Friday, March 13, 2009

International report

In Lebanon, Gaza conflict parallels the country's own past war with Israel

Throughout Israel’s three-week war in Gaza this past January, Karim Makdisi saw reflections of another conflict that engulfed his own country of Lebanon in 2006. Makdisi, a professor of political science and international relations at the American University of Beirut, said, “Both cases were battles in a larger war between Israel and the new forces of the resistance movements in Lebanon and Palestine.”

Makdisi saw similarities to Lebanon’s own history with Israel as he watched the news coming out of Gaza. Many inside the country, he said, fear Israel might again turn its sights on Lebanon and Hezbollah, the Shiite political and paramilitary force inside the country.

In the summer of 2006 after Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers, Israel launched a 34-day attack on Lebanon, killing over 1,000 Lebanese civilians and ravaging much of the infrastructure in the southern regions of the country. During the recent offensive in Gaza, about 1,300 Palestinian civilians were killed.

Since the end of January, there have been numerous reports of rockets fired into Israel from the southern Lebanese border near the village of Habbariya, raising fears that Israel might enter into yet another conflict on its northern border. On February 21, there were reports of more rocket attacks.

Though Hezbollah denied responsibility for the rockets, the group openly condemns Israel’s actions in Gaza and has even criticized other Arab states for refusing to intervene in the attack. Hezbollah, which is now more politically active than militarily, also released a statement saying that it is not interested in engaging in another war with Israel.

Makdisi called the Israeli attacks in Gaza and in Lebanon in 2006 part of a “vicious cycle” in which Israeli occupation in the region sparks resistance and retaliation from Palestinian groups. “Israel occupies land, resistance is formed, Israel attacks, resistance retaliates [and] attacks.”

In both conflicts, according to Makdisi, Israel sought to destroy Palestinian opposition, targeting both Hezbollah and Hamas. He said Israel’s actions ignore the real question of “The occupation of Arab land.”

“The formula proposed in both Lebanon and Gaza,” Makdisi said, “was ultimately…‘stop firing rockets and we will pull back to where we were before.’ This misses the point that resistance will, by definition, continue until land is liberated and, in the case of Palestine, a state is declared.”

Hezbollah, which is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel, was formed in the 1980s to combat the Israeli occupation of contested regions in southern Lebanon. It has since become the only real military power inside Lebanon, despite repeated calls form the United Nations for the group to disarm.

Hezbollah has since won broad support across the county and has built institutions that provide social services, healthcare, and even operates its own television news station.

While Hezbollah has received much support inside Lebanon, Makdisi said, the Lebanese community has widely spoken out condemning Israel’s recent actions in Gaza.

“The response to Israel’s war on Gaza was uniform across all communities: disgust, anger, sympathy and a clear understanding that Israel has no intention of living in peace with Palestinians, nor of being a good neighbor,” he said, adding that in Lebanon, “Israel is clearly seen as the aggressor, not the victim.”

Since the 2006 war with Israel, Hezbollah has gained an even stronger voice in Lebanese politics, and is now a legitimate political faction inside the country.

Las summer, after a long political standoff that Lebanon on the brink of another civil war, Lebanese politicians reached an agreement that stabilized and unified the government. The opposition party, which includes Hezbollah, won 11 seats in parliament, and gained prominent posts such as foreign minister, deputy prime minister, and labor minister (a post filled by a member of Hezbollah).

Hezbollah is expected to gain even more ground in the upcoming parliamentary elections this summer. “The opposition alliance will likely win a slight majority in Parliament in the upcoming elections, but either way there will be a mixed parliament and a mixed government,” Makdisi predicted. But a Hezbollah with even more political clout could further raise tension between Lebanon and its southern neighbor.

Citing Hezbollah’s increased role in Lebanese politics (and its strong connections to Syria and Iran), Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak recently warned Israel’s parliament of a Hezbollah-influenced Lebanon. In his a speech to Israel’s parliament this past November, Barak told parliament members that Hezbollah’s militia now has three times as many rockets as it did before the 2006 conflict, some of which he said can reach deep into Israeli territory.

In his speech to parliament, Barak said that Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon’s national government could spark further attacks not just on Hezbollah, but on the nation as a whole. He said, “The integration of Hezbollah into the Lebanese state exposes Lebanon and its infrastructure to in-depth attacks in the event of a new conflict.”

Makdisi agreed that Israeli-Lebanese relations are unlikely to ease in the near future. “There are no relations between Israel and Lebanon,” he said. “No government can deal with Israel under current circumstances.” He also noted that with a more powerful Hezbollah, it’s now less likely that Israel could attack Lebanon without being pulled into a larger regional conflict.

“Hezbollah is now too strong [for Israel] to do what it tried to do in Gaza, and so it cannot attack Lebanon without being part of an all-out war strategy.”

However, given that Israel has fully demonstrated its willingness to strike Palestinian resistance groups like Hezbollah, which are continually gaining influence in the region, Makdisi gave a dim prospect: “…Most understand that if things continue as they are now – with Israel on the warpath and opposition movements across the Arab world gaining strength from Israel’s inability to defeat resistance – there might be an eventual regional war, in which an Israel-Iran war would naturally include Lebanon and other players.”

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