Thursday, July 20, 2006

'Torn to shreds'

President Bush has said with his usual impish smirk: “Everyone abhors the loss of innocent life. On the other hand, what we recognize is that the root cause of the problem is Hezbollah.”

Bush has been known for his gaffes, political, grammatical or otherwise, but this one could exactly be what Hezbollah (also Hizballah) would want to be read from the lips of the occasionally maundering American president in the immediate aftermath of the current Hezbollah-Israel crisis.

It’s not only Bush who might have been snared. Many in the mainstream media is similarly labeling the conflict as “Hezbollah-Israel,” which at once elevates Hezbollah to some form of “belligerent status,” or one at parity with an avant-garde nation like Israel - in a “war,” that the “terrorist organization” may not even deserve (none as yet is apparently calling the hostilities a Lebanon-Israel war although Lebanon is increasingly absorbing the “collateral damage” while practically begging Israel to stop the offensive). Thus, Shi’a Hezbollah of Lebanon is poised to steal the main protagonist casting from Sunni Hamas of Palestinian Authority sans the parliamentary victory the latter achieved against Yasser Arafat’s Fatah party in the January 2006 Palestinian legislative elections.

By contrast to Hamas’ standing as the duly elected ruling party in Palestinian government having won the general elections, Hezbollah also a legitimate political party in Lebanon gained (along with another Shi’a movement, Amal) only 27 seats during last year’s elections out of the 128-member Lebanese parliament. But now as the up-and-coming villain on the block who could demonstrate its ability to inflict damage upon Israel “militarily” in a manner that Hamas could not, Hezbollah could be aiming to enhance its political stock and stardom with great potential of becoming the next democratically empowered bully in Israel’s neighborhood should it gain more representations in the Lebanese parliament the next time around.

There is one plausible explanation why Hezbollah might have provoked Israel anew into going ballistic beyond Hezbollah’s calculation: Hezbollah had been seen to have lost some political ground by betting on Syria during the “Cedar Revolution.” The peaceful and ala Filipinos’ EDSA people-powered uprising that took place in early 2005 owing to the assassination of Rafiq Hariri (he was the former Lebanese prime minister and head of Solidere, the company that has helped rebuild war-torn Beirut to become a banking, entertainment and cultural hub in the region) drove out of Lebanon the remaining Syrian forces since the last civil war that ended in 1990. The Syrians have been suspected of being involved in the assassination.

The parliamentary seats won by Hezbollah (although numerically it garnered more seats than ever before) were rather disproportionate given that Shi’a is the single largest religious group in Lebanon, comprising about 40% of the 3.8 million Lebanese; Hezbollah is supposed to be esteemed by the Shi’a community because aside from being hailed as heroes for ending Israel’s 18-year occupation of Lebanon in 2000, today it is deeply engaged with the Lebanese community by running social services ranging from clinics and schools to hospitals and charities and owns a satellite television station as well as a radio station. Furthermore, the European Union considers Hezbollah as a resistance movement, not as a terrorist organization like Hamas whose violent activities against Israel have consistently drawn international attention. Now, the spotlight is getting panned away from Hamas - whose MPs and cabinet ministers are being arrested and humiliated, and some key lieutenants targeted for assassination by the Israelis with impunity – and refocused on the one singularly getting “the root cause of the problem” title role and indiscriminately wreaking havoc deep into Israel’s larger cities even without sending off “martyrdom mission.”

More than a billing feud, are we also seeing a growing sectarian discord between the Shi’a and the Sunni that in Iraq is showing its ugly and deadly head?

The violent clash between the Shi’a and the Sunni spawned by America’s invasion and occupation of Iraq may parallel in some ways the bloody sectarian war between the Catholic and the Protestant, but that being another episode let’s revert for the moment to the moral standards invoked by Bush in behalf of Israel. “Everyone abhors the loss of innocent life,” but to defend itself Israel has to continue doing the dirty job anyway, the scale of which is looking more and more like war crimes according to human rights observers in the U.N.

The question: Isn’t Israel’s putative sacred uniqueness or exclusivism, like the reasoning that the soldiers’ abduction digs deep into Israel’s soul, laid on the line in the same way that America’s own brand of exceptionalism, as the beacon of democracy and liberty worthy of emulation by the lost civilizations in the Middle East, is “torn to shreds”* by Abu Ghraib, Haditha, Guantanamo, and the mounting Iraqi civilian casualties now estimated at about 50,000 deaths since the invasion, not to mention other untold suffering and disasters?

Bush justifies his war of self-defense in Iraq by a supposed Iraq-al Qaeda connection and Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction (majority of Americans do not believe these justifications anymore). Israel, also in self-defense, is now making the case that to pursue the return of two abducted soldiers (although Israeli jails are crammed with about 9,000 suspected Palestinian terrorists), it has the right - with the approval of the U.S., tacit or otherwise - to kill hundreds of innocent people, destroy a country freshly-minted from the ruins of a 15-year civil war and expose a million more to the cruelty and pain of the collective punishment of displacement, isolation or exile its forebears had been made to bear.


* “Torn to shreds” is a quote from Fouad Siniora, the Lebanese prime minister, describing the state of affairs of Lebanon as a result of Israel’s aerial bombardments.


