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Sun 20 Aug 2006 04:00 AM

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Rising from the rubble

After a gruelling thirty three days of fighting, the loss of many lives and an imperfect UN Resolution, there is still a great deal unanswered. But in all likelihood reverberations of this crisis will extend beyond Lebanon and Israel. Massoud A. Derhally reports.

|~|71648439-200.jpg|~|Destroyed: Over 15,000 homes were reduced to rubble during the war, and more than 1,000 civilians killed. So far though, the ceasefire has held.|~|After a gruelling thirty three days of fighting, the loss of many lives and an imperfect UN Resolution, there is still a great deal unanswered. But in all likelihood reverberations of this crisis will extend beyond Lebanon and Israel. Massoud A. Derhally reports.One month on after the hostilities in Lebanon broke out, what is palpably clear is that the war was no accident. It was brewing in the pipeline and both of its main protagonists and their supporters had prepared for such an eventuality. That much the world knows from investigative journalist Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker, who in his latest article “Watching Lebanon,” provides an unvarnished account of a premeditated agenda for the war in Lebanon by both the United States and Israel.

The war between Israel and Hezbollah, as it was marketed by the Bush administration and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, was really a war between the US and Iran on Lebanese soil. It was a veiled showdown that inherently intended to shift the balance of power in the region and test the capabilities of Iran and if need be Syria. But that assumption in the eyes of Israeli, American and Arab analysts was erroneous.

“This is a proxy war. Certainly, the idea of hitting Iran by hitting Hezbollah was quite obviously a key motivation for Israel and the U.S,” Augustus Norton, Professor of International Relations and Anthropology at Boston University tells Arabian Business. “In particular, Israel has revealed a very poor capacity for reading Hezbollah, notwithstanding the technical means of collection at their disposal. For that matter, Israel has not read Lebanon very well, as illustrated by their repeated tendency to think that inflicting great pain on Lebanon will unite the Lebanese against Hezbollah, Syria or any other foe.”

What is also unmistakable is that Hezbollah, the militant Shiite group, which is backed by Syria and Iran, has invariably grown stronger, notwithstanding that it had underestimated the response of Israel, when it killed 8 Israeli soldiers and kidnapped another two on July 12.

“In this bloody mess, the worst losers are, of course, the people of Lebanon—extending far beyond Hezbollah’s support base. That said, the Israelis are big losers, too. Clearly, Israel’s political and military leadership were stunned by the tough and innovative resistance on the part of Hezbollah,” Wayne White, former Deputy Director of the State Department’s Middle East and South Asia Intelligence Office tells Arabian Business.

“Although dragging its feet on a ceasefire to give Israel a chance to crush Hezbollah, the worst mistake on Washington’s part was giving Israel a blank check to devastate Lebanese targets having nothing to do with Hezbollah. The cost and time required for reconstruction will greatly anger many Lebanese who otherwise would have had absolutely no sympathy for Hezbollah.”

He adds: “Despite Hezbollah’s disproportionate loses, it has come the closest anyone has since the 1973 Yom Kippur War on the Egyptian front to fighting the Israelis to a standstill on the ground. This is the only reason Israel is apparently willing to accept a ceasefire that does not specifically include the disarmament of Hezbollah. In the end, Israel’s military effort has bolstered Hezbollah’s prestige, something damaging to both Israeli and U.S. interests.”

Now, Hezbollah’s popularity permeates not only within the confines of Lebanon but transcends across the Arab and Muslim world. It was precisely this prospect, that prompted Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and many within the Lebanese political sphere—to criticize Hezbollah at the onset of the conflict.

Israel, the U.S. and Britain had ostensibly banked on Lebanese divisions to come to the fore of this crisis with many Lebanese turning their anger against Hezbollah. The perception in Washington and Tel Aviv was that political figures like Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, Samir Geagea of the Christian Lebanese Forces, and Amine Gemayel of the Phalangists and Sunni MP Saad Hariri would make up what is referred to, as the March 14 anti-Syrian camp in Lebanon, would tilt towards the US.

