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Saturday, Aug. 5, 2006

Israel-Hezbollah conflict: the end game


LONDON -- The kill ratio is becoming a problem: Israel has been killing about 40 Lebanese civilians for every Israel civilian who is killed. They are all being killed by accident, of course, but such a long chain of accidents begins to look like carelessness, and even in Israel and the United States many people are getting uneasy about the slaughter.

Elsewhere, the revulsion at what is happening is almost universal, and the death of so many women and children at Qana has greatly intensified the pressure on Israel and its de facto allies, the U.S. and Britain, to stop the war.

They are already making tactical concessions to lessen the pressure. Israel "partially suspended" its bombardment of Lebanon for 48 hours, and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice promised to let the U.N. Security Council consider a resolution calling for a ceasefire this week. But Israel's generals still want another 10 days to two weeks of war to batter Hezbollah into submission, and neither Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert or his loyal allies in Washington and London are really willing to override them yet.

Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz told Parliament on Monday that Israel cannot accept a ceasefire now, since if it did so then "the extremists (Hezbollah) will rear their heads again." The U.S. and British governments have to dodge and weave a bit as doubts grow at home about the morality and feasibility of Israel's actions, but they can certainly arrange for the Security Council resolution to fail this week.

The real trick, in terms of keeping American and British public opinion on side, is to blur the sequence of events that led to the war and present it as a desperate Israeli struggle against an unprovoked onslaught by thousands of terrorist rockets. As British Prime Minister Tony Blair told the BBC, "It cannot be that Israel stops taking the action it's taking but Hezbollah continue to kill, kidnap, and launch rockets into the north of Israel at the civilian population there."

The Web site of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs goes further, claiming that the operation in which Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers and killed three others and the rain of Hezbollah rockets on Israeli cities were "simultaneous." Obviously, these are mad terrorists who must be removed from Israel's border at once by any means possible. But unless "simultaneous" means "on the following day" in Hebrew, the Web site is deliberately distorting what happened.

There was an unprovoked Hezbollah attack on the Israeli Army on July 12, seeking to kidnap soldiers who could be held as hostages and eventually exchanged for Lebanese prisoners who have been illegally held in Israel since the latter ended its 18-year military occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000.

And no doubt the reason Israel held onto those prisoners in the first place was to have them as hostages in some future prisoner exchange with Hezbollah. That's how the game is played locally.

In the course of grabbing the Israeli hostages on July 12, Hezbollah fired rockets and mortars at the northern Israeli town of Shlomi as a diversion, but nobody was hurt there.

Apart from that, no Hezbollah missiles struck Israel that day. Indeed, none had been fired at Israel for at least four years, although there were regular skirmishes between Israeli soldiers and Hezbollah fighters along the frontier. Hezbollah had the rockets, but they were not mad terrorists.

During the following 24 hours, however, Israel launched massive air strikes and artillery bombardments the length and breadth of Lebanon, striking Beirut airport, Lebanese air force bases, the Beirut-Damascus highway, a power station, and all sorts of other non-Hezbollah targets and killing many civilians. And it was only on July 13 that Hezbollah rockets began to hit cities all across northern Israel.

Nobody has clean hands here. Israel seized on the kidnap operation as the pretext for a massive onslaught aimed at destroying Hezbollah's resources and removing it from southern Lebanon -- a perfectly legitimate goal, in line with U.N. resolution 1559, but not one that the U.N. had envisaged as being accomplished by Israeli bombs.

Hezbollah may just have been trying to raise its profile in Lebanon and the wider Arab world with a small but successful operation that humiliated the Israelis -- or it may have foreseen the likelihood of a massive Israeli over-reaction, and calculated that it could ride it out and win from it. Whether that was its intention, it probably will ride it out and win.

After firing at least 90 missiles at Israeli cities every day except two since the war began -- though they only kill an average of one Israeli a day -- Hezbollah launched only two rockets Monday (probably a crew that didn't get the message to stop in time).

If there should be a ceasefire in the next week, Hezbollah will emerge the victor, since no international peacekeeping force is going to fight the kind of campaign that would be required to dig it and its weapons out of south Lebanon's hills and villages.

If there is no ceasefire, then the Israeli Defense Force will be granted a further opportunity to demonstrate that it cannot fight such a campaign either -- at least, not at a cost in Israeli soldiers' lives that would be remotely acceptable to the Israeli public.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.


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