Middle East - Israel and the Lebanese problem

Jul/Aug 1996

For the second time in Israel's history, a right-wing majority has defeated a Labour government in a general election (the first time was in 1977). Netanyahou, the right-wing Likud's leader, will therefore replace Shimon Peres, the Israeli Labour leader, as prime minister.

Does this mean that the "peace process" with the Palestinians is about to be halted, or even reversed? Maybe, but the direction of this "process" will not necessarily be altered any more than it would have been under a re-elected Labour administration. True, during the election campaign, the Likud made repeated promises to adopt strong-arm policies against the Palestinians and the Arab world, to give a major boost to the development of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories and even to re-establish total Israeli control over the tiny Palestinian autonomous enclaves created in the "peace process". But on the other hand, didn't Peres' Labour government implement in deeds, rather than in words, part of the Likud's own programme.

Despite the demagogic and reactionary overbidding between the two parties, the only really decisive factors are the interests of the Israeli bourgeoisie and those of Israel's American mentor. During the election campaign, the usual spokesmen of the Israeli bourgeoisie came out overwhelmingly in favour of Peres' re-election. A major reason for this is probably the fact that the "peace process" has resulted in a very tangible "peace dividend" for the Israeli bourgeoisie. Normal trade relations with the Arab countries have been restored and, largely as a result of this, the Israeli economy has been growing at an annual rate of 6% over the past years while there was a 15-fold increase of foreign investment. It is not very likely that the Israeli bourgeoisie would want to undermine the resulting growth of its profits by rocking the boat of the "peace process". As for the USA, there is no sign so far that they have changed their minds about wanting to see a negotiated settlement in the Middle-East. It may well be, therefore, that the new Likud regime will end up taking the "peace process" on, from where it was left by Peres, just as in 1979, another Likud leader, Menahem Begin, signed a peace treaty with Egypt and ordered the Israeli army out of the Sinai desert.

That being said, while the Likud's victory may not have a significant impact on Israel's regional policies, it is likely to have a much more serious impact on Israeli society - especially if the present coalition manages to remain in power for some time. Having won the election by only a few thousand votes, the new government will be heavily dependent on the support of the host of reactionary religious parties which are represented in the Israeli Parliament. The fact that, already, while these parties were in opposition, failure to abide by religious diktats (such as the ban on women wearing trousers or short skirts for instance) resulted in people being stoned by fanatical mobs in some religious districts, illustrates the reactionary pressures which will inevitably become much more open after this election. The most backward prejudices will attempt to gain respectability, under the guise of religion, which should not be all that difficult in a state which already makes considerable allowances to religious reaction - for instance by forbidding mixed-religion marriages or by banning all sorts of socially- useful activities on Saturdays.

If Israeli society experiences yet another retrograde step as a result, the responsibility will lie with the so-called "left" politicians of the Israeli Labour party whose policies and systematic concessions to the right-wing milieus have paved the way for a reactionary backlash. This is true of their accommodating attitude to those representatives of religious sects, to whom they have granted much more space than their real support in the population warranted. It is true also of their attitude on Israel's regional policies. Probably a significant, if not decisive factor in the Likud's victory this time round was Peres' recent military attack against Lebanon. It boosted the profile of, and gave credit to, those who argued on the right for a tightening of the screw against the Palestinians. At the same time it demoralised those who, on the left, had the illusion that the "peace process" would put an end once and for all to militarism in Israel.

The reasons behind Peres' decision to embark on this aggressive action against Lebanon were, of course, largely electoral. And they backfired on him. But at the same time, the logic which he followed ties in closely to the fundamental contradictions which the creation of Israel has generated in the Middle-East. A graphic illustration of these contradictions is the constant conflict, for over two decades now, over the situation in the Lebanon.

Operation "Grapes of Wrath"

After sixteen days of bloody war in Lebanon, in April, a kind of "arrangement", which none of the parties involved dared to call an "agreement", was reached between Israel and the Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah movement. The confrontations have left, officially, 60 wounded on the Israeli side and 164 dead and nearly 400 injured on the Lebanese side. This is not to mention the massive destruction, the villages razed to the ground, or the displacement of large numbers who were forced to flee the bombarded areas. The conflict has not been limited to the South of the country, the Israeli air force and navy having dropped bombs and shells on the capital, Beirut, and the eastern part of the country, as well.

