Do I see or do I remember?

Elias Khoury writes about the Israeli invasions of Lebanon

It is the time for death in Lebanon. Anyone who has followed the country’s modern history might well be confused. In 2000 Lebanon’s resistance expelled the Israeli army from the land it had occupied in the south. A popular intifada expelled the Syrian army in 2005. How could a minor military operation undertaken by Hizbullah send Lebanon back to square one? We seem to be entering a labyrinth from which nobody can find the way out. The only certainty is that Lebanon is facing destruction, that the dream of restoring the country to independence is on hold.

In 1978 Israel devastated Lebanon and established a military cordon in order to protect its northern settlements from the PLO’s Katyusha rockets. The country became the site of a series of wars, invasions and retreats. Then in 1982 Israel, under the leadership of Menachem Begin, decided that a decisive victory was necessary. Armoured columns invaded Lebanon, and reached the outskirts of Beirut. The objective was to get the Palestinians out of the way and to end their hopes of creating an independent state. Yasir Arafat and his men were forced to leave Lebanon by sea and go into exile in Tunisia.

With the massacres in the camps of Sabra and Shatila, the Israelis visited new humiliations on the Arab world. They were convinced that the confrontation on their northern border was over, and that their armies had managed not only to end the threat against them, but also to subjugate the Palestinians and the Lebanese. It didn’t work out like that. Arafat moved to Ramallah, where he would become the first Palestinian leader after the nakba of 1948 to live until his last days in his homeland, and the Israeli army was forced to withdraw from Lebanon.

Why has the battle between Hizbullah and the Israeli army assumed such proportions now? The question is of course bound up with all the other questions surrounding the Palestine problem, and bound up too with the oil wealth in the Middle East that has become a curse.

Lebanon emerged as a distinct entity after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The state founded in Damascus by King Faisal I after the end of the First World War was supposed to include Lebanon, Syria and Palestine, but then Palestine became a British mandate, and the Zionist movement took over there. After the Second World War and the end of the French mandate in Syria and Lebanon, both countries became independent, but Syria seemed to lose its identity, unsure whether it should ally itself with Iraq or join a political union with Egypt. Then in 1963 there was a Baathist coup in Syria, and Hafiz Assad, an air-force officer, triumphed in the subsequent power struggle, becoming president in 1971. Assad extended his sphere of influence to Lebanon and turned it into a pivot of regional politics during the latter stage of the Cold War.

Lebanon was unaffected by the military revolutions in the Arab East after 1948. It was an oasis of cultural freedom in a region dominated by revolutionary military regimes. It was also the region’s weak spot, vulnerable to outside influence, since the religious diversity of its citizens meant that it was difficult for the state fully to control internal security or foreign policy. There were severe strains in the first years of independence, reaching a climax in 1958 with the surge in Arab nationalism which resulted from Nasser’s influence. A small-scale civil war that year ended in an Egyptian-American settlement after US marines landed in Lebanon.

Since 1978 Lebanon has been subjected to five Israeli invasions, each aimed at destroying rockets: in 1978, 1982, 1993, 1996 and 2006. On each occasion the Israeli army fought only against semi-organised Palestinian and Lebanese militias. Did the Israelis score a victory in 1982? You couldn’t call it that, not after the massacres of Sabra and Shatila, nor could you call 1993 a victory, involving as it did the recognition of the PLO. After Israel’s 2000 withdrawal under fire, during which the inhabitants of northern Israel were required to live in shelters as rockets were launched by Hizbullah, that description seemed even less appropriate.

A war but not a war, because the aggressors did not acknowledge the existence of the other side, until the Palestinians agreed to what was tantamount to surrender at Oslo. But they did not in the end surrender, and Israel took advantage of the attacks of 9/11 to bring down the Palestinians’ more moderate leaders. This led to total chaos in occupied Gaza and the West Bank. The violence that has engulfed Lebanon today is part of this pattern. When Palestinians in Gaza succeeded in capturing one of Israel’s soldiers, Israel refused the logic of reciprocity. Instead it has plunged Gaza into a state of lethal anarchy. Israel refuses to exchange prisoners because it sees Hamas and Hizbullah as terrorists. The problem in Gaza and the West Bank is clear: Israel wants to create cages and ghettos for Palestinians. In Lebanon the situation is more complex.

