Thursday, July 13, 2006

Semantics and “Acts of War”

For some reason, the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers seems to strike a raw nerve in Jerusalem. Once again, such an act—this time of two soldiers by the Lebanese Hezbollah—has led to Israeli retaliation that, as France has already stated, is entirely disproportionate and which risks throwing the entire Levant into chaos. Calling the kidnapping an “act of war,” Israel responded by bombing areas in Southern Lebanon, bridges, the headquarters of Hezbollah-owned al-Manar television and, shockingly, two runways at Beirut International Airport (BIA), Lebanon’s only international airport. At least 36 Lebanese have been killed in the attacks. Israel has also imposed a naval blockade on Lebanon. Communication between Beirut and the southern part of the country has been disrupted by the attacks, and flights to Beirut have been diverted to Cyprus.

The paradoxical thing is that Israel did not characterize the killing of four and the injuring of two of its soldiers during heavy clashes yesterday (four others died when the tank they were in rode on a land mine), or the multiple rockets that Hezbollah fired into the coastal city of Nahariya in retaliation for Israel's bombings, killing one and injuring dozens, as acts of war. The “act of war,” according to Jerusalem, lies in the soldiers’ capture.

Oddly, the spokesman for the White House National Security Council stated today that it held Syria and Iran responsible for the attacks, as if Hezbollah were incapable of independent action. Comments such as these nevertheless add to the already real danger that the conflict will become internationalized.

Now, admittedly, Hezbollah does not make the best of neighbors, and the clashes, along with the kidnapping, appear to have been timed to coincide with ongoing Israeli incursions in Gaza, where yesterday aircraft launched missiles into the Palestinian foreign ministry building. In other words, it would not be surprising if behind closed doors some Palestinian elements had met with Hezbollah and decided that the time was ripe to stretch Israel’s powerful military by opening up a new front. After all, the Hezbollah/Palestinian nexus is no secret.

But once again, irrespective of the usefulness of and justification for yesterday’s attacks against Israel, and now the kidnappings, Jerusalem is punishing a huge swathe of a population for the actions of the few. Not only have innocent individuals been killed in the 40-odd targets that were attacked by Israel, but the economic and social disruptions resulting from the bombing of a civilian airport (which Israel claims is a central hub for the transfer of weapons) and the naval embargo are orders of magnitude greater than the severity of two kidnappings or the death of eight Israeli soldiers. No matter how one looks at it, these actions are overwhelmingly disproportionate. Furthermore, one would wonder what is to be gained by bombing a TV station, the latter being controlled by Hezbollah notwithstanding.

In both Gaza and now Lebanon, Israel is engaged in military operations against organizations that, despite their having come to power through elections, it refuses to see as anything other than terrorist. The problem with this obsessively unyielding view is that by bombing Hamas and Hezbollah, Israel is attacking entities and officials who were elected into politics by large constituent bases. Moreover, Israel’s disproportionate responses, which cannot but result in mass suffering of individuals—many of whom neither support nor condone Hamas’ and Hezbollah’s actions, I must add—is alienating large portions of those populations. Finally, the targeting of symbolic buildings—Palestine’s foreign affairs ministry, which in a way stands for Palestinians’ long-standing aspiration for a country of their own, and BIA, which was rebuilt after years of civil war and had been renamed in honor of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, who was assassinated in February last year—can only exacerbate the hatred.

Israel is lashing out left and right without any apparent logic or long-term view. While the invasion of foreign airspace and the subsequent bombing of a variety of targets is a safe and effective means to demonstrate one’s undisputable military superiority, the advantages of doing so are hard to imagine. If Israel and its regional opponents are intent on continuing their useless game of tit-for-tat, then the Jewish state should respond with kidnappings of its own. To leap from snatching soldiers to bombing civilian targets and imposing an embargo affecting thousands of people is just too strong an escalation, which in turn will surely invite acts in kind, as was the case today, with Hezbollah's rocket attacks.

Or perhaps there is a logic to Israel’s response. Perhaps it just doesn’t want to take a close look at the hundreds of Lebanese and Palestinians it currently holds in its jails, many unjustly. As the strategy behind Hamas’ and Hezbollah’s kidnappings of Israeli soldiers is to secure the release of those individuals in a prisoner exchange, there might be a desire in Jerusalem to avoid the issue. Its refusal to consider the prisoner exchange forces it into a corner. It cannot not do anything, for this would be interpreted as a sign of weakness. With exchange off the table, the only option left for Israel is to bomb.

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