Fr Gerard Burns
The Islamic group, Hizbollah, is being blamed for the ghastly war in Lebanon that has brought the deaths of more than 900 Lebanese civilians and 75 Israelis. [Aid agencies say some 800,000 Lebanese have been made refugees as they flee the fighting.] If Hizbollah had not abducted two Israeli soldiers, Israel would not have had to respond with its invasion of Lebanon.
This is simplistic and wrong. The actions of Hizbollah’s military wing may be an international crime, but the ‘problem’ is not simply Hizbollah. The problem lies with the Israeli government’s activities and attitude towards the Palestinians. The United States government inflames the situation by backing Israel’s aggression towards the Palestinians.
When the modern state of Israel was established in 1948, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were expelled from their lands including from areas guaranteed to them under the United Nation’s division of the territory of Palestine.
Some refugees fled within what became Israel, others went to the West Bank and Gaza (remnants of the proposed Palestinian state) or to neighbouring Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. They are still in these places mostly in refugee camps with varying degrees of acceptance by the governments concerned. Further refugees were created when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza in 1967.
The Holocaust of World War II was an immediate prompt for Israel’s establishment, but the Arab residents of Palestine felt these decisions were made without their consent. While the rest of the world was decolonising, the Palestinians saw a new Western colony was being established in the Middle East which had been dominated by the west since World War I.
Neighbouring Arab governments stepped in to defend the Palestinians in the 1948 war. They lost this war and others in 1956, 1967 and 1973. Israel, backed by the US and Britain, became the strongest military force in the region to the point of developing its own nuclear arsenal.
A key point in this is that Israel has never formally declared its borders. What will they ultimately be? Could Israel include all the territory up to the Jordan river (ie all of the West Bank) or up to the Litani river 20 kilometres inside southern Lebanon? Israel’s military and governments set the borders they feel are most suitable, ignoring a host of UN resolutions and the International Court of Justice’s finding on the illegality of the wall being built through Palestinian land on the West Bank.
Palestinian resistance has been channelled mostly through the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) whose leadership was in exile in Jordan and Lebanon until the Oslo accords of 1993. Its influence helped spark the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
Israel also invaded Lebanon to try to establish a government there more accepting of Israel’s actions. Israeli forces occupied southern Lebanon until 2000 but left behind 400,000 unmarked mines and kept the right to fly over Lebanese airspace.
Hizbollah grew in response to the Israeli invasion and occupation. The majority of the population of southern Lebanon is Shi’ite Muslim. This group drew inspiration from the 1979 revolution, led by Shi’ite cleric Khomeini, which overthrew the Shah’s US client regime.
With Lebanon fractured by the civil war and its government powerless, Hizbollah appeared as a force to resist the occupation, advocate for the Palestinian cause and provide services for the local Lebanese.
It has wide support and provides hospitals, medical care, schools and agricultural training as well as having its armed guerilla wing. Hizbollah has obviously obtained some relatively sophisticated weapons but nothing to compare with the firepower of the Israeli forces.
Just as Israel gets support and weaponry from the US, Hizbollah gets political support from Syria and financial support from Iran (hence the acquisition of weapons). Obviously since the Israeli withdrawal in 2000, Hizbollah has been arming itself and in the short term, Israel’s aim is to destroy any threat to itself. It may also be seeking a more friendly Lebanese government and, it may wish to force Syria or Iran to intervene more actively on behalf of Hizbollah so that it or the US can act against these regimes.
Hizbollah is a problem in that any armed, non-state actor threatening another nation or state is a problem. But it is not the only problem, nor the biggest problem in the Middle East. Israel’s flouting of international law in its relations with the Palestinians, its continuing disregard for UN resolutions and solutions, and its willingness to attack civilians indiscriminately are a running sore in the neighbourhood.
Safety rights for all
The citizens of Israel have a right to live in peace and security. But that cannot be at the expense of the peace, security and rights of others, especially the Palestinians who, after decades of promises, still do not have a state of their own. The massive, disproportionate attack on Lebanon will only confirm the view that Israel is not prepared to alter its behaviour in any way.
At one stage the PLO (a secular, nationalist grouping) did not accept the right of Israel to exist. Gradually and with the ‘promise’ of the Oslo process that a Palestinian state might come into being, it accepted this right.
The failure of Oslo and of secular nationalism gave scope to Hamas and religious ideology to assume the mantle of defender of the Palestinians. This is a trend away from simply nationalist and secular approaches to development because these have either been stymied, corrupted or made subservient to Western interests.
These religiously oriented groups may fulfil social needs that states are unable to provide, or lead resistance to forces seen to be detrimental to the national good. Hizbollah fits this description.
Would an alternative way to deal with Hizbollah be to require Israel to observe its international obligations?
Before the current Israeli offensive against Gaza, Hamas – prompted by the pressures it was under – was moving to an accommodation with Israel based on the 1967 borders. In this sense it may well have followed the PLO.
A just peace
Israel could achieve peace and security by stopping its blockade and military operations in Gaza and the West Bank. It could then seek a just peace by resolving questions about the status of Palestinian refugees and the international status of Jerusalem. This would disempower groups that favour military operations against Israel.