Under supervision from the United States and France, and with the involvement of the Lebanese and Syrian governments, a ceasefire has thus been concluded without any of the real problems behind the conflict being resolved. Israel and the Hezbollah have simply undertaken not to attack civilians, but both reserve the right to self-defence. In other words, war might break out again any time.

In fact, the latest "arrangement" bears an uncanny resemblance to the one which was reached a few years ago, in April 1993. After massive bombings which had left 30 dead and nearly 500 injured, forcing more than 400,000 people to flee their homes in South Lebanon, Israel and Hezbollah had come to the same understanding - both parties undertaking not to attack civilians and to restrict the fighting to the Israeli-occupied zone.

The fact that despite the scale of the Israeli show of strength, these two weeks of intensive bombing only led to a return to the previous status quo may seem rather unimpressive. Especially as it would seem that Hezbollah has been left virtually unscathed by the deluge of bombs and shells inflicted on Lebanon. But was the Labour leader Peres really aiming to strike at and defeat Hezbollah? Was there any way he could do so without getting the Israeli infantry to intervene directly in Lebanon? Peres did not choose to do this, no doubt because he feared the reaction of a section of his own population, who would not have accepted the prospect of thousands of Israeli soldiers getting bogged down in a war in Lebanon. On the other hand, he wanted to be seen to do something, for fear of becoming an easy target for the Israeli right- wing's criticisms. So, he chose to limit the intervention to bombings, including, above all, bombings of civilian targets, taking the population hostage and terrorising it. The objective of this was to put pressure on the Lebanese government to at least distance itself from Hezbollah since it is incapable of bring them to heel.

To justify sending his planes to bomb Lebanon, Peres seized on the excuse provided by Hezbollah, which, for several weeks, had been launching rockets against towns in northern Israel close to the border. Hezbollah's action was the military expression of a reactionary and terrorist policy aimed at the civilian population in order to apply pressure on the Israeli government. Israel's response was of the same nature, but with the far superior means of a state apparatus. This was state terrorism against the terrorism of an armed band of Islamists.

The Israeli army did almost no damage to Hezbollah, neither militarily nor politically. On the contrary, politically, Hezbollah has emerged somewhat stronger from these sixteen days of conflict, with its image as a "resistance organisation" significantly reinforced. What is more, the indiscriminate nature of the bombings, the number of dead, who were clearly civilians, including children, could only provoke reactions of hatred against Israel among the Lebanese population. It was easy for the Hezbollah to make political capital out of these reactions.

In fact, the reactionary policy of the Lebanese and Palestinian Islamist groups complements the equally reactionary policy of the Israeli state (defended most vociferously by the Israeli right), and strengthens it. These policies are both aimed at stirring populations up against each other, each using the other's terrorism as justification for its own. But this kind of policy, quite clearly, can only lead once again to a dead end - the same dead end into which their respective leaders have repeatedly led both the people of Israel and the Palestinian and Lebanese peoples for decades now.

Peres' political gamble nevertheless involved a risk (one which he could not gauge in advance) - that of seeing a section of his left-wing electorate condemning his gung-ho attitude and the danger that it may block the talks initiated with Yasser Arafat's Palestinian authority. At the beginning of the military operation, voices declaring that the risks of confrontation in Lebanon should be limited, had been raised to demand the withdrawal of the army from the area it controls in the south of the country. On 9 April, the Jerusalem Post directly posed the question: "Why don't we get out of South Lebanon?" A military affairs expert answered in substance, that the occupation of 11% of Lebanese territory by the Israeli army no longer made any sense. "It would be wiser to withdraw from this territory", he argued, because "one can reasonably assume that "rank and file members" of this group would be noticeably less determined to drive Israelis out of Israel than they are to get Israel out of Lebanon".