The Israelis say they do not want to occupy Lebanon. This is also what the Americans say about Iraq. The issue, however, is not what they want but what they are doing. Can Israel tolerate religious and ethnic chaos on its borders? Is it performing a service to the United States by trying to weaken Hizbullah, Iran’s strongest ally in the region, prior to the opening up of the Iranian nuclear file? What is clear, beneath the drone of the missiles hurled at the southern suburbs of Beirut, is that Israel, realising it is incapable of destroying Hizbullah, has decided to destroy Lebanon. But the madness is not just Israeli. Much of the Arab world is following the road to self-destruction, via a fundamentalist ideology that, perhaps unwittingly, reflects the worldview of Bernard Lewis’s disciples, the neo-orientalists.

Lebanon is caught between Israel’s strategy and Syria’s. Israel, like the wolf in sheep’s clothing in Aesop’s fable, has taken on the role of the victim. But Israel also claims that its prey is not a sheep but a wolf, and it’s certainly true that Israel forces it to act like a wolf.

Syria’s strategy, fashioned by the late President Assad and used whenever his regime was under threat, can be understood by adapting the story of Abraham and Isaac. Syria needs a lamb to sacrifice instead of a son. If necessary, it will appear to protect the lamb, making the lamb seem to be wolf-like, even as it waits to be sacrificed.

Lebanon has been caught between these two strategies for thirty years. But now there are new actors on stage: the US and Iran. In the 1980s, the Americans encouraged Iraq to contain Iran by means of a crushing war, just as they gave Syria the task of imposing peace on Lebanon. The fear now is that the US has given Israel a green light to destroy Lebanon. The Iranians adopted sensible policies in Afghanistan and Iraq, and have been the sole beneficiaries of the turmoil of the American war. Iraq has more or less collapsed into their hands: with the withdrawal of the US and British armies it will become a civil war zone directed by Tehran. Afghanistan is permanently on the edge of an abyss. Iran exploits this by trying to destabilise America’s allies in the region. The way the United States and Iran behave on the battlefront in Lebanon will decide the fate not just of Lebanon, but of the whole of the Middle East.

It has been clear during the first days of the confrontation that Hizbullah has prepared for conflict in a manner that has aroused admiration in a region where wars with Israel have resulted only in frustration. It is clear that Hizbullah’s weapons are not only intended for the defence of Lebanon but are being held in reserve for a greater battle, a battle to defend Iranian nuclear weapons. Lebanon has to join the battle against Israel not because it wants to, not because there are still Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails, but because the only options Israel offers the Arab Middle East are to submit or to collaborate in the crushing of the Palestinians.

This is not to defend Hizbullah’s military strategy, or a Syrian vision that is based on exporting tension beyond its borders at the expense of the Lebanese and Palestinian people. An alternative strategy must emerge in the Arab world, before fundamentalism takes over everything, turning every Arab country into a site of battle and destruction. The last bastion of secular resistance, the PLO, has been destroyed. Perhaps Arafat made a mistake at Oslo, but a greater mistake was to allow the corruption of the Palestinian Authority, which meant that it was unable adequately to react to the rising tide of fundamentalism. A fresh vision based on justice, peace and democracy is needed. The problem is the influence of the Arab oil states, which are oligarchic both politically and culturally. Lebanon is today paying the price for their folly and impotence and their subordination to the United States.

I do not exonerate the Lebanese from responsibility for the horrors that are taking place. Building a democratic country is the duty of all Lebanese. The different religious groups have to find a way to unite in a political project. Factionalism and fear will make it impossible to confront the weapons that are destroying a country that has risen from the rubble only to find itself once again buried in rubble.

Before me I see the same images of death that I witnessed 24 years ago. The pictures themselves, the noise of invading aircraft in the skies of Beirut and all over Lebanon, are the same. Do I see or do I remember? When you are incapable of distinguishing between what is in front of you and what you remember, it becomes clear that history teaches nothing – and clear too that what the Israelis call war is not war but merely the first skirmishes of a war that has not yet begun. Woe to anyone who believes that this massacre is war. Since 1973, the Arab world has fought only on the sidelines.

The Israelis should take care not to deceive themselves and believe that they have achieved victory, because the nature of such non-wars is that they can be repeated over and over again.

20 July