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Lessons from Lebanon

The picture stares out at me from the computer. It is of a child, a dead child. She is being carried by a middle-aged man. He extends her towards the camera. Her arms are stretched to the sides, eerily resembling Christ’s crucifixion. Grey dust covers her hair. Her head looks down. The man holding her is looking to the side, his flushed face both angry and grieving.

It is a picture from Qana, Lebanon. This is where, it is believed, Jesus performed his first miracle by converting water to wine. No miracles anymore though. The last time Qana made the headlines was in 1996 when Israeli bombs killed 100 civilians taking shelter in a UN building. On Sunday, July the 30th, again, at least 54 civilians including 34 children were killed in the town in indiscriminate Israeli bombings.

These deaths are part of a large offensive Israel has taken against Hezbollah to free two Israeli soldiers kidnapped by the group. Since the offensive began on the 18th of July, more than 800 Lebanese (mostly civilians) and 60 Israelis have been killed. Almost a million have been displaced.

The international community, for the most part, remained silent. Russia and France complained about the excessive use of force. The US voiced implicit support. Even when four UN observers were killed, Kofi Annan expressed shock and disbelief but no outrage. Israel took the silence as approval. Then Qana happened, and everything changed, at least in the attitude of the international community. Israel has decided to suspend air raids but intensify ground operations. At least, it will mean fewer civilian casualties.

Concerning the legitimacy of such offensive, we need to look at the geopolitical situation in the area. Surrounded by hostile neighbors, Israel has every right to ensure its existence and the security of its citizens. Groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, and states like Iran and Syria do not accept Israel as a legitimate state. Furthermore, they have sworn destruction of Israel. Syria actively backs Hezbollah for two main reasons – to maintain a strong political influence in Lebanon, and due to sectarian reasons (Hezbollah is a Shiite organization). Given these circumstances, Israel inevitably would want to finish Hezbollah off once and for all.

However, will Israel be better off after the offensive ends? I think not. Before the offensive, Hezbollah was at its weakest in terms of political support among the Lebanese people and there was speculation that it would turn into a mainstream political party. Syria too had recently been forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon after the murder of Rafiq Harriri. While Israel’s offensive may militarily weaken Hezbollah for a while, in the long run, the offensive is counter-productive. Hezbollah’s support has grown overwhelmingly. And incidents like Qana will only radicalize the local people.

The same tendency we have seen in Nepal. In order to suppress the Maoist insurgency, starting from Girija, all Nepali governments sought military solutions, giving the police and later the army, excessive rights to use force. This gave the Maoists plenty of recruits. In the villages, the people feared the Maoists, but hated the government more. Had the government sought to alleviate poverty, address the issues that had alienated a large part of the population of Nepal, the insurgency would have never gained the momentum that it did. Instead, the government approved the use of brutal force.

It sounds too wishy-washy – strengthen civil society, encourage democracy, decentralize, address issues of alienation. But that is the only way to curb fundamentalisms – religious or ideological. Military solutions only exacerbate the problem. Had the international community tried to strengthen democracy in Lebanon instead of merely paying lip service to their spirit of revolution, perhaps Hezbollah would just have faded away. It would take a long time, but patience is what we need in these times, not jingoistic military actions.

History repeats itself, and why not? The politicians never seem to learn. In 1996, Israel declared a ceasefire after the Qana incident. While this seems unlikely to happen this time, the international community, as ineffectual as it is, should spend all its energy on promoting democracy and strengthening civil society. To begin with, they could deploy an international force (NATO, if not UN peacekeepers) to assist in humanitarian aid and help rebuild Lebanon.

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