Learning From Its Mistakes

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In his memoir,

Not So Wild a Dream
, the famous CBS correspondent Eric
Sevareid recalled watching the execution of six Nazi collaborators
in the newly liberated city of Grenoble in 1944.

When the
police van arrived and the six who were to die stepped out, a
tremendous and awful cry arose from the crowd. The six young men
walked firmly to the iron posts, and as their hands were tied
behind the shafts they held their bare heads upright, one or two
with closed eyes, the others staring over the line of the buildings
and the crowd into the lowering clouds . . . There was the jarring,
metallic noise of rifle bolts and then the sharp report. The six
young men slid slowly to their knees, their heads falling to one
side. An officer ran with frantic haste from one to the other,
giving the coup de grâce with a revolver, and one of the
victims was seen to work his mouth as though trying to say something
to the executioner. As the last shot was fired, the terrible,
savage cry rose again from the crowd. Mothers with babies rushed
forward to look on the bodies at close range, and small boys ran
from one to the other spitting upon the bodies. The crowd dispersed,
men and women laughing and shouting at one another. Barbarous?

Such events
were part of what the French described as the épuration –
the purification or purging of France after four years of German
occupation. The number of French men and women killed by the Resistance
or kangaroo courts is usually put at ten thousand. Camus called
this ‘human justice with all its defects’. The American
forces that liberated France tolerated local vengeance against those
who had worked for a brutal occupier. Thousands of French people,
encouraged by a government in Vichy that they believed to be legitimate,
had collaborated. Many, like the Milices, fascist gangs armed
by Vichy, went further and killed Frenchmen. When Vichy’s foreign
sponsors withdrew and its government fell, the killing began. Accounts
were settled with similar violence in other provinces of the former
Third Reich – countries which, along with Britain and the United
States, we now think of as the civilised world.

From 1978 to
2000 Israel occupied slices of Lebanon from their common border
right up to Beirut and back again. To reduce the burden on its own
forces, the Israelis created a species of Milice in the form
of the locally recruited South Lebanon Army – first under Major
Saad Haddad, who had broken from the Lebanese army in 1976 with
a few hundred men, and later under General Antoine Lahad. Both were
Christians, and their troops – armed, trained, fed and clothed
by Israel – were mainly Shia Muslims from the south. About
a third of the force, which grew to almost 10,000, were Christians.
Some joined because they resented the Palestinians’ armed presence
in south Lebanon. Others enlisted because they needed the money:
the region has always been Lebanon’s poorest. The SLA had a
reputation for cruelty, confirmed when its torture chambers at Khiam
were opened after the Israeli withdrawal in 2000, and for a high
rate of desertions.

As Israel pulled
back from Beirut, the high-water mark reached during its 1982 invasion,
its share of Lebanon contracted further and further. Having seized
3560 square kilometres, about a third of the country, containing
around 800 towns and villages, Israel found itself in 1985 with
only 500 square kilometres and 61 villages, mostly deserted. Hizbullah,
which led the resistance that had forced the Israelis to abandon
most of their conquest, demanded the unconditional return of all
Lebanese territory. Its attacks intensified, resulting in a loss
of IDF soldiers that became unpalatable to most Israelis. The Israeli
army placed the SLA between itself and Hizbullah so that it could
pay the price that Israel had decided it could not afford. Hizbullah
kidnapped SLA men, and the SLA and Israelis kidnapped Shias. The
two sides killed each other, as well as many civilians, and blood
feuds were born. On 17 May 1999, Israelis elected Ehud Barak on
the strength of his promise to reverse Ariel Sharon’s Lebanon
adventure, which had by then cost around a thousand Israeli lives.

Barak announced
that Israel would pull out in an orderly fashion in July 2000, provided
that Lebanon agreed to certain conditions. The Lebanese government,
urged by Hizbullah, rejected these conditions and demanded full
Israeli withdrawal in accordance with UN Resolutions 425 and 426
of 1978. Barak abandoned Lebanon two months ahead of schedule, suddenly
and without advance warning, on 23 May 2000. His SLA clients and
other Lebanese who had worked for the occupation over the previous
22 years were caught off guard. A few escaped into Israel, but most
remained. UN personnel made urgent appeals for help to avert a massacre
by Hizbullah. Hizbullah went in, but nothing happened.