In fact, the fears that some people might have had regarding the possibility of Arafat showing solidarity with the Lebanese population were quickly calmed by Arafat himself. While the bombs were falling on Lebanon, he decided - followed by the majority of the Palestinian National Council meeting in Gaza - to delete the articles advocating "the elimination of Zionism from Palestine" from the Palestinian Charter, in other words, in the language of the Palestinian nationalists, the articles denying Israel's right to exist. Of course, this was a purely symbolic gesture, because for several years Arafat had declared "null and void" that part of the Palestinian Charter denying the right of Israel to exist. But the moment chosen to officially delete these articles was significant. Had Arafat wanted to tell the Israelis, and the exploited among them, that he made a distinction between them and the aggressive policies of their government, or that he did not hold them responsible for the crimes of the Israeli state, he could have - and should have - deleted the passages in question much earlier from the Palestinian Charter. Doing so precisely at the moment when the Israeli army was bombarding Lebanon amounted to indicating that whatever the attitude of the Israeli government toward other Arab peoples, the Palestinian Authority would maintain the policy to which it had committed itself with regard to Israel. As a result, Peres could engage in a show of strength in Lebanon without this having the slightest consequence on his relations with the Palestinian Authority.

Lebanon, a weak regime among the Arab dictatorships

In the space of less than twenty years, the Israeli army has carried out four massive interventions in Lebanon. The first time was in 1978, when it seized an area in the south of the country later referred to as the "security zone" (for Israel, that is). The second time was in 1982, when the troops of Tsahal (the Israeli army) surrounded Beirut. Then, in the last two operations, in 1993 and in April 1996, though no land troops crossed the borders of the "security zone", the violence of the bombardments was such that no estimate of the casualties can give a true reflection of the tragedies and suffering endured by the populations concerned. And there have been countless other bombings in addition to these four operations - hardly a month or even a week goes by without a village or refugee camp accused of sheltering terrorists being targeted by the Israeli air force.

Why such relentless attacks, which contrast with the restoration of relations with Egypt (since 1978), Jordan and even the other neighbouring Arab country, Syria?

Let us first recall the context created throughout the Middle East by the policy of the Israeli state towards the Palestinian population.

In creating Israel as a specific state for the Jews, the Zionists drove hundreds of thousands of Palestinians off their land, many of whom, among those who fled before the advance of the Israeli army, settled in the refugee camps of Jordan and Lebanon, and to a lesser extent in Egypt and Syria. Part of the Palestinian population - the rich, of course, but also some of the intelligentsia - managed to make a new life in the Arab countries of the region (or elsewhere, in the United States, for example). But for the majority of the population, for the poor, this was not the case. They have experienced refugee camps, poverty, misery, oppression and all kinds of humiliations, some of them for decades. In Lebanon and in Jordan, the Palestinian refugees have mingled in with the poor of these countries. But they carried with them a feeling of having been deprived and robbed as a nation as well as the desire to change their situation - which were powerful factors for mobilisation and organisation. From being a humiliated and scorned people, the Palestinians became a fighting people. They could have become a revolutionary catalyst too, which could have set the whole Middle East ablaze, had the PLO, the main Palestinian organisation, had a policy aimed at addressing the poor populations of the region.

But it was not the PLO's aim to free the poor Arab masses from exploitation and poverty, or even from the oppression of their own dictatorial regimes. Its only objective was the creation of a Palestinian national state. And for a long time, until the present process of compromise with Israel, the PLO proclaimed that this Palestinian state could only be built on the ruins of and in place of the state of Israel. The PLO's answer to the policy of despoilation of the Arab masses by the Israeli state was a symmetrical nationalist policy. This made it nigh impossible for the Palestinian poor to gain support among the Jewish population and so drive a wedge between the population and its politicians in the name of the fraternal coexistence of the two peoples within a bi-national state. When it came down to it, the PLO had no policy to propose to the poor masses of Jordan, Egypt, Syria or Lebanon either - to mention only the neighbouring countries - except to demand their solidarity with the struggle of the Palestinian people. Worse, the PLO turned its back on these Arab masses and sought the support of the Arab regimes, including the most reactionary ones like that of Saudi Arabia, for instance.

This policy of collaboration with dictators, kings and sultans was not even rewarded. All the Arab leaders had an awareness of their class interests - which alerted them to the dangers represented by these thousands of militant, motivated and above all armed Palestinians, who enjoyed the sympathy of the poor masses in their own countries.

