17 July 2006

Hezbollah and the art of the possible

Hezbollah and the art of the possible
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - The decision by Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general of Hezbollah, to bomb the northern Israeli town of Haifa was received with mixed emotions in Lebanon and the Arab world. Those who wanted to see pain inflicted on Israel organized massive parades in his favor in Damascus, Amman, Baghdad and Cairo.

Others, however, claimed that Nasrallah was leading the Arabs to where Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser had led them in 1967 - to unforgivable defeat. Because of Nasser's adventurism, the Arabs lost the Golan Heights, the Sinai Peninsula, Jerusalem and the West Bank. Like Nasser, they claim, Nasrallah is a true patriot, but both leaders were greatly misinformed about the might of the enemy, and the power of their own armies.

They also underestimated Israel's standing and friends in the international community, which since 1967 have exceeded those of the Arabs - at least in quantity. Many in the Arab world, including the regimes of Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, see Nasrallah as the new Nasser who will lead his people to certain defeat. Saudi Arabia even issued an official statement warning against "irresponsible adventurism adopted by certain elements within the state" in Lebanon.

The Saudis did not, however, mention Hezbollah by name. It would be only natural for the Saudis, who are historically at odds with Iran, and tactical allies of Saad al-Hariri, the current leader of Lebanon's Sunni community and a member of parliament, to oppose the adventurism of Nasrallah. Too much Saudi money and investment, from the days of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, is at stake in Lebanon.

The Saudis are the traditional backers of the Sunni community that is led by the Hariri family, which wants a Westernized, economy-oriented country and not a hotbed for revolutionary warfare. They cannot afford to losing their influence in Lebanon and have it replaced by that of Iran - which is exactly what happens whenever Hezbollah gets the upper hand in Lebanese politics.

For his part, in an inflammatory speech, Nasrallah addressed the Saudis directly (but also without mentioning them by name), saying, "We have been adventurers for all our life and brought nothing but honor and freedom for our country."

Sunday's rocket attacks on Haifa hit a train station on Shenem Beach and caused havoc among the port city's 270,000 residents. Nine Israelis were killed and another 23 were wounded. It was the first time Haifa had been attacked since it was taken from the Arabs in the Arab-Israeli War of 1948.

In addition to raising the moral of Nasrallah's supporters (and fears of his critics from what responses the attack would generate), the attack on Haifa proved that the Hezbollah leader was not kidding when he said that he could strike deep into the Israeli interior.

Not only did Nasrallah bomb Haifa, but he also landed missiles on the city of Acre in the western Galilee, 152 kilometers from Jerusalem. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said there would be "far-reaching consequences" for the attack, warning all citizens in Tel Aviv to be on high alert for more Hezbollah rockets.

On Friday, Nasrallah had caused more divisions in the Arab world. Just when it seemed he was being defeated, he came out on Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV and announced that an Israeli warship off the coast of Beirut had been hit by Hezbollah rockets. Four Israeli sailors were reported missing after the attack. According to Al-Jazeera reports, the Israelis then tried to land paratroopers in Sidon, but their attempt was foiled by Hezbollah.

In a weekend speech, Nasrallah again defiantly addressed the Israelis, saying, "You wanted an open war and we are ready for an open war." He added, "Soon you will find how stupid your new government is and how it is incapable of reading the situation. It has no experience. You said in your opinion polls that you believe me more than anyone else. Believe me now - you attacked every house in Lebanon and you will pay for that."

He then said: "Our homes will not be the only ones to be destroyed. Our children will not be the only ones to die." Then Nasrallah landed rockets inside Israel, on the city of Tiberias - another attack unprecedented since 1948.

Israel responded to Hezbollah's attacks with even mightier force. For days now it has been bombing the southern suburbs of Beirut, where Hezbollah and the Shi'ite population are densely located. In all, more than 500,000 people live in the district, known as al-Dahiya.

Residents have left their homes and are sleeping in the streets. Education Minister Khalid Qabbani has ordered that all public schools remain open to serve as shelters to the displaced.

During the civil war (1975-90) the residents of al-Dahiya used to flee to other parts of Beirut whenever their neighborhoods were unsafe to live in, and vice-versa when Beirut was in flames. Today, both Beirut and al-Dahiya are unsafe. The offices of Hezbollah in the suburbs of the Lebanese capital were bombed, as was its radio station Al-Nour and television station Al-Manar. The party's nine-floor headquarters was destroyed, as was the political office in Haret Hreik (a leading Shi'ite neighborhood).

