Lebanon - State terrorism at work against the populations

Sept/Oct 2006

As this issue goes to press, contingents of soldiers from the EU and other countries like Turkey, are landing in Lebanon to join UNIFIL, the UN "peace-keeping" task force, which will occupy a buffer zone in the south of the country, between the Litani river and the Israeli border.

But whether this means "peace" for the Lebanese population is another matter. In and of itself, military occupation, even by UN "peace-keeping" troops, is hardly conducive to creating a peaceful environment. But, in addition, the cease-fire reluctantly agreed by the Israeli government does not even provide for the immediate and complete withdrawal of the thousands of Israeli soldiers who crossed the border into Lebanon only days before it was signed. Nor does it imply any guarantee that the Israeli army will refrain from using retaliatory tactics, as it does daily in the Gaza Strip - the so-called "targeted air strikes" - if it considers that the UN presence in the buffer zone is not effective enough in weakening the Lebanese militias. And UNIFIL will certainly do nothing to stop or prevent such attacks.

On this occasion, the UN has shown once again its real imperialist stripes, by not even trying to stop the Israeli army from slaughtering the Lebanese population and only agreeing to intervene at the time chosen by Israel, once enough damage had been done, to protect the aggressor from its victims!

At the very best, this is another armed truce in the on-going warfare which has plagued this part of the Middle-East for over half-a-century, since the imperialist powers chose to use the state of Israel to promote their interests in the region and police its populations.

The hypocrisy of the imperialist leaders

Indeed, this summer's 34-day bombing and shelling campaign against the Lebanon was yet another illustration of the catastrophic cost of the imperialist powers' criminal policies for the populations of the Middle East.

This time round, the warplanes, battleships and soldiers taking part in the attack against the Lebanon were neither American nor British, but Israeli. But would the Israeli government have felt it could get away with using the thin excuse of the kidnapping of 2 of its soldiers by Hizbollah, Lebanon's largest Shia militia, on 12 July, to launch this bloody offensive, if it were not for the regional context created by the western "war on terror" and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan?

In fact, would Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, have taken such an initiative without, if not an explicit go-ahead, at least solid grounds to believe that the Bush administration, Israel's vital economic and military backer, was going to support him all the way? While bombs were raining over Lebanon, leaks in US newspapers revealed that, over a year ago, Israeli officials had briefed the Bush administration on plans for a major offensive in Lebanon. The question, therefore, was not one of "if", but of "when". When Olmert seized on the 12 July incident to execute these plans, he knew that he was not taking the risk of being let down by Washington.

Indeed, as soon as it began on 13 July, the Bush administration immediately endorsed Israel's massive, indiscriminate bombing of Lebanon. As far as Bush was concerned, no-one could possibly object to Israel "defending" itself against the terrorism of Hizbollah. That most of the targets chosen by the Israeli army had nothing to do with Hizbollah was neither here nor there. Nor was the enormous imbalance between the military might of Israel's 160,000-strong army and the comparatively pathetic weaponry of the few thousand Hizbollah fighters. From then onwards, the main focus of western politicians and media was on the "terrorist" missiles launched into northern Israel by Hizbollah - which became a justification, after the event, for the atrocities committed on a far larger scale by Israel's warplanes. To add more credibility to this ludicrous cover-up, Bush endorsed the Israeli vice-prime minister's talk about an "axis of terror and hate created by Iran, Syria, Hizbollah and Hamas. If, instead of a punitive operation, this was a proxy war with the region's two main "rogue states", which were presented as the instigators of Hizbollah's actions, then Israel's brutality could only be entirely justified!

Predictably, Blair did not break ranks with his erstwhile ally. And the same hypocritical rhetoric used by the White House was recycled by Downing Street. The hilarious episode of the informal chat between Bush and Blair, talking unwittingly in front of an open mike, which was transmitted live by several TV channels, showed how keen Blair was to offer Bush his services. In fact, Blair went even further in his abject endorsement of Israel's attack on Lebanon. A few days after the bombing had started, he and his foreign minister, Margaret Beckett, went on record saying on the BBC that the weapons used by Hizbollah against the Israeli were the same as those used by "Iraqi gunmen to kill our soldiers in Basra- which was another way of saying that failing to support Israel was, somehow, stabbing British soldiers in the back.

Ironically, Blair has embarked on a "peace mission" to the Middle East, in an attempt to resurrect the "road map" for Palestine. Everyone remembers the high media profile that Blair gave to his role in the initial launch of this "road map". At the time, it was an attempt to make up for the deep discontent caused in Britain by his lies in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. No doubt, Blair's new "peace mission" is, once again, designed to divert attention from his government's abject endorsement of Israel's massacre in Lebanon. But the odds are that this manoeuvre will not work any more than it did the first time.

The Lebanese population taken hostage by Israel

The cynical propaganda of the imperialist leaders revolved around Hizbollah being involved in what Blair calls "global terrorism". But this was hardly the issue in Israel's aggression.

Of course, the militia's kidnapping of the 2 Israeli soldiers can only be described as irresponsible. And, certainly, it had nothing to do with the interests of the Lebanese population. It was irresponsible in view of what happened afterwards and in view of the resulting cost in lives and destruction for the population. And it was also irresponsible in that it took the risk of pushing entire sections of the Israeli population into the arms of the "hawks" inside the country's political establishment, who were longing for an opportunity to embark on such aggression.

But the real terrorism displayed during these 34 days of savage bombing was the state terrorism of Israel. It took a whole population hostage, leaving over a thousand dead and more than 4,000 injured - the overwhelming majority being civilians - according to the Lebanese government's figures, and forcing the evacuation of nearly a quarter of the 3.8m population. The fact that the Israeli air force used cluster bombs in 500 air strikes (according to a UN estimate which is more likely than not to be a wild understatement) proves that, in these cases at least, its aim was to cause as many casualties as possible. The same can be said of the many instances where civilians were advised in advance, by way of air-dropped leaflets to flee their homes, only to be targeted by Israeli warplanes once they were on the roads.

Israel's claim that it was carrying out "targeted strikes" against "Hizbollah-related targets" was a cynical farce. Some of the targets which were hit were known to be Hizbollah-controlled facilities but most were not. The Israeli authorities claimed that the villages and urban areas attacked were used by Hizbollah to launch missiles into Israel. But this could not have been the case of Beirut's Shia districts, which were repeatedly bombed (they are too far from Israel for the said missiles to be of any use), nor of a number of Sunni, Druze and Christian villages and towns. Not to mention hospitals, Red Cross convoys, media vehicles, etc... There was absolutely no military sense nor need for the Israeli state to embark on such a massacre nor for it to create such mayhem among the population, unless what it really wanted was to make its military might felt as painfully as possible and terrorise the population as a whole into submission.

Nor did the apparently partly random destruction of the country's infrastructure make sense as far as weakening Hizbollah was concerned. But in a country which has had only 16 years of very relative peace to rebuild itself - of which 10 were under partial Israeli occupation - after 15 years of a bloody civil war, this destruction is not just a catastrophe: for entire sections of the population, it may mean turning the clock back by many years, to the days when the country was still living in the rubble left by the civil war.

Many miles of roads will have to be rebuilt, together with 70 main bridges and major airport and harbour facilities. A number of factories were destroyed as well, including the country's main dairy production plant, in the Bekaa valley, and a number of chemical factories and oil storage facilities on the coast.

The most important destruction directly affects the life of the population. For instance, the damage caused to the electricity network in south Lebanon means that 35 to 50% of the population has no supply at all. In urban areas, over 3/4 of power transformers have either been destroyed or damaged beyond repair. It is estimated that replacing them could take up to a year, provided the funds are available. But this will not even be enough to restore normal supplies. The high and medium-voltage distribution network has been badly damaged by the bombing. Emergency repairs are being made with substandard material, as a temporary measure. But to get it to work properly, it will need more or less complete re-wiring. This will take a long time and require large quantities of copper wire, which is currently very expensive and difficult to find. The lack of electricity also means that water supply is affected everywhere where local wells are not sufficient, since water would need to be conveyed by electric pumps.

More generally, Israel's aggression has reduced large parts of the southern half of Lebanon, including many poor areas of Beirut, Tyre, etc.. to rubble. In south Lebanon, hundreds of villages have simply been flattened, leaving no shelter for the displaced population which has began to return home. Some of the huge reconstruction effort carried out since the end of the civil war has thereby been obliterated.

Of course, all the repair work which is now required is not part of UNIFIL's mission, nor does Israel intend to pay for what it has destroyed, let alone offer its civil engineers to do the work.

From Gaza to Lebanon

Such terrorist tactics against the population are, in fact, part of the "normal" method of the Israeli state.

Indeed, the war against Lebanon pushed another war waged by Israel into the background - its on-going war against the Palestinian population of the Gaza Strip. In the first six months of this year, UN figures identified 142 strikes by Israeli missiles against Gaza. At the same time the Israeli artillery has been pounding Gaza on a regular basis, allegedly in retaliation against crude, home-made "Qassam" rockets sent from Gaza into Israel by militant groups. But while, in the first 3 months of the year, a daily average of 9 shells were fired by Israel on Gaza (as opposed to 5 Qassam rockets), over the following 3 months, this figure increased ten-fold, while the number of Qassam rockets remained about the same.