If anything, it was the direct opposite that took place after a month of relentless and indiscriminate daily bombing by Israel of Lebanon under the guise of fighting terrorism. The violence that has obliterated entire neighbourhoods, villages and killed over 1,100 Lebanese civilians, injured more than 3,000 and displaced 1,000,000 has culminated in resounding support for the Shiite group.

“In military terms this is a victory that the Arabs haven’t tasted in decades by Israeli standards even. Hezbollah is fully aware that it has emerged victorious. The Lebanese government has called it a victory and it is a victory that is unprecedented and if anything it is going to change the balance of power here,” Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, assistant professor at the American University of Beirut and author of Hezbollah: Politics and Religion tells Arabian Business.

“Not only has Hezbollah proven that it has struck a balance of power even though you have factor of asymmetrical warfare, nevertheless it has proven that only the resistance can put in place a balance of power and if anything that this balance of power would tilt in Hezbollah’s favour at the end of this conflict. That is definitely going to be translated politically on the domestic scene.”

Still despite what Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah and his supporters cite as a momentous victory, schisms that existed inside Lebanon prior to this war, are sure to surface, as they already have, once the dust finally settles. Many who were at odds with Hezbollah before the outbreak of this conflict, and others who blame it for the high price the country has ultimately paid, as a result of what they deem was the group’s senseless and unilateral adventure on July 12, will take issue with it and its leadership.

“You may end up with a similar polarization that preexisted the conflict. The only thing that may polarize things further would be overt foreign intervention, in terms of the US trying to ram Resolution 1559 [which calls for the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon] down our throat. If anything, now Hezbollah has a much greater justification,” says Ghorayeb.

But there is an even more worrying and ominous reality that is on the minds of many in Lebanon. It is fear that Hezbollah is going to use this victory against other communities and settle scores with those that have criticized it. Some discount such a theory pointing to a similar attitude that existed in the summer of 2000, when Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon and there was talk of recrimination against Lebanese who may have collaborated during the Israeli occupation. That scenario however, never panned out and instead Hezbollah tried to bridge whatever divide existed as a result of that 30 year occupation, playing a salient role in ensuring the welfare of people. It funded schools, hospitals and proved to be a facilitator, at times more than the Lebanese government itself.

Cited for his charisma and ability to have the undivided attention of Lebanese from various political backgrounds, Nasrallah is cognisant some in Lebanon will most certainly try to capitalize on the wide scale destruction in the country, put by some estimates at $24 billion, in addition to fears that Hezbollah will flex its muscles.

In his speech last week, Nasrallah’s rhetoric had changed significantly from the onset of the conflict. Initially he addressed most of his discourse to the Israelis and to the US. But as the crisis appeared to come to a close, Nasrallah adopted a more conciliatory tone with those in the Lebanese political establishment that had criticized Hezbollah. Nasrallah had threatened to settle scores at the end of the conflict in the nascent stages of the crisis. There was no talk of settling scores last week.

“He is human after all,” says Ghorayeb, who is an expert on Hezbollah. But she also concedes, “Public opinion was in support of the resistance throughout the war but in the post war phase I doubt that is going to be the case. I think the Sunni community in Lebanon is going to start shifting back to its original Arabist position. America’s performance I can’t even find a euphemism for it. It was ridiculous. It was absurd. It was laughable; framing this conflict as a war against terror. This is why the Americans have completely lost credibility with the Sunnis.”

Michael Young an editor at the Lebanese Daily Star believes negative sentiment to Hezbollah is and will become more pronounced. “At the end of the day there is going to be a backlash against Hezbollah. Hezbollah has threatened a backlash against those that have criticized it but there will be a very severe backlash against the party,” Young tells Arabian Business. “There is great anger in the country at what they have done.

That, after the considerable feet dragging by the US and Britain, there is an imperfect end to this conflict, through UN Security Council resolution 1701 that “calls for a full cessation of hostilities.”