In Egypt, Syria and Iraq, the state powers were strong enough to clamp down on any show of independence on the part of the Palestinian nationalist movements, or to channel them to their own advantage. The PLO in its early days, for example, was an organisation under Egyptian control led by demagogues who were very careful not to adopt policies which were in any way different from those of Nasser at the time. The same was true in Syria, where the only Palestinian organisation tolerated, Saïka, was directly controlled by the army.

Things were very difficult, on the other hand, for the Jordanian government and the Lebanese government in particular. In Jordan, it took a full-scale war for Hussein's monarchy to get rid of the Palestinian organisations which had become too much of a danger for his regime. In the course of the 1970 "Black September", the king of Jordan carried out a full-scale massacre to break those Palestinian militias which looked likely to escape his control.

The civil war in Lebanon

It was in Lebanon that the problem was posed in the most crucial way. The Israeli government may have thought for a time, in 1975, that the Lebanese bourgeoisie, or more exactly its Maronite Christian section, was going to be able to deal with the Palestinian problem in the same way as it had been dealt with a few years before in Jordan.

The presence of several tens of thousands of armed Palestinian refugees who were independent of the state's powers, with their own leadership, administration and militias, posed the same problems for the Lebanese ruling classes as they had in the neighbouring countries, but in a more serious way. Lebanese society itself, which was dominated politically and economically by the Maronite Christian bourgeoisie, was in a state of ferment. The Palestinian camps were to serve as a catalyst to the growing discontent among the poor masses. The rise of the Lebanese left manifested itself in the elections of April 1972. Despite an unfavourable electoral system (majority vote by religious constituency), all the organisations standing on a left-wing platform made a breakthrough. They won twenty-four seats out of ninety-nine, compared to only five in the previous elections. The period from 1972 to 1975 was marked by social struggles, strike waves and demonstrations which were often violently repressed. The population responded to the army's shooting of demonstrators by general strikes in November 1972, December 1973 and January and August 1974.

The struggles of the Lebanese workers developed in parallel with the Palestinian resistance. The Lebanese and Palestinian poor had the same problems and lived in the same kind of conditions. The peasants in the villages of South Lebanon were also driven out by Israeli bombings. They ended up in refugee camps around Beirut similar to the Palestinian camps. On April 12, 1973, a huge procession of 250,000 people passed through Beirut for the funeral of three Palestinian leaders killed in the capital by Israeli commandos. This is an illustration of the solidarity that existed between Lebanese and Palestinians.

To stop this process, the Lebanese far right launched a civil war in April 1975. On April 13, a coachload of Palestinian civilians was fired on by the Phalangist Christian militia. More than thirty people died. The Lebanese right had carried out this brutal action in a conscious and calculated way. Wanting to break the rise of the left and the popular movement, they took as their first target the Palestinians, who, because of their independence and role in mobilising others, were potentially one of the main dangers for the stability of the Lebanese state. But while the Christian right was attacking the Palestinians, its political objectives were obviously internal to the Lebanon. They needed to restore the political domination of the Maronite Christian bourgeoisie, and to do this they had to strike terror into the entire poor population of Lebanon. To make an example, the Lebanese bourgeoisie needed a massacre, and it had to be the kind of massacre which could provoke a reaction of unity against these "non-Lebanese people" who dared to arm and defend themselves.

It goes without saying that this offensive was carried out with the agreement and tacit support of imperialism and Israel. The United States was hostile to any change in the status quo in the region and above all to any sudden intervention by the population in the political life of any country and, as a result, they were in favour of the restoration of order, as for that matter was France, a traditional defender of the Christian ruling classes in Lebanon. Israel, meanwhile, was delighted with the repression against the Palestinian organisations in the only country where they still enjoyed freedom of movement. A Lebanese "Black September" could only have been a good thing in the eyes of the Israeli bourgeoisie.

The Palestinians, however, reacted with arms in hand to the attempted repression by the far right, and they were joined by thousands of the oppressed in Lebanon. The strength of this reaction surprised those people inside and outside Lebanon who thought that the Phalangist militias were powerful enough to impose their order. In the first few months of the civil war, the forces of what was then called the "Palestinian-progressive" side recorded a series of victories, advancing on all fronts and managing to gain control of the majority of the country with the exception of a "Christian enclave" north of Beirut.