Not coincidentally, this intensification of Israel's shelling of Gaza coincided with Hamas' election success and the setting up of its first government, 8 weeks later.

Thereafter Gaza was subjected to more destruction and periodical tank incursions. Activists were, to all intents and purposes, kidnapped by Israeli soldiers (currently, 60 elected members of the Palestinian parliament are in jail). And for good measure, drastic economic sanctions were applied to the territory, threatening it with complete paralysis. Not only did it lose the revenue which it normally gets from Israel - which manages its finances - but it also lost most of the economic aid it receives from the EU. Its air space and waters being totally controlled by Israel, Gaza could only use one terrestrial gateway for both its imports and exports - the Karni crossing. This too has been closed, despite the commitment made by the Israeli government to keep it open in an agreement brokered by Condoleeza Rice in May. As a result, not only has Gaza lost its revenue from agricultural exports, but it has also lost the possibility of importing the staple food and medicines it needs.

So, just because the Israeli government disliked the new Palestinian government, the population of Gaza was taken hostage by the Israeli army and made to pay for Hamas' election success.

And yet, this is not for lack of Hamas having gone out of its way to win Israel's recognition, going as far as virtually admitting the legitimacy of the state of Israel and the Oslo agreement, in return for Israel accepting a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders and a "just and agreed solution" to the return of Palestinian refugees. But the Israeli government would have none of this. It did not object to some form of political compromise, but not on those terms and certainly not with a government which owed its popular support to its radical rhetoric.

By the end of June, having sustained an 18-month unilateral cease-fire and got nowhere in its attempts to get Israel to the negotiation table, Hamas changed tack. On can assume that, by this stage, Hamas leaders were wary of losing some of their credit to rival Palestinian factions, if they allowed Israel to pursue its humiliating squeeze on Gaza without some form of retaliation. In any case, on 25 June, a commando formed by Hamas' military wing and two other factions raided an Israeli border post, killing two soldiers and kidnapping a third one.

Israel's reply was immediate. Israeli warplanes and helicopters were sent over Gaza in an operation which came to be known as "Summer Rains". Bridges were bombed and the Strip's largest power plant was destroyed, thereby depriving half of the 1.4m inhabitants of regular supplies. Within 2 weeks, 70 Palestinians had been killed and just one Israeli soldier. Once again Israel had inflicted collective punishment on the Palestinian population for an action carried out by one of its armed factions.

The course of events was similar in Lebanon, following the 12 July kidnapping of 2 Israeli soldiers by Hizbollah, only on a much larger scale. But it also recalled another war waged by Israel against Lebanon, back in 1982, when the Israeli army staged a massive invasion of the country in order to crush the PLO strongholds established in Lebanon's refugee camps and put a pro-Israeli regime in power in Beirut. At that time as well, the Israeli state had seized on a pretext to carry out this aggression - the attempted murder of the Israeli ambassador in London by Abu Nidal's faction. This pretext had nothing to do with Lebanon, nor with the PLO, which had publicly opposed to Abu Nidal's policy. In the end, the Israeli army did succeed in forcing the PLO leadership out of Lebanon - after overseeing atrocities such as the massacre carried out at the Sabra and Shatila camp by a pro-Israeli Lebanese militia. But it failed in its attempt at transforming the country into a client state. It was a costly war for Israel, both in economic and human terms, followed by a protracted occupation of south Lebanon, which lasted until 2000. As a result, it was deeply unpopular in Israel and the final withdrawal of Israeli troops from south Lebanon felt more like a defeat, or at least a setback, than a victory.

Ironically, it was Israel's invasion which prompted the emergence, with the financial support of Iran, of what was to become Hizbollah (the "party of God"), among the Shia component of the population. And if Hizbollah managed to win its present credit among the population, it was partly due to its relentless resistance against the Israeli occupation in south Lebanon.

Olmert's war aims

It seems that the Israeli government had a combination of objectives in launching this summer's attack on Lebanon, both external and internal. But these objectives had certainly nothing to do with the release of the 2 Israeli soldiers kidnapped by Hizbollah. Otherwise, as a commentator noted recently in the Guardian Olmert would have followed the example of his predecessor, Ariel Sharon, who, 2 years ago, negotiated the exchange of 429 prisoners against one single Israeli businessman, without firing a single shot. Especially as, in this case, the only demand formulated by Hizbollah was the release of the last 3 Lebanese prisoners who remain in Israeli jails.

