In December 1968, Israeli commandos destroyed 13 aircraft of Lebanon’s national carrier, Middle East Airlines, at Beirut airport. Why? One of the two Palestinians who hijacked an El Al jet five months earlier had lived in Lebanon. The message then was what it would be for the next ten years: Lebanon must disarm the Palestinians. But its fragile government knew that Sunni Muslims, as well as its leftists and Arab nationalists, would resist any attacks on Palestinians. The Palestinians were their defence against the armed Christian establishment. So the Lebanese faced a choice: destruction by Israel or self-destruction through civil war.
Lebanon’s postponement of a decision cost it dear: years of Israeli artillery fire, commando raids and aerial bombardment that displaced thousands of Shia Muslim villagers from the south to the new slums on Beirut’s outskirts. In 1975, civil war finally came, without weakening the Palestinian commandos as Israel had hoped it would. Three years later, Israel attempted to put this right by invading southern Lebanon, but still it failed to disarm the Palestinians. In 1982, it went all the way to Beirut to expel the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Thus, a new enemy was born: Hizballah, who took up arms for the occupied Shiites of the south. Any Israeli soldier who served in Lebanon will tell you that Hezbollah was an adversary more tenacious than the PLO had ever been. It took 18 years and a thousand dead soldiers before Israel conceded defeat and left.
Now Israel is back to face down a Hezbollah that would never have existed but for its 1982 invasion. It is a safe bet that Hezbollah will be strengthened by this experience. Its popularity was waning because it supported the Syrian presence in Lebanon when all other Lebanese wanted Syria out. As soon as Syria’s last troops departed in April 2005, Hezbollah found itself isolated. It was trying to manoeuvre itself into a better relationship with the other Lebanese, but it had a lot of ground to make up. Now rescue has come in the form of Israel’s bombardment.
Hezbollah’s harshest critics, including many Christians, tell me they are supporting the Shia militia as the only armed force resisting the Israel onslaught. In a way, Israel has made Hezbollah’s case against disarmament for it, showing that the Lebanese army cannot protect the country but dedicated guerrillas can fight back. Far from isolating Hezbollah, Israel has simply made its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, the most popular man in the Arab world.
Hezbollah started this battle with Israel when it captured two Israeli soldiers – in order to trade them for Lebanese prisoners in Israeli prisons (taken just as illegally over an international border) and to support the Palestinians under attack by Israel in Gaza. Hezbollah’s alliance with the Palestinians comes from its roots. Many of its first militants, before they got religion, had been trained by Palestinians. After the PLO left in 1982 and the Palestinians of Lebanon were disarmed, Hezbollah became their primary protector. When another Lebanese Shia Muslim militia, Amal, attacked the Palestinian camps in the mid-1980s, Hezbollah sided with the Palestinians – not only against fellow Shias in Amal but in opposition to its backers in Syria. Only Hezbollah takes up arms on behalf of the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, but all of Lebanon is paying for it.
Fifty years ago, CIA agents were finding their way in the newly independent Middle East. One of them, Ray Close, has written how his attempt to stage a pro-American coup Damascus in 1957 forced Syria into the Russian embrace. His colleague Wilbur Crane Eveland delivered money to Lebanon’s president to rig the 1958 elections; and Archie Roosevelt (son of Theodore) tried to buy Egypt’s president, Gamal Abdel Nasser. Eveland’s machinations led to the civil war of 1958, and Nasser ridiculed the CIA by spending the bribe money to build a tower in Cairo known universally as Roosevelt’s Erection. Close, whose own forebears were missionaries in 19th-century Lebanon, has embraced a new mission: to prevent imperial adventures by the US and its Israeli client that devour the innocent and invariably fail.
In a recent open e-mail, Close wrote: “One of the definitions of madness is the repetition countless times of the same action, always expecting a different result. For more than half a century, the Israelis have been applying the tactic of massively disproportionate retaliation to every provocative act of resistance attempted by the Palestinians, expecting every time that this would bring peace and security to all the people of the Holy Land. Every single time they have done this, it has backfired. Every single time [his italics].”
Today, Israel is conveying the same message to Lebanon’s government as in 1968, 1973, 1978 and 1982: disarm the guerrillas or face destruction. Yet Israel knows that the Lebanese government can no more disarm Hezbollah than it could the PLO. Now, as before, Muslim soldiers would refuse to obey orders to attack their co-religionists, the army would collapse and civil war would follow. Instead, Lebanon is living with the alternative: Israel’s annihilation of Beirut airport, the country’s road network, telecommunications systems, army bases, water supply and power stations – the entire infrastructure that the country rebuilt when the civil war ended in 1990 – and the slaughter of hundreds so far of its citizens.
What will Israel’s latest adventure leave in Lebanon apart from angry and unemployed recruits to Hezbollah with new grievances against their neighbours to the south? What reason is there to suppose that the old actions will prompt a different reaction? What is the definition of madness?