Young believes the negative sentiment towards the Shiite group is not exclusive to the anti-Syrian March 14 camp, but extends across the 18 confessions of Lebanon. “Hezbollah has basically taken our country ten to fifteen years back through very reckless and irresponsible behaviour. Hezbollah is not popular in Lebanon and anyone who tells you it is, is not telling the truth. Many people have considered Hezbollah, for years, as a menace. They are armed [while] everyone else is not armed and they have been seen as a threat. No one dared to really express themselves openly before. But today with the disaster that has fallen Lebanon, given the fact that Nasrallah must deal with the disaster in his own Shiite community, I think that his ability to manoeuvre has been severely reduced now,” says Young.

But even so, as much as there may be truth to Young’s assertions, negative sentiments do not translate into the demise of Hezbollah as a political party, unless of course Israel is successful in neutralising them in the ground war that is taking place in the interim period until 30,000 comprised of United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFL) and the Lebanese army are deployed.

It is still unclear how this deployment will fit into the larger aspirations of Israel, the US, Britain, and some in Lebanon to have Hezbollah disarmed. The resolution may bring cessation to hostilities but it emphatically neither solves Israel’s problem with Hezbollah, or Lebanon’s problem with Israel. The conflict is far from over. That much is clear.

“The proposed buffer zone is not a solution to the Hezbollah rocket threat in potential future confrontations. Some rocket types in Hezbollah’s possession still can easily fire over the buffer zone and rather deeply into Israel,” points out White.

There is of course also the contentious issue of the Sheba Farms, occupied by Israel. The United Nations recognizes them as Syrian, but Hezbollah asserts they are Lebanese and on that premise justifies its necessity to be armed. This no doubt is a prickly issue for the government Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, as Hezbollah will almost certainly continue to exploit this issue, also emboldened by the fiery and supportive speech of the Syrian and Iranian presidents. In a speech last week Nasrallah dispelled any notions his group would lay down its arms.

“Nasrallah and his party cannot put down their weapons because it means existentially they are gone. This is not a political party that has picked up arms. This is an armed group that is also a political party and if you remove the arms then the reason to exist disappears,” says Young of the Daily Star.

And so as one war ends, another internal war is likely to start as the internal forces within Lebanon jostle for power under the new dynamics that have resulted from this war.

“Nasrallah will now for the foreseeable future, for the coming three to four years is going to be a humanitarian association more than anything else it has to recreate and rebuild shiite Lebanon life in Lebanon.”

This reconstruction phase is to some Lebanese a conundrum. The economic devastation in Lebanon requires tremendous amount of liquidity, which is likely to push Hezbollah further into the arms of Iran and polarize the politics of the country, creating a new more precarious dynamic.

So it was no surprise that Nasrallah pre-empted any manoeuvres from other countries that may have been able to step in, by promising all the displaced Shiites Hezbollah would tend to them. No sooner was that promise made, did the Lebanese start collecting on that promise.

No doubt for those in the Arab world who fear a Shiite crescent is taking root in the region, this is an important juncture to try and quell this perceived threat by stepping in and contributing to the reconstruction of southern Lebanon.

The failure of Israel to break Hezbollah’s back also presents significant points for both Israel and the US. By trying and failing to destroy Hezbollah, the image of Israel’s invincibility has taken a blow, says Trita Parsi author of Treacherous Triangle - The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the U.S. More importantly, “By betraying Lebanon’s democratically elected government, the Bush Administration has sent the signal that America will only stand by Arab democracies to the extent that they are at peace with Israel.

The unfortunate conclusion regional states may draw from this ordeal is that if Washington is not a reliable security provider, even to Arab democracies, then rearmament and nuclearization are the only remaining options.”

But there is another reality Washington cannot ignore—Syria cannot be ignored at any cost. “Like the Hamas electoral win that returned Syria to the heart of the Arab Israel conflict, Hezbollah’s ability to continue sending rockets into Israel after a month of Israeli air strikes proves that Syria’s clients have teeth,” Joshua Landis, a Syria specialist at the University of Oklahoma and author of SyriaComment.com tells Arabian Business. “Syria can no longer be written off as a country that is weak, isolated and powerless. Its support for both Hamas and Hezbollah has been crucial to their success.”||**||

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