dovish promise to evacuate unilaterally most of the West Bank. And Peretz is a veteran peace activist and unionist who hails from the left wing of a party that itself has historically backed ambitious peace concessions.

Yet even more unprecedented was the international system’s response to Israel’s counterattack on Hezbollah, which ranged from quiet acquiescence to unconcealed enthusiasm.

When diplomats in Jerusalem heard that even Saudi Arabia and Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, not to mention Hosni Mubarak, harshly scold Hezbollah for its provocation, they understood that something about the unfolding situation made it fundamentally different from previous cycles of Arab-Israeli violence.

When the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg fully backed the Israeli offensive, with even France making do with a very faint lip service to the need for Israel’s response being "proportionate," Israelis listened in disbelief, recalling a 50-year-old international reflex to stop in their tracks Israeli military attacks and undo their gains. Now, what began with the 1956 retreat from the newly conquered Sinai Peninsula, imposed by Dwight Eisenhower and Nikita Khrushchev, and what later culminated in demands that followed the 1967, 1973 and 1982 wars, not to mention the Oslo process of the 1990s, seemed to have been abruptly abandoned. At least by the governments of most G-8 countries, if not other Europeans states and publics, Israel was allowed, and even prodded, to deal Hezbollah a blow it would never forget.

There are two explanations for this dramatic shift in attitudes.

The more obvious one is that Hezbollah’s attack on the Galilee’s population, like Hamas’ on the western-Negev communities, were waged without provocation from territories where there was no longer any Israeli presence while violating Israel’s internationally-recognised borders. As such, they defied Israel’s right to exist in any borders, an attitude that to forums like the G-8, whose members all have elaborate and open ties with the Jewish state, is unacceptable.

Yet that does not explain the Saudi acquiescence with Israel’s offensive, nor the carte blanche Jerusalem won from Washington — at least in its first two weeks. Indeed, at play here was a factor that ran much deeper, and reached beyond, the ordinary facets of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

That factor is Islamism.

Islamism, which the Penguin English Dictionary defines as the espousal of a militant and political form of Islam, has in recent years been defined across the international system as the worst threat to the post-Cold War world’s stability, freedom and prosperity.

With attacks on random passers-by waged in locations as far flung as Bali, Kashmir, Nairobi, London, Beslan, Sharm el-Sheikh and Madrid, and with thousands of cars torched across France for two weeks last year in between an assassination in Holland of an anti-Muslim filmmaker and riots outside Danish embassies following the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper — a consensus is emerging worldwide that the Islamist Revolution threatens all those who disagree with it, regardless of their locations or inclinations.

Back in Lebanon, it now emerges that this is what the Hezbollah’s agenda, and the world’s belated response to it, are really about.

During the 17 years that followed its civil war, Lebanon gave rise to two prophets with conflicting visions of the future: Rafiq Hariri and Hassan Nassrallah. The former, a Sunni billionaire, believed in a uniquely Lebanese spirit of reconstruction, liberalism, entrepreneurship and multiculturalism. The latter, a Shi’ite cleric, sought to blanket Lebanon in the blackness of the Iranian Revolution.

Initially, Hariri’s accomplishments were visible and impressive. Beirut restored much of its colonial-era grandeur, as well as its financial magnetism and cultural pizzazz. The reopened stock market flourished, the hotels were brimming with well-dressed businessmen from all over the world, theatres proliferated, ethnic restaurants and fast-food franchises abounded, the press spoke its mind, Western rock bands routinely held well-attended open-air concerts, fashion shows were held matter-of-factly, real estate projects proliferated and property prices soared.

Soon enough, however, it became clear that Hariri’s vision would never head south. That part of the country, which straddles the border with Israel, was consciously abandoned to the devices of the "fundamentalist internationale", through its local agent — Hezbollah. In south Lebanon Hassan Nasrallah’s followers broke up dance parties, smashed liquor stores and educated children to admire Osama bin Laden, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin of Hamas and their death cult. The south thus defied Beirut’s liberalism, mercantilism, and authority.

The emergence of Lebanon as a battleground between modernity and fundamentalism became inevitable, but both parties preferred to avoid confrontation. That is how they produced an unwritten agreement, whereby the south allows Beirut to embrace the good life while Beirut allows the south to provoke Israel. Israel, for its part, followed that quasi-secessionist south’s purchase and deployment of potent missiles and monitored its leaders’ movements and pronouncements, but otherwise let them be; it was too busy dealing with terror in Gaza and the West Bank.

However, as Islamist terror intensified worldwide, the international system became increasingly alarmed by Hezbollah’s umbilical ties to Teheran. Gradually, the non-Islamist world concluded that Lebanon’s failure to impose its rule on its south might result in that entire country falling prey to the Iranian Revolution. In a way, Lebanon became for Islamism what Spain was in the 1930s to fascism: a testing ground for the anti-fascist world’s willingness to fight for its ideals and interests.

This insight is fundamentally shared by the "rainbow coalition" of those who feel threatened by Islamism, from North America and Western Europe through Russia and India to Egypt and Saudi Arabia as well as Kenya and Nigeria. Clearly, it is this reading of the map that governed the responses to Israel’s assault on Hezbollah.

Granted, this shared analysis does not imply a lasting or indiscriminate approval of Israeli actions in Lebanon. Misgivings about its choice of targets and the intensity with which those were attacked were voiced with increasing frequency by the operation’s second week. Yet the fundamental given was that this round of Arab-Israeli violence was seen universally as part of the much larger problem of Islamist radicalism.

The diplomatic commotion that began accelerating July 23, with visits to the region by the foreign ministers of Germany and France who were followed by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, could be expected to generate many controversies, concerning for instance the composition and authority of a prospective peace-keeping force, the methods of disarming Hezbollah, the role of Syria and the deployment of the Lebanese Army in south Lebanon.

Several principles, however, can already now be expected to shape the aftermath of this crisis: Hezbollah will not return to its previous positions along the Israeli border; Beirut will be expected to assert its authority throughout Lebanon; anything shipped into Lebanon from Syria and Iran will be inspected by people America either appoints or trusts; and Hezbollah will not be allowed to hijack Lebanon’s foreign policy — not because of Israel’s security needs, but because of the rest of the international system’s fear that Lebanon may yet emerge as the Iranian Revolution’s first foreign conquest.

Amotz Asa-El is an Israeli journalist and former executive editor of the Jerusalem Post.

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