The deputy
secretary-general and co-founder of Hizbullah, Sheikh Naim Qassem,
wrote a fascinating if partisan account of the creation and rise
of Hizbullah. His version of the events in 2000 is, however, borne
out by eyewitnesses from other Lebanese sects – including some
who stood to lose their lives – and the UN. ‘It is no
secret that some young combatants, as well as some of the region’s
citizens, had a desire for vengeance – especially those who
were aware of what collaborators and their families had inflicted
on the mujahedin and their next of kin across the occupied villages,’
Qassem wrote in Hizbullah:
The Story from Within
. ‘Resistance leadership issued
a strict warning forbidding any such action and vowing to discipline
those who took it whatever the justifications.’ Hizbullah captured
Israeli weapons, which it is now using against Israel, and turned
over SLA militiamen to the government without murdering any of them.
Barbarous?

Naim Qassem
called the liberation of south Lebanon ‘the grandest and most
important victory over Israel since it commenced its occupation
[of Palestine] fifty years before – a liberation that was achieved
at the hands of the weakest of nations, of a resistance operating
through the most modest of means, not at the hands of armies with
powerful military arsenals.’ But what impressed most Lebanese
as much as Hizbullah’s victory over Israel was its refusal
to murder collaborators – a triumph over the tribalism that
has plagued and divided Lebanese society since its founding. Christians
I knew in the Lebanese army admitted that their own side would have
committed atrocities. Hizbullah may have been playing politics in
Lebanon, but it refused to play Lebanese politics. What it sought
in south Lebanon was not revenge, but votes. In the interval between
its founding in 1982 and the victory of 2000, Hizbullah had become
– as well as an armed force – a sophisticated and successful
political party. It jettisoned its early rhetoric about making Lebanon
an Islamic republic, and spoke of Christians, Muslims and Druze
living in harmony. When it put up candidates for parliament, some
of those on its electoral list were Christians. It won 14 seats.

Like Israel’s
previous enemies, Hizbullah relies on the weapons of the weak: car
bombs, ambushes, occasional flurries of small rockets and suicide
bombers. The difference is that it uses them intelligently, in conjunction
with an uncompromising political programme. Against Israel’s
thousand dead on the Lebanese field, Hizbullah gave up 1276 ‘martyrs’.
That is the closest any Arab group has ever come to parity in casualties
with Israel. The PLO usually lost hundreds of dead commandos to
Israel’s tens, and Hamas has seen most of its leaders assassinated
and thousands of its cadres captured with little to show for it.
Hizbullah’s achievement, perhaps ironically for a religious
party headed by men in turbans, is that it belongs to the modern
age. It videotaped its ambushes of Israeli convoys for broadcast
the same evening. It captured Israeli soldiers and made Israel give
up hundreds of prisoners to get them back. It used stage-set cardboard
boulders that blew up when Israeli patrols passed. It flew drones
over Israel to take reconnaissance photographs – just as the
Israelis did in Lebanon. It had a website that was short on traditional
Arab bombast and long on facts. If Israelis had faced an enemy like
Hizbullah in 1948, the outcome of its War of Independence might
have been different. Israel, whose military respect Hizbullah, is
well aware of this.

That is why,
having failed to eliminate Hizbullah while it occupied Lebanon,
Israel is trying to destroy it now. Hizbullah’s unpardonable
sin in Israel’s view is its military success. Israel may portray
Hizbullah as the cat’s-paw of Syria and Iran, but its support
base is Lebanese. Moreover, it does one thing that Syria and Iran
do not: it fights for the Palestinians. On 12 July Hizbullah attacked
an Israeli army unit, capturing two soldiers. It said it would negotiate
indirectly to exchange them for Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners
in Israel, as it has done in the past. It made clear that its attack
was in support of the Palestinians under siege in Gaza after the
capture of another Israeli soldier a week earlier. The whole Arab
world had remained silent when Israel reoccupied the Gaza settlements
and bombed the territory. Hizbullah’s response humiliated the
Arab regimes, most of which condemned its actions, as much as it
humiliated Israel. No one need have been surprised. Hizbullah has
a long history of supporting the Palestinians. Many of its original
fighters were trained by the PLO in the 1970s when the Shias had
no militias of their own. Hizbullah risked the anger of Syria in
1986 when it sided against another Shia group which was attacking
Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut. Hizbullah has never abandoned
the Palestinian cause. Its capture last month of the two Israeli
soldiers sent a message to Israel that it could not attack Palestinians
in Gaza and the West Bank without expecting a reaction.