One of Olmert's objectives, on the contrary, was Hizbollah itself. Having left unfinished business before its 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon, the Israeli state wanted to get back at Hizbollah in order, if possible, to wipe it out as a significant player. Having a well organised armed militia just on the other side of the border, outside the reach of its army, was always dangerous for Israel. But it was becoming all the more dangerous because Hizbollah, in addition to its military capability, had risen to become a significant force on the Lebanese political scene, with 14 elected MPs and a seat in government. As far as Olmert was concerned, it had to be cut down to size for fear that, at some point, it might influence the policy of the Lebanese government.

One objective for the Israeli government, therefore, was to destroy Hizbollah's heavy weapons and kill as many of its fighters as possible. This is why, in particular, Olmert played for time in the last days preceding the cease fire, to carry out a massive invasion of south Lebanon, in order to engage Hizbollah's fighters, empty its weapons dumps and force the remaining fighters into a hasty withdrawal behind the Litani river so as to "clean up" the area ahead of the arrival of the UN reinforcements.

At the same time, the Israeli government aimed at destroying Hizbollah politically. By bombing targets and terrorising the population across the country, affecting all its ethnic and religious minorities, the Israeli government clearly hoped that Hizbollah would be blamed by the Lebanese for its hardship, thereby isolating the Shia militia politically. Likewise, the systematic bombing and destruction of the network of offices and facilities, which Hizbollah uses in order to deliver various social, medical and cultural services to the population, was aimed at depriving the militia of the main instrument on which its popularity is based.

But Olmert's government probably also had some domestic motivations for this war. By following in Sharon's footsteps and implementing his policy of "unilateral withdrawal" from the Occupied Territories, Olmert and his Kadima government have become the target of a growing agitation from the far-right and religious parties. Because this policy involves the evacuation, often by force, of Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories and Gaza, Olmert has been accused of "giving in to the terrorists" and betraying the interests of the Israeli state. Of course, this is nonsense. Sharon's policy was merely aimed at confining the Palestinian people in well-defined zones which would be isolated from Israel (and even "walled-out" of Israel, in the case of the Occupied Territories), more easy to police by a Palestinian police and, if necessary, more easy for the Israeli army to repress. But there was never any question of Olmert making more concessions to the Palestinians. In fact, the "wall of shame" separating the Occupied Territories from the rest of Israel will eventually "wall into" Israel large stretches of what was meant to be part of the diminutive Palestinian State provided for by the Oslo agreement.

Nevertheless, Olmert felt it necessary to demonstrate his toughness, especially given the difficulties he is already experiencing in reducing the defiance of the population in the Gaza Strip. There is every reason to believe that one of the objectives of this war, was for Olmert to demonstrate in front of his domestic opinion that the policy of "unilateral withdrawal" does not weaken Israel and that it remains the aggressive regional super-power it has been for such a long time. A relatively short war, involving long-distance artillery, the air force and few casualties on the Israeli side, was a way to make this demonstration of strength, without taking the risk of producing substantial opposition to the war among the Israeli population, as had been the case during the previous invasion of Lebanon.

The failure of Olmert's policy

In all his objectives, however, Olmert seems to have failed badly. The cost of this war may have been terrible for the Lebanese population as a whole, and particularly for its Shia minority, but there is every reason to think that, far from being weakened, let alone crushed, Hizbollah has come out of it stronger than before.

The fact that Hizbollah's firing power never showed any sign of weakening during the whole duration of the war played no military role and caused comparatively few casualties. But, politically, it was a powerful demonstration, both for the Lebanese population and for Israeli public opinion, that the mighty Israeli army, despite its huge weaponry, was proving impotent in front of the Shia militia and that Hizbollah fighters were not to be cowed by the bombing and shelling of their territory.

In Lebanon, it was easy for the population to compare the defiance displayed by Hizbollah and the active involvement of its volunteers in the rescue and repair work following the Israeli bombings, with the general paralysis shown by the Lebanese government and most of its traditional parties, which could find nothing to say and nothing to offer. And since, in addition, many of these parties have proved their servility towards Washington in the past, they were bound to be associated in people's minds with Israel and its aggression. By contrast, Hizbollah appeared to many, including outside the ranks of the Shia minority, as the only consistent representative of the Lebanese "nation" against Israel.

Instead of crushing Hizbollah, therefore, the Israeli state only managed to provide the Shia militia with an unexpected political success. However, this success is not a success for the poor masses of Lebanon. Hizbollah may have gained its credit thanks to substituting itself for the state by catering for some of the needs of the poor, but it is primarily a reactionary organisation, inspired by a particular brand of Islamic fundamentalism, which aims at establishing a dictatorship similar to Iran's theocratic regime. The fact that it emerged in this conflict as the only consistent nationalist force in Lebanon is only a reminder of the fact that, even in poor countries living under the yoke of imperialism, nationalism does not always have a progressive content.

