In 1982, an unusual sight appeared on the Mediterranean horizon. Like the death ship in Star Wars, a World War II battleship threatened the Lebanese shore. US naval spokesmen claimed the USS New Jersey was the most fearsome artillery platform on the high seas. The Reagan administration had re-commissioned her and a few other seagoing dinosaurs to pursue gunboat diplomacy from Nicaragua to Iran. The New Jersey’s advance propaganda impressed the Lebanese, who had already endured seven years of civil war, Syrian occupation and two Israeli invasions. The sixteen-inch guns aboard the New Jersey, the Navy said, would send payloads the size of Volkswagens to clear areas big as football fields. Why a Volkswagen rather than a small Ford was never explained, anymore than whether the football referred to was the kind the Lebanese or the Americans played. A Marine officer I knew pointed at the summit of Mount Lebanon above Beirut one day. He told me that, if the New Jersey fired at that mountain, it wouldn’t be there anymore. It seemed an extravagant claim, but most of us were willing to believe him – until the New Jersey actually fired.
When the New Jersey unleashed its Volkswagens on 14 December 1983, we saw flames a mile away shoot out of its muzzles. What we didn’t see was much destruction – not by Lebanese standards anyway. A few houses in the Druze hills of the Shouf were demolished. Hundreds of people, mostly Shiites and Druze, died. The summit of Mount Lebanon remained intact. There were no flying Volkswagens, no football fields. The Lebanese, faced with a bluff called, lost their fear of the New Jersey and, indeed, of the United States. They continued blowing up American embassies and military barracks. By February 1984, the New Jersey killed a Syrian army general while covering the “redeployment” of the Marines from Beirut. The Marines were ordered to abandon Lebanon and the French, British and Italian allies that Secretary of State George Schultz had conned into joining them in Lebanon as the so-called Multi-National Force. US spokesmen insisted that redeployment did not mean retreat. It looked like retreat to us in Lebanon, especially when the fleet and the Marines next redeployed to the United States. The New Jersey was mothballed in 1991, the year the US threw Iraq out of Kuwait and invited the Syrians to end the war by assuming control of most of Lebanon.
The biggest military mistake the Americans made in Lebanon was to use the New Jersey. As a threat, she caused fear. In reality, she caused a bit of damage. I won’t go into the political mistakes, which were so many that the Reaganite Mideast specialists almost make George W. Bush’s neo-cons look competent (I said, almost). An army can frighten people with a devastating weapon, until it uses it. Israel has used its weapons so often in Lebanon that the Lebanese don’t care. They are suffering, but they are standing up to the displacement of a half million people and the loss of many hundreds of men, women and children. “The resistance isn’t playing the role of victim,” Azmi Bishara, a Palestinian Arab Member of the Israeli Knesset wrote in Al Ahram Weekly. “It didn’t ask for international sympathy with the victims but for solidarity among freedom-seeking peoples.” So, what other tricks can Israel perform that are not old-hat to the Lebanese? Bombardment? The Israelis have been bombing Lebanon since the late 1960s. Invasion? They played that card in 1978 and 1982 and left a thousand soldiers dead on the field before they withdrew in 2000. What’s left in the arsenal? Occupation, again? The Lebanese realized sometime in 1983 that Israeli soldiers on Lebanese soil were not ferocious warriors so much as targets. Israel could give them more targets, like the eight or nine Israeli soldiers who died on Wednesday in the small Shiite border village of Bint Jbeil (a place that made shoes until Israel occupied and nearly emptied it in 1978).
Israeli propaganda, except in the United States where there isn’t any other kind, doesn’t work its old magic. In 1982, a few people may have believed that Ariel Sharon sent his troops into Lebanon to avenge the wounding of Israel’s ambassador to Britain, but no one is falling for the ruse that the current devastation is an operation to rescue two captured Israeli solders. The planners are having such problems with that slender pretext that, unusually, they have yet to give this mission a name. The operation that dare not speak its name has yet to join its immediate predecessors, Operation Accountability in 1993 and Operation Grapes of Wrath in 1996, in the list of creatively branded onslaughts. How about calling this one Operation Infinite Repetition?
Operation Cover-Up might do, given that the soldiers scurrying into Lebanon and being shot by Hizballah today are trying to make up for the incompetence of officers who let three men under their command be captured by Hamas and Hizballah. Where is the American taxpayer’s money going if officers cannot keep their troops from abduction by young guerrillas whom they watch day and night with the most sophisticated technological eavesdropping devices that American-Israeli genius can produce? If the army had not been so careless, they would not now be bombing the hell out of Gaza and Lebanon – unless, of course, the politicians wanted to bomb the hell out of Gaza and Lebanon anyway. If so, what better excuse than a few missing in action?
The prescient Mideast scholar Patrick Seale wrote in the Saudi-owned newspaper Al Hayat on 21 July, “By their cross-border raids and the capture of three Israeli soldiers, Hizballah and Hamas humiliated the Israeli army and dented its deterrent capacity. In Israeli eyes, this cannot go unpunished.” But who should be punished and who should be approached with an offer to save the soldiers’ lives? Perhaps punish the high command for its negligence. Maybe approach Hamas and Hizballah for a trade of the kind Israel and its adversaries have made often – the last time in 2004, when a foolish, allegedly retired Israeli army major allowed himself to be taken in Beirut and Israel freed 400 prisoners to get him back. Israel knows it can pick up another 400 anytime it wants, so what’s the problem? At the moment, it holds almost 10,000 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners and detainees. Using the 2004 ratio as a guide, the quick release of 1,200 detainees would do the trick without costing a single life.
Prime Minister Ehud Ohlmert has come clean with added objectives for Operation Untitled. On 15 July, his spokeswoman Miri Eisen told Agence France Presse, “The Prime Minister is prepared to finish our operations in Lebanon if Hezbollah releases our two soldiers, stops its rocket fire and if the Lebanese Government decides to implement UN Security Council resolution 1559.”The resolution requires the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon. That means Hizballah, because the other militias disarmed under Syrian pressure years ago. Hizballah claimed however that its armed wing was a resistance movement – the only one capable of protecting south Lebanon from Israeli attack – and not a militia. On 21 July, another spokesman added a new Israeli shopping item, “One of the conditions for a ceasefire is that Hezbollah no longer receives arms supplies from Iran and Syria once it is enforced.” As Operation Save the High Command annihilated Lebanon’s post-war infrastructure – the airport, roads, bridges, army bases, clinics, telecommunications networks and lots of houses – without achieving anything, Ohlmert added a new condition: a NATO force in south Lebanon to stop Hizballah from hitting Israel. How about a force in north Israel to protect Lebanon?
This will go on and on. When Operation Get-Even ends, the respite may last a year or so. There will be other crises, other kidnappings by both sides, other murders, other wars. And it will not stop until Israel makes peace on terms that the Palestinians and Israel’s neighbors have said they will accept: enforcement of UN Security Council Resolution 242 and the end of Israeli land confiscations in the West Bank. If you think the land grab is over, ask the Palestinians whose property is fenced off and seized for the Israeli settlers almost daily. If you think Israel is content to leave the natives alone to get along with it, ask the Bedouin of the Negev desert (who serve in the Israeli army and have been loyal citizens) about the creative deployment of the Monsanto-manufactured herbicide Roundup Ready to destroy their crops so they will abandon their ancestral lands once and for all. Goat by goat, dunum by dunum, the old Zionist adage went, the settlers redeem the land. As the Arabs lost their goats and their dunums of land, they got bullets and bombs.