Columnist Tom Friedman, writing in The New York Times last Friday, observed that many Israelis believe that their country “is facing in Hezbollah an enemy that is unabashedly determined to transform this conflict into a religious war – from a war over territory – and wants to do it in a way that threatens not only Israel but the foundations of global stability.” A few sentences later he identifies those foundations as borders “sanctified by the United Nations” and sovereignty.
Much of what the UN and its affiliated agencies do to help in natural and man-made disasters may be heroic and even saintly, but “sanctifying” international borders isn’t something the UN does. It may examine historical claims and maps and conduct surveys using modern satellites, but in the end the parties to a dispute about borders must