In Israel, Olmert seems also to have failed to achieve his objective. Yet, the context in which he launched his attack on Lebanon was the best he could have dreamt of. As far as one can tell from the press, there was a general consensus among the Israeli population in favour of retaliation, following Hizbollah's kidnapping. Even political forces which are traditionally opposed to such aggressive policies, like the Peace Now movement, followed the general mood.

However, faced with the daily demonstration that the Israeli army was proving incapable of stopping Hizbollah's missiles and the rising death toll among Israeli soldiers, the public's mood began to turn. On 10 August, when Olmert got his government to decide a massive escalation of the war, in the form of a land invasion, no-one knew at the time whether he would be prepared to agree to the cease fire that was being mooted at the UN. And, this time, his decision triggered the emergence of a vocal opposition, including among unlikely milieus. So, for instance, a well-known political columnist close to the military establishment, reacted in one of Israel's main newspapers by saying: "We are getting lost in pursuit of a victory that is not there. There is no sense in investing in a lost cause. Adding more ground forces to those already stuck in Lebanon will not bring about the hoped for turnaround in the Lebanese gamble. That same evening, Peace Now and a number of other organisations, including some associated with the Israeli Labour party (but not the party itself), decided to break the consensus in favour of the war and to call for a demonstration against the escalation and in favour of an immediate cease fire.

Ironically, it is not only from the left that Olmert is now facing criticisms for this war. Mobilised army reservists are complaining about the lack of adequate equipment, the general absence of proper preparation and the corruption scandals affecting the high spheres of the army. As to the right and far-right, it is seizing the opportunity for a bit of overbidding, accusing Olmert of not having been tough enough. As a result, Olmert has had to buy himself some time by putting on hold the current modest programme of evacuation of Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories.

A more unstable Middle East

There is no doubt that a consequence of Israel's aggression against Lebanon will be to inflame even more the hatred it causes among the populations of the Middle East. By the same token, in the absence of any other radical alternative, it is likely to push more people into the arms of radical fundamentalist currents such as Hizbollah, Hamas and their equivalents in each one of the region's countries, which thrive on such hatred, because its fits in so well with their reactionary policies. So much for Bush's and Blair's support to Israel's aggression in the name of the "war on terror"!

There is no doubt either, that this war may contribute to inflaming sectarian tensions in Lebanon itself. The rise of Hizbollah, as a result of its attitude during the war, can only dent the support that each political force enjoyed among its own ethnic or religious-based constituency. To defend their share of the political cake, some of these parties are likely to fan the flames of sectarianism, thereby reviving the memories of the civil war.

In Israel itself, the humiliation caused by Olmert's bellicose failure will feed the ambitions of the "hawks" inside the regime and in the army. Discussions on how best to "take on" Syria and Iran are already common place in the Israeli media. What if, by whipping up this feeling of humiliation, the "hawks" manage to create a consensus in favour of such military adventures, using as a justification the rhetoric against these countries which prevails in London and Washington? The cost would then be incomparably higher, both for the country targeted and for the Israeli population, and indeed for the entire region which would risk being set alight by such a conflict.

Ultimately, however, regardless of the responsibility of the Israeli leaders, the blame for this situation lies entirely with the western governments, which have always stopped short of using their only effective means of pressure against Israel - by cutting the economic life line which allows it to maintain its super-equipped and disproportionate military machine. The imperialist powers are far too much in need of a police force at their service against the populations of the Middle East, in order to protect their world order, to risk weakening Israel's military clout. They prefer taking the risk of entire populations being subjected to unending hardship, like the Palestinians or the Lebanese, or even of a regional explosion caused by Israel's brutality.

In this respect, one should never forget Blair's words at the 2001 Labour party conference, when he said, following 9/11: "This is a moment to seize. The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us re-order this world. Yes, but according to imperialism's order of oppression against the population. And today, we can see what he meant: Afghanistan, Iraq, Gaza, Lebanon and what next tomorrow? Syria, Iran?

One should hope that the minority of voices which has finally been heard protesting against the war in Israel will develop on a large enough scale and that, on the understanding that such military aggression can only lead to a dead end, they will bring the Israeli government and political establishment to account and set themselves the aim of working together with the region's working class and poor masses to build a better future.

But one should hope as well that, in the imperialist countries like Britain, the working class will not remain indifferent to the catastrophe unfolding in the Middle East and that it will also bring its own rulers and capitalists to account. Because it is their rule and their system which is crippling the world.