On this occasion
Israel, which regards its treatment of Palestinians under occupation
as an internal affair in which neither the UN nor the Arab countries
have any right to interfere, calibrated its response in such a way
that it could not win. Instead of doing a quiet deal with Hizbullah
to free its soldiers, it launched an all-out assault on Lebanon.
Reports indicate that Israel has already dropped a greater tonnage
of bombs on the country than it did during Sharon’s invasion
in 1982. The stated purpose was to force a significant portion of
the Lebanese to demand that the government disarm Hizbullah once
and for all. That failed to happen. Israel’s massive destruction
of Lebanon has had the effect of improving Hizbullah’s standing
in the country. Its popularity had been low since last year, when
it alone refused to demand the evacuation of the Syrian army after
the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.
Hizbullah sensed that Washington was orchestrating the anti-Syrian
campaign for its own – rather than Lebanon’s – benefit.

Syria had,
after all, helped found Hizbullah after Israel’s invasion –
and encouraged it to face down and defeat the occupation, as well
as to drive the Americans from Lebanon. Syria in turn allowed Iran,
whose religious leaders gave direction to Hizbullah and whose Revolutionary
Guards provided valuable tactical instruction, to send weapons through
its territory to Lebanon. Hizbullah’s leaders nevertheless
have sufficiently strong support to assert their independence of
both sponsors whenever their interests or philosophies clash. (I
have first-hand, if minor, experience of this. When Hizbullah kidnapped
me in full view of a Syrian army checkpoint in 1987, Syria insisted
that I be released to show that Syrian control of Lebanon could
not be flouted. Hizbullah, unfortunately, ignored the request.)
Despite occasional Syrian pressure, Hizbullah has refused to go
into combat against any other Lebanese militia. It remained aloof
from the civil war and concentrated on defeating Israel and its
SLA surrogates.

Hizbullah’s
unspectacular showing in the first post-Syrian parliamentary elections
was largely due to changes in electoral law but may also be traced
in part to its perceived pro-Syrian stance. Now, Israel has rescued
Hizbullah and made its secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, not
only the most popular man in Lebanon – but in the whole Arab
world. An opinion poll commissioned by the Beirut Centre for Research
and Information found that 80 per cent of Lebanese Christians supported
Hizbullah; the figure for other communities was even higher. It
was not insignificant that, when false reports came in that Hizbullah
had sunk a second Israeli warship, the area that fired the loudest
celebratory shots in the air was Ashrafieh, the heart of Christian
East Beirut. Unlike in 1982, when it could rely on some of the Christian
militias, Israel now has no friends in Lebanon.

Israel misjudged
Lebanon’s response to its assaults, just as Hizbullah misjudged
Israeli opinion. Firing its rockets into Israel did not, as it may
have planned, divide Israelis and make them call for an end to the
war. Israelis, like the Lebanese, rallied to their fighters in a
contest that is taking on life and death proportions for both countries.
Unlike Israel, which has repeatedly played out the same failed scenario
in Lebanon since its first attack on Beirut in 1968, Hizbullah has
a history of learning from its mistakes. Seeing the Israeli response
to his rocket bombardment of Haifa and Netanya in the north, Nasrallah
has not carried out his threat to send rockets as far as Tel Aviv.
He now says he will do this only if Israel targets the centre of
Beirut.

If the UN had
any power, or the United States exercised its power responsibly,
there would have been an unconditional ceasefire weeks ago and an
exchange of prisoners. The Middle East could then have awaited the
next crisis. Crises will inevitably recur until the Palestine problem
is solved. But Lebanon would not have been demolished, hundreds
of people would not have died and the hatred between Lebanese and
Israelis would not have become so bitter.

On
31 July, the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, said: ‘This
is a unique opportunity to change the rules in Lebanon.’ Yet
Israel itself is playing by the same old unsuccessful rules. It
is ordering Lebanon to disarm Hizbullah or face destruction, just
as in 1975 it demanded the dismantling of the PLO. Then, many Lebanese
fought the PLO and destroyed the country from within. Now, they
reason, better war than another civil war: better that the Israelis
kill us than that we kill ourselves. What else can Israel do to
them? It has bombed comprehensively, destroyed the country’s
expensively restored infrastructure, laid siege to it and sent its
troops back in. Israel still insists that it will destroy Hizbullah
in a few weeks, although it did not manage to do so between 1982
and 2000 when it had thousands of troops on the ground and a local
proxy force to help it. What is its secret weapon this time?

This article
originally appeared in the London
Review of Books
for August 17, 2006.

August
18, 2006

Charles
Glass [send him mail]
is the author, most recently, of The
Northern Front
. See his
website
.

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