The Syrian intervention

Either the right had underestimated the reaction and the strength of the opposing side, or else its plan from the beginning had been to provoke an external reaction by imperialism, as had been the case in 1958 in another civil war. This time, however, it was not the American marines who landed. The saviour of the Christian right was a neighbouring Arab country, Syria.

Just like Israel and the western imperialist powers, Syria did not want a victory for the Lebanese left which might have given the popular masses in the region a feeling of strength. After posing for a year as mediators between the different Lebanese political movements, the Syrian leaders intervened in the spring of 1976 on the side of the Christian right.

For the Syrian leaders, being the instrument of repression of the Palestinian and Lebanese masses also gave them the advantage of gaining a controlling position in Lebanon - instead of leaving the ground to the Israeli army - and of acquiring the status of a regional power without which no overall political settlement in the Middle East would be possible.

Syria therefore repressed the left and the Palestinians, bombarded their camps, disarmed their militias and drove them back into the south of the country and West Beirut. However, although intervening in Lebanon on their behalf, the Syrian leaders were not prepared to give the Lebanese Christian right all the power they demanded. They were particularly mistrustful of the friendly relationship the Phalangists maintained with Israel, and of the support they had received from the Zionist state during the civil war. And the Lebanese far right posed very openly as an ally of Israel. They had even set up a military force based on the Christian villages in the south to protect the Lebanese-Israeli border. This alliance of the far right with Israel was a cause of concern for Syria. To give the far right complete control of the country would have helped to create a kind of second Israel on its doorstep.

The Syrian leaders, keen to keep Lebanon neutral, made efforts from late 1976 onwards, to negotiate with the various fractions of the Lebanese bourgeoisie. Initially they met with some success, not only among the Sunni Muslim bourgeoisie, but also with certain leaders of the Christian clans of North Lebanon. Within the Christian right, however, the Phalangists who had started the civil war, and who had succeeded in mobilising a large proportion of the petty bourgeoisie, did not wish to be dragged into a new compromise with the old Maronite clans allied with Syria. A small-scale civil war was fought between the militias of these various clans, adding to the already confused situation in Lebanon. From that point on, there were increasingly frequent incidents between the Phalangist forces and the Syrian army. East Beirut, the stronghold of the Christian far right, was bombarded for the first time in July 1978, then again in October of the same year.

The Israeli government, for its part, did not stand idly by. So long as Syria was fighting against the poor and destitute, it had the support of Israel and all western countries. But from the moment it turned against the Christian far right, Syria came up against the disapproval of the imperialist world who considered that Syria had only partly solved the Lebanese problem. Admittedly, the right had been saved and the balance of power was now tilted against the left and the Palestinians. But because the Syrian leaders, like their counterparts in the other Arab states, supported a compromise between the leading elements of the Maronite and Sunni Muslim bourgeoisies, the political power which was taking shape under Syrian protection could not suit Israel. As a compromise between forces which each had their own interests and the military resources to impose them, the new central government could only display its indecision and its weaknesses. It was far from meeting the expectations of the Israeli leaders, who would have preferred the bordering state in the north to have the means to disarm the different militias and control the Lebanese communities.

From that point on, Israel assumed the right to intervene directly in Lebanon. The Israeli army moved into South Lebanon for the first time in March 1978 and set up an army of mercenaries in its service, whose job was to maintain an order hostile to the Muslim populations, despite the fact that they were a majority in the Lebanese population as a whole. Then on a number of occasions, particularly in January 1979, April 1980 and July 1981, Israel intervened again in Lebanon, either by sending its commandos in or by bombarding the Palestinian camps in the Beirut suburbs.

The Israeli invasion and its consequences.

All these actions were in fact only the prelude to the Israeli intervention of 1982. The immediate objectives of this war, which was waged under Begin's right-wing government and under a defence minister, General Ariel Sharon, who was well-known for his far right views, were to complete the task undertaken by Syria - to drive out the PLO. In addition to this, in Begin's words, there was a desire to set up a "strong and independent state" in Lebanon which could be a privileged ally of Israel, and preferably its vassal.

Against the PLO, the aim was largely achieved, because it also corresponded to the interests of the Lebanese, American and even Syrian leaders. After holding out against the Israeli army for a time, the PLO troops were shipped off to Tunisia under the protection of a multi- national force. But one should not forget the brutality of the Israeli army in the siege of West Beirut. To wear down the determination of the population, Israel subjected it to terror bombings with cluster bombs and incendiary phosphorus bombs. The bombs hit not only the buildings held by the Palestinian organisations but also crowded markets, food convoys and at least one hospital. According to UNICEF, there were 29,506 dead and injured, including 11,840 children and 868 women; 2,994 of those seriously injured suffered phosphorus burns. The far right Lebanese militias took advantage of the Israeli army's occupation to finish off its bloody work and carry out a full-scale massacre in the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Chatila.

Politically, however, things became more complicated for Israel. The man who was elected under the protection of Israeli guns on August 23, 1982, the Phalangist leader Bechir Gemayel, did after all distance himself somewhat from those who may have thought they could control him. This strong man of the Christian right posed as a defender of the Lebanese bourgeoisie, calling for a kind of "national reconciliation". This was a way of asserting a certain conception of the interests of the dominant Lebanese classes, who have always drawn their wealth from a privileged position acquired in the Middle East. As the main financial centre of the region, Beirut prospered thanks to its banks, the money deposited from the Arab world, particularly from the oil-rich states, and the major business transactions made through these banks between Arab and western countries. This is the role and the very down-to earth interests it defends, when the Lebanese bourgeoisie speaks of its place in the Arab world. After the assassination of Bechir Gemayel - which may have been the work of Syria - his brother Amin made much clearer attempts to maintain a minimum degree of independence from the Israeli ally. The interests of the Lebanese bourgeoisie are not exactly the same as those of the Israeli bourgeoisie, and the military balance of power against them was not enough to make a vassal out of either the Lebanese state or the Lebanese economy.

The invasion of Lebanon in 1982 was also aimed at opening up the Lebanese market for the Israeli bourgeoisie. One of the paradoxes of Israeli capitalism is that, with the help of imperialism of course, it has at its disposal a disproportionate mass of capital compared to a domestic market limited to four million people. But what is the use of being the strongest military power in the region if the borders of the neighbouring countries remain permanently closed to its products, goods and capital? For the Israeli bourgeoisie there is a permanent temptation to open up the markets of its Arab neighbours by force. The invasion of Lebanon in 1982 was also carried out with this aim in mind, and it was in fact because of this economic aspect of Israel's expansionism that friction immediately emerged between the Israeli leaders and Lebanese politicians, even those closest to Israel who owed their positions to Israel's intervention.

In the end, apart from the driving out of the PLO, the invasion of Lebanon did not result in a victory for Israel. The imperialist leaders, who for that matter were reluctant to be dragged too far into the military adventures of someone like Begin or Sharon, negotiated the withdrawal of the Israeli troops from Beirut and sent in an essentially American, French and Italian contingent in their place. In Israel itself, the expedition into Lebanon led to an unprecedented wave of demonstrations against the war, particularly after the massacres in the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Chatila.

This war in Lebanon was very different from the previous ones. Up to then, the Zionist regime had always drawn its strength from the acceptance by its population of the military effort it demanded, which was seen as necessary for the defence of a community surrounded by enemies. For many Israelis the war of 1982 did not have this defensive character. The aims of the war were seen for what they were - expansionist. Even within the army, soldiers and officers went so far as to resign, an act which had previously been unheard of. Faced with opposition in Israel, the Zionist leaders therefore decided to withdraw their army, especially as it was being subjected to increasing harassment in Lebanon itself. However, ever on the lookout for proxies or mercenaries to act on its behalf, the Israeli army handed over the positions it was abandoning in the centre of the country to the Druze militias. This led to violent confrontations both between Druze and Phalangists and between Druze and Palestinians.

The Israeli withdrawal left the field clear for Syria, and its 30,000-strong army came back in force. The Syrian leaders, however, were supported other militias, particularly those of the Shiite Muslim community. The objective which was assigned to them by the Syrian army was to continue the elimination of the Palestinian fighters in those places where they still existed in significant numbers - in the Bekaa region and in Tripoli, in the north. And the rise of Hezbollah in Lebanon dates in fact from this period. Inspired by Iran, it has over the years become one of Syria's main assets. As the Syrian army is deployed over a large part of Lebanese territory, controlling in particular the areas where this movement is implanted, no action of any importance can be taken without the approval of the government in Damascus. But Hezbollah is no longer just a paramilitary group. It is now one of the main parties in Lebanon, and the largest party at any rate in the Shiite community, with eight of the twenty-seven seats reserved for this community since the parliamentary elections of 1992.

Whereas Israel aimed to establish a strong government in Lebanon which might be favourable to it, the Syrian presence helped, on the contrary, to weaken the central government. By successively backing, according to the circumstances and their interests, first the Christian Phalangists then other Maronite Christian clans, then the Shiite Muslim militias then certain representatives of the Sunni Muslim community, the Syrian leaders fragmented power while maintaining a rather weak central government and state. In order to maintain its control, Syria thus played on the antagonisms between the various communities while preserving a weakened government which would not be able to turn against it.

This was not carried out without difficulties and led to many conflicts within the Christian community in particular. When the Taef agreement was signed in 1989, for example, limiting the powers of the Christian community, this community was divided between the clans which accepted Syrian control and those which refused it. Violent inte-Christian confrontations took place in Beirut for four months, between the supporters of General Aoun and those of his rival, who was accused of secretly negotiating with a pro-Syrian Lebanese government. The affair was finally settled a while later by the Syrian army itself. Militarily defeated, Aoun had no choice but to go into exile in France.

Under Syrian control and in the grip of the clans

In Lebanon today the forces present have changed considerably. The Palestinian movement as it existed before the civil war no longer exists. Repeated setbacks and the combined blows aimed at it by Israel and Syria have caused it to disappear. This defeat was the result not of a mistake but of a conscious political choice on the part of the Palestinian leadership. This was a class-based choice, a choice which led the PLO leadership to back away both from the possibilities which presented themselves to the fighters and from its responsibilities. By choosing to place its people's hopes not with the masses but with the Arab states, the PLO turned its back on the revolutionary possibilities which emerged in the civil war. The rising militancy of the Lebanese poor had been broken and the left-wing organisations dismembered both by the defection of the false friends of the Palestinian nationalist leadership and by the Israeli and Syrian military interventions.

The political void was partly filled by Muslim fundamentalist currents such as Hezbollah, which, although displaying a certain radicalism, seek to divert the feelings of solidarity among the Arab masses into a reactionary pan-islamism which in fact offers the peoples of the Middle East no prospect of emancipation. And in some cases the void was simply filled by groups defending the interests of particular local warlords.

In the Gulf War in 1990, Syria tightened its alliance with imperialism. The American president then agreed to meet his Syrian counterpart in Geneva. In exchange for his agreement to side with the coalition against Iraq, the Syrian leader was offered a little more freedom to strengthen his influence in Lebanon. From that point on, political life became somewhat more stable. Some of the militias agreed or were forced to give up their weapons in exchange for integration in the army. Not all were forced to disarm, however, because Syria did not necessarily disapprove of the action of some of them against Israel.

For Israel, therefore, Lebanon is still an unreliable country where the central government either does not have enough control, or, when it is in control, is dependent on Syria, which pursues its own interests which obviously do not correspond to the wishes of the Israeli leaders. And so long as Israel does not explicitly agree to settle its differences with Syria, by agreeing to move out of the Golan Heights in particular, Lebanon will remain an area of conflict, where the interests of the Hebrew state and those of Syria will collide. The Israeli aggression of April 1996 is therefore just one of many such episodes in the past, with possibly more to come, in the future.

In more general terms, however, all the wars conducted by its army show what an oppressive power Israel has been and continues to be, both inside and outside its borders. Inside, because the path taken towards a miniature Palestinian state surrounded by barbed wire, containing only a small fraction of the Palestinian people, does not mark the end, neither of the oppression, nor of the despoiling of the Palestinians. Outside, because this so-called democratic state of Israel in fact needs to be surrounded by dictatorships which can disguise the damage caused by its aggressive policy toward the Palestinian populations, driven from their land and forced into exile in the neighbouring countries.

This is a paradox only at first sight. Just as a handful of privileged western powers keep the planet under their domination with the help of oppressive dictatorships, Israel, for its own reasons, and in a much more limited geographical area, has the same aims and the same methods as its imperialist allies who occasionally use it as a regional instrument.