Sunday, July 30, 2006

Pondering Lebanon - part 2

At what point does the ‘terrorist’ designation no longer apply to an organisation, and the organisation become legitimate? I am aware that ‘one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter’, but there is no question something like 11 September 2001 was a terrorist attack. But Osama bin Laden and AQ do not hold territory or inhabit a state. This presents a problem for Israel.

Hizbollah’s origins date back to the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon from 1982 to 2000. It was formed as a resistance movement to occupation in the midst of the Lebanese civil war. It has committed terrorist acts in the past including assassinations, and bombings though I am not sure one could consider attacks on military forces as terrorist. It has supported Hamas and other groups who have unquestionably committed terrorist acts against civilian populations such as suicide bus bombings, etc. However, much of its violence has been directed at military forces. Indeed, it managed to harass the Israeli army enough to force it to withdraw. In its early years it did the same thing to the United States and France through the 1982 bombings of the Marine barracks in Beirut.

Since that time, the organisation has grown and changed. It maintains a military wing, but has political and social services departments as well, with representation in the Lebanese parliament. It now looks and behaves a lot more like a province or state than band of a few religious or ideologically motivated madman blowing up busses and airliners. Except Hizbollah is not a state. It is only really officially recognised within Lebanon and by its state power. Much of the rest of the world considers it a terrorist organisation but this clouds its actual, present function to the largely Shia residents of southern Lebanon.

With reference to broader peace efforts, failure to recognise Hizbollah for what it is, compared to what it once was, limits options and understanding of the actual situation in Lebanon and how that country now functions post-Israel and post-Syria. The problem with officially recognising Hizbollah as something more than terrorist is legitimacy.

A Hizbollah recognised in some fashion by Israel and to a lesser extent the world community is a powerful Hizbollah. It moves out of the domestic Lebanese political, social and military spheres and into the international sphere. It would get listened to and have a voice at whatever future rounds of talks occur in the region. It could even be in a position to negotiate concessions from Israel. The realist and understandably paranoid Israel would not likely sanction this.

Israel likely saw this rising Hizbollah star for what it was, and is now attempting to knock it out of the sky. The narrative of 'terrorist' helps them do this. The sheer brutality of their assault against all of Lebanon may indicate the proportion of fear their government felt about Hizbollah. Unfortunately, Hizbollah may have already checkmated them as far as its legitimacy is concerned. Nothing increases popularity of a political party that taking a definitive stand on a crucial issue and you cannot get more crucial and definitive than protecting the nation in war. In the face of a resolute and professional Hizbollah defence of Lebanese border towns such as Bint Jbeil, the Israeli army, a manoeuvre force with a history of routing opposition in days and hours, has spend more than a fortnight fighting in the same villages. Its air force has not managed to stem the flow missiles into Israel either. Billmon's “Hirohito Watch” tracks the drastically changing and sometimes contradictory statements issued by various official Israeli sources.

If Hizbollah holds out, it may well stand a chance of dominating Lebanese politics as it rides on the crest of its increased popularity. Nothing unites a country like war. This is not Iraq and it is not descending into civil war. If Hizbollah manages to govern Lebanon, then they can either pursue war against Israel, or they can have a chair at any peace settlement and make credible demands against Israel. Either way, its power and influence increase – and if Iran is indeed Hizbollah’s puppeteer, even more so.

Perhaps this is why Israel now appears to be interested in an international force on its northern border. If Israel is beginning to realise that Hizbollah’s star is rising, whether it likes it or not, it may seem like a better option to let the international community manage them. It makes sense from the Israeli point of view. The Israeli army is pouring claret fighting an enemy who has moved beyond traditional guerrilla and into the realm of fighting as a professional army. I think the IDF staff are realising that this is not 1982 and occupying Lebanon could be Pyrrhic. The IAF cannot, apparently, stop the missiles, and may not accurately know how many are left. If Hizbollah’s logistic tail extends to Iran and Syria, Israel would have to war with them to sever it. It cannot hope to ultimately ‘win’ that engagement without glazing the desert. Shifting responsibility for Hizbollah to the international community takes the burden off Israel and if Hizbollah continues to fire rockets, then it is the responsibility of the international community to stop it. If, before this happens, Israel can reduce Lebanon to third world status, then the country becomes another Afghan or Balkan realm for NGOs and multi-national coalitions making it harder for Hizbollah to operate.

Of course, convincing the international community to deploy troops to the region is another issue for myriad reasons – not least of which are local and regional reception, sustainability, and finding volunteers. All Hizbollah has to do is make things to prickly for any international body to deploy. They will have to be negotiated with before anyone sets foot in Lebanon, which in turn legitimises them.

In any scenario more innocent people will die, and more Lebanese and Israeli lives will be destroyed.

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