Josh Gellers is a graduate student at Columbia University and a freelance writer. He received a BA in political science magna cum laude with a minor in geography and a certificate in international relations from the University of Florida. Valedictorian of his graduating class, Josh served as vice president of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Student Council and editor-in-chief of the UF International Review, the university's only political science publication and has interned in Washington with the Department of Commerce. Josh is a junior fellow of the American Academy of Political and Social Science and has presented research on Latin America, El NiÃ±o, popular culture, and American voting behavior at several state and international conferences. Josh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
July 20, 2006
Reading the comments made by readers of the Huffington Post always brings a smile to my face and, for better or worse, they usually seem to present a general, albeit limited, consensus on an issue. In terms of the comments made by avid HuffPo readers on both Bill Maher and Arianna Huffington’s articles regarding the Middle East’s most recent neighborhood spat between Israel and Lebanon, the consensus seems to be that people disagree with how Israel is conducting itself. Unfortunately, reading these responses has made this sardonic editorialist acutely aware of the horribly one-sided job that the mass media is doing of depicting the situation and its circumstances.
But before jumping into the attentive computer-savvy public’s wildly distorted view of the current crisis, it is essential to provide some background information. This month’s volatile exchange between Israel and Lebanon has historic roots dating back to the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict, when Palestinian refugees sought to relocate in southern Lebanon. In 1968, Israel was invaded by Palestinians from Lebanon who also launched rockets into Israeli territories. In 1975, a civil war erupted in Lebanon as a result of the struggle to achieve religiously proportionate representation in the government when four Christians leaving a church in Beirut were killed. Shortly after, twenty-seven Palestinians were killed in response. The two main factions in this dispute were Muslims, who hoped to have a larger say in government, and Christians, who controlled the Lebanese government. When it came time to choose sides (as is customary in Middle East conflicts) the Palestinian Liberation Organization supported its fellow Muslims and Israel supported the Christians, specifically the Maronites.
Eventually the Muslims became disenfranchised with the PLO, however, and the radical Islamist group led by Yassir Arafat seized control of southern Lebanon. The PLO conducted its own attack on Israel with reckless abandon until Israeli forces invaded Lebanon in 1978 after Fatah militants killed thirty-seven Israelis. The United Nations Security Council demanded Israel’s retreat from Lebanon. Israel withdrew from Lebanon later in 1978 but maintained a limited presence by establishing a security zone in the southern part of the country protected by the South Lebanon Army, supported militarily by Israel. A cease-fire was enacted in 1981 but it was largely ineffectual due to the fact that the PLO could still attack Israel from Jordan and the West Bank leaving Israel with no way to respond without violating the agreement. Reaching the boiling point again, Israel finally decided to invade Lebanon. Another UN Security Council resolution on June 6, 1982 called for Israel’s swift withdrawal but the United States used its veto on the measure. On June 26, 1982 the UN Security Council attempted to put through yet another resolution demanding Israel’s withdrawal and it was met by another United States veto. The year 1982 also saw the creation of a Lebanese Islamic militia group called Hezbollah, based on the radical fundamentals of Iranian dictator Ayatollah Khomeini.
Progress was made in 1989 when the Taif Agreement was reached, ending the Lebanese civil war and creating more religious equality in the government. This landmark achievement was greeted by the assassination of Lebanon’s newly elected president in a car bombing and Lebanese military leader Michel Aoun’s dissolution of Parliament. Hezbollah continued to grow following the Taif Agreement, which called for the “disbanding of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias.” To the chagrin of Israel and much of the world, the Lebanese government refused to comply with this aspect of the Taif Agreement, citing the group’s legitimacy as a resistance to Israel’s continued occupation. This is a major point of contention in this conflict.
In case anyone is in unaware of Hezbollah’s intentions, statements made by the group’s leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, should assuage any doubt. In a 1999 rally, Nasrallah told his audience of cheering supporters that “There is no solution to the conflict in this region except with the disappearance of Israel” and “I promise Israel that it will see more suicide attacks, for we will write our history with blood.” During the rally, the air filled with chants such as “Death to Israel, death to America” and “Jerusalem is ours” while members of the crowd trampled flags of Israel and the United States. Not much ambiguity there.
In May 2000, Israel withdrew forces earlier than was required from Lebanon, an action certified by the United Nations and celebrated by the Lebanese. While Israel was busy complying with UN orders, Hezbollah was deemed the unofficial military force of southern Lebanon by the government and began instigating violence in the region known as Shebaa Farms, which militia members claim as Lebanese territory but in actuality is formerly Syrian land occupied by Israel. Hezbollah and the Lebanese government maintain that Shebaa Farms “should have been included in the Israeli withdrawal in 2000.” Since when is wishful thinking grounds for warfare?
In the years following the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, a dispute over natural resources heightened political tensions. The BBC News reported that in 2001, Lebanon began “pumping water from a tributary of the River Jordan to supply a southern border village despite opposition from Israel” and in 2002, Lebanon announced plans to divert water from the Wazzani River, which “provides 10% of [Israel’s] drinking water.” Israel responded by issuing threats regarding the unlawful diversion of the river.
In April 2002, Hezbollah guerillas shot rockets at Israeli soldiers stationed at posts in Shebaa Farms. The attack prompted Israel to retaliate with air raids and artillery fire on Hezbollah targets. In January of 2003, Hezbollah militant forces shot “anti-tank rockets and artillery rounds” at Israeli soldiers stationed in the disputed Shebaa Farms area. Israel came back with “artillery fire and air strikes.” One year later, Hezbollah launched an anti-tank missile at two Israeli soldiers operating a bulldozer that was “clearing mines on Israeli soil.” Hezbollah claimed that the bulldozer had encroached upon their land while “Israeli army radio said the bulldozer was on the Israeli side of the border.” Starting to notice a pattern? In 2004 the UN passed a resolution with language identical to the Taif Agreement, once again calling for the removal and disbanding of militia forces in Lebanon. As expected, the Lebanese government stood behind Hezbollah and refused to remove or disband the group.
The most recent military engagement conducted by Israel has occurred as a reaction to Hezbollah’s “Operation Truthful Promise,” an oath to reclaim Lebanese prisoners by capturing Israeli soldiers and forcing an exchange. How poetically scrupulous in intent. In the process of accomplishing this valiant mission, eight Israeli soldiers were killed and two were kidnapped. Enter the current state of affairs.
It appears as though most (dare I say all) of Israel’s military responses have come on the wings of a prior attack by Hezbollah. This tit-for-tat arrangement has perpetuated violence and destruction in the region and yet many in the blogosphere seem comfortably at home condemning only Israel for merely responding to unprovoked attacks based on what amounts to the Lebanese dissatisfaction with internationally sanctioned terms of a peace agreement. I call it being a sore loser. A sore loser is someone who is not content with an outcome, but then again when has the word “content” been synonymous with any action of any scale in the Arab world?
So where does Hezbollah currently stand? As of the 2005 Lebanese Parliamentary elections, Hezbollah holds twenty-three seats in government. To put Hezbollah’s presence in American terms, it would be kind of like giving the Italian mafia sixteen seats in the Senate and seventy seats in the House of Representatives. Hezbollah, the same militant force that represents Lebanon’s largest religious faction in government, has been designated a terrorist group by the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, the Netherlands, and Canada despite the fact that it never claims responsibility for any terrorist action. At least Al-Qaeda sends out video confessions. Hopefully, I have presented enough historical evidence to lay some lingering confusions to rest. Now onto a refutation of two of the most prevalent critiques of Israel during the most recent chapter of the Israel-Lebanon conflict.
One of the most popular claims being made is that Israel’s response to having eight of its soldiers killed and two soldiers kidnapped is disproportionate to the force utilized by Lebanon. Never before have I read so many people adhere to one of the main operating procedures of American law enforcement- proportionate response- almost to a fault. It’s funny how police are often slapped on the wrist for shooting someone on a split-second decision when it appears as though a subject fitting the description of a recent culprit appears to be brandishing a firearm, yet the Internet cyber-public thinks that Israel should adopt a Biblically-derived “eye for an eye” attitude towards other countries when in fact the media has yet to place the entire Israel-Lebanon conflict in a meaningful context.
What a terrifically flawed double standard! Based on what appears to be the e-public’s unified demand, the best course of action for Israel would be to bomb the northern territory of Lebanon, infiltrate the country, and kidnap two of its soldiers. Then both parties could merely exchange bodies as if the countries were playing secret Santa. Unlike its hostile surrounding countries, Israel does not target civilians or places where there might be a lot of them. That is a doctrine explicitly used by the terrorist factions masquerading as governments of nearby Arab states. While the mass media highlights the civilian death toll that has increased as the days have worn on, it curiously neglects to mention how civilian casualties are a sad byproduct of any kind of warfare and that unlike its seemingly ivory-soaked neighbors, the Israeli military has not adopted the strategy of bombing schools, places of worship, shopping centers, and restaurants. If Lebanon really wants to play fair, Israel should relinquish its casualty-minimizing, military installation-focused response and just go for the gut. At least then things would be proportionate.
This leads aptly to the second popular assertion, namely that Israel is strategically targeting Lebanese civilians. This bold statement would be severely damaging to Israel’s cause (and in a haphazard, credulous way it actually has been) if it weren’t for the fact that this assumption is based on a critically impotent understanding of Hezbollah’s military tactics. It is well documented through photographic and cinematic footage that Hezbollah willingly employs the use of civilians as physical shields. According to Human Rights Watch, “the use of human shields is a war crime” and “Israel must take the risk to civilians into account.” However, this leaves Israel open to a loophole in the discussion of civilian risk assessment. What if, just what if, Hezbollah hid their military installations among the Lebanese citizenry? Why, then anytime Israel wished to respond to an unprovoked attack, they would be guilty of killing innocent civilians! For Hezbollah, using civilians as shields has two benefits.
First, it helps to hide terrorist operations in unsuspecting areas such as neighborhoods. If these areas are located, Hezbollah must either bank on the idea that Israel will not use deadly force (if you believe this, then I am the Easter Bunny) or that when they do respond with deadly force, a civilian death toll will place Israel under intensely unflattering light, hopefully to the point of international scorn. Second, the outcome of Israel’s military response is the spinning of the Arab world’s well-oiled propaganda wheel. Out of context, it becomes infinitely easier to paint Israel as the villain since it is willing to resort to the senseless slaughter of civilian lives. The terrorists of Hezbollah, on the other hand, truly have no sanctity for life when they are willing to put their own in harm’s way in order to engender hatred towards Israel. This is not to say that loss of civilian life is a positive thing under any circumstances. The point is not to argue that some civilians’ lives are more expendable than others, but rather that Hezbollah has no qualms with putting civilian lives at risk for the sake of turning people against their sworn enemy.
If nothing else, it is my sincerest hope that readers of this article will come to understand the complexities of the issue at hand instead of jumping to irrational, emotion-based conclusions inspired by headlines and talking heads. There is no reason why bloodshed must persist and the first step to ending this conflict begins with informing a public that already has prematurely formed strong opinions about who is right and who is wrong. For the sake of the future, I urge those HuffPo commentators sharing choice words about Israel to consider the merits of history and the truth before blindly adopting the stance of a sensationalistic, advertising dollar-driven mass media.