Blogger Abe N. Margallo said...

The following article written today, July 22, 2006, by Edward Wong for NYT is very instructive about the Sunni-Shiite sectarian divide and in particular on the split for Hezbollah support. The piece in part says:

“Suspicions among Sunnis over growing Shiite power — and a backlash by Shiites — have come to the fore during the Iraq war and fighting in Lebanon. Animosity is especially virulent among Sunni militants who adhere to a conservative strain of Islam that views Shiites as infidels. And like many of the region’s Sunni leaders, they see Hezbollah as a puppet of Iran, whose Shiite Persian majority has traditionally been seen by Arabs as a mortal enemy.

“So while many ordinary Sunnis have spoken out in support of Hezbollah, Sunni Arab governments and ultraconservative militants have withheld their backing. One Sunni fighter said the Lebanon conflict was a plot by an Iranian-American-Israeli axis to spread the Shiite faith across the region. Another militant suggested that the Sunnis should sit this one out and let the Americans and Israelis fight the Iranians and their proxies to the death.”

Check the full text here

July 22, 2006 11:53 AM  
Blogger Abe N. Margallo said...

Please check too Ballots and Bullets by Noah Feldman published by NYT on July 21, 2006, which reads in part:

The most important new feature of the present situation is the strange hybrid character shared by Hamas and Hezbollah: both are simultaneously militias and democratically elected political parties participating in government. In the case of Hamas, which won the Palestinian elections in January, the political wing may not be able to control the military wing, yet the party maintains a basic unity of purpose. Hezbollah, for its part, does not hold a majority in the Lebanese Parliament, but its elected leaders participate in the Lebanese government, whose democratic credentials have been cited by the Bush administration as a sign of progress in that troubled country.

The dual political and military structures of Hamas and Hezbollah are not unique. In Iraq, both the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and Moktada al-Sadr's movement play major roles in the elected government while maintaining counterpart militias that they have been unwilling to disband. The model of Islamist organizations that combine electoral politics with paramilitary tactics is fast becoming the calling card of the new wave of Arab democratization.

The fact that Hamas and Hezbollah pursue democratic legitimacy within the state while also employing violence on their own marks a watershed in Middle Eastern politics. For one thing, the boundary between state and nonstate violence has essentially been erased. Has the Palestinian government demanded an exchange of prisoners with Israel, or has the Hamas militia? Israel has been acting as if it were at war with Lebanon — its targets have included a Lebanese Air Force base and Beirut's international airport - but Hezbollah began the hostilities, not the Lebanese government.

More important still, the fact that Hamas and Hezbollah owe much of their present standing to elections calls into question the viability of Middle Eastern democracy as a peaceful practice. In choosing these Islamists, Palestinians and Lebanese Shiites were in effect endorsing not only their political aims but also their commitment to violence, which was never hidden during their campaigns. (The same is true, to a lesser degree, of voters in Iraq who opted for the Shiite alliance.) It was possible that once in power, the politicians at the helm of Hamas and Hezbollah would distance themselves from violence or at least refrain from initiating it. That would have been a reasonable strategy if they wanted to persuade the voters that they could actually govern and use the resources of the state to improve their constituents' lives. We now know definitively that the leaders have rejected this path.

x x x

Lebanon, in particular, has been treated by the Bush administration as a success of democratization. In a sense it has been one. Mass demonstrations, largely free of violence (including several organized by Hezbollah), set the tone for domestic Lebanese politics in the wake of last year's assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the former prime minister. These protests would have been hard to imagine without the American commitment to democratization in Iraq. For once acting with European allies, the Bush administration was able to respond by pressuring Syria to reduce its involvement in the country. The only difficulty was that once elections were held, Hezbollah took on a substantial role in the governance of the country while retaining its close ties to Syria and Iran. Until this latest crisis, the American attitude toward this problem was to leave it alone.

In Israel and the Palestinian territories, a hands-off strategy appeared to be working. Successful elections following the death of Yasir Arafat, coupled with the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, made it seem that the permissive approach was the right one. Until Hamas's election victory this January, it even seemed conceivable that democratization might eventually create a Palestinian government capable of saying yes to Israeli peace overtures and delivering Palestinian popular support for an eventual deal.

The sudden explosion of Israel's fronts with Gaza and Lebanon represents a major challenge to the Bush administration's detachment. Leaders and political observers in the region instinctively expect the Bush administration to respond to the crisis the way earlier administrations dealt with previous crises — namely, by becoming deeply involved and trying not merely to halt the violence temporarily but also to guide the parties toward a comprehensive solution. Among some in the region, you can almost sense a nostalgic yearning to become once again the center of attention for American foreign policy.

July 22, 2006 1:10 PM  
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Blogger manuelbuencamino said...

The thing is there wouldn't even be a Hamas, a Hezbollah, an Al Fatah or any other Palestinian organization if Palestinians did not feel that they were victims of landgrabbing by Israel. That is the issue underlying the conflict and it has never been settled to everyones' satisfaction because any serious debate on it was foreclosed by the UN vote admitting Israel for membership into the UN.

I think the issue of compensating Palestinians who lost everything when Israel was created is worth bringing to the table as a necessary first step towards resolving the crisis.

Someone has to recognize that there were victims in the creation of Israel.

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