The country, Beirut included, currently lives in complete blackouts. At the time of writing, more than 100 Lebanese have been killed and another 300 have been wounded.

No end in sight
The crisis in Lebanon is far from coming to an end. Olmert has put forward his country's terms for a ceasefire, which includes the disarming of Hezbollah and the return of the two Israeli soldiers captured inside Lebanon last Wednesday. Hezbollah has turned down both requests, insisting on a prisoner exchange with Israel.

But for the sake of argument, let's say that Israel agrees to Hezbollah's terms and exchanges prisoners with Nasrallah. It has done it in the past, with Nasrallah himself in 2004 and with Ahmad Jibril, the secretary general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), in November 1985.

The "Jibril Deal" was amazing, when the PFLP-GC traded six Israeli soldiers held by the Palestinians for 4,765 Palestinians held in Israeli jails in Lebanon. Some criticize Israel for giving up hundreds of Palestinians ("terrorists" in the eyes of the Israeli public) for the sake of a few - or one, Israeli soldier.

Israeli leaders, however, were never embarrassed by such action since it reflected high ethics and was considered true patriotism to pay a price no matter how high for the release or remains of a captured Israel soldier. It is also viewed as a great sacrifice to give comfort to the families of Israeli troops.

One example, however, should immediately come to the minds of the Israelis who are refusing to listen to Hezbollah's requests. It is the case of Israeli Air Force officer Ron Arad, who parachuted into Lebanon when his aircraft was damaged while on a mission to attack Palestinian bases in October 1986.

Arad was captured by the Shi'ite militia Amal, whose members broke off to create Hezbollah. Among the members of Amal at the time was the young Nasrallah. Arad's captors asked for a price to release him. The Israeli government, led at the time by Shimon Perez, refused to give in to pressure and said no, thinking that it could release him by force. It failed, and Arad disappeared.

The moral of the story is that military force does not always achieve the results sought by Israel. Israel certainly does not want the one 19-year-old held in Gaza to disappear, nor does it want Hezbollah to kill the two soldiers it has captive in Lebanon.

Jerusalem is currently asking for the release of the two prisoners and the disarming of Hezbollah. While releasing the prisoners is possible, if Israel offers Hezbollah something in return, getting Nasrallah to disarm is out of the question.

Israel should remember the words of German chancellor Otto von Bismarck: "Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable ..." And Israel forcing Hezbollah to disarm is impossible. Also, continuing this war to force Hezbollah to disarm is impossible for Israel.

Napoleon Bonaparte once said, "I have tasted command. I like it. And I will never give it up." Nasrallah has been in command of the largest armed sect in Lebanon since 1992. He is a highly popular leader who has a wide power base that spreads throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds. He is wholeheartedly backed by Syria and Iran, and the Lebanese Shi'ites (40% of the country's 3.7 million) are overwhelmingly with him.

Disarming Hezbollah, and writing them off the political scene in Lebanon, would be like asking the Shi'ites of Iraq, who now have real power since the downfall of Saddam Hussein, to give it up.

The Shi'ites of Lebanon have the exact same dilemma. They, too, had been the underclass in Lebanon, maltreated by Sunnis and Christians for more than 100 years. They had their day in sun under the leadership of Imam Musa al-Sadr in the 1970s, and Nasrallah from 1990s onward.

They believe that holding on to their arms is a must to protect them from further Israeli atrocities in south Lebanon, or in the case of sectarian violence inside Lebanon, from their opponents in the Lebanese political scene. Or from anybody who tries to disarm them by force, and restore them to the status of inferiors.

For all of these reasons, the Israelis will have to amend their proposal for a ceasefire in Lebanon if they want an end to hostilities. To gain the release of their arrested soldiers, they must talk to Hezbollah. And they must pay the price - Hezbollah's price - to avoid repeating the fate of Ron Arad.

Further, disarming Hezbollah should not be raised by Israel at this time as no one in Lebanon has the power to do it. Not even the Hariri bloc, which is backed by France, can get the Shi'ite guerrillas to lay down their arms.

The only solution would be for Israel to relinquish the Sheba Farms and release the remaining Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails. In effect, it means doing what Nasrallah wants.

Or, it can continue in this bone-breaking war, to see which party falters first.

And as long as this happens, Hezbollah can play the Israeli card. Nasrallah can say, "We cannot lay down the arms of Hezbollah because Israel is still a threat to Lebanon."

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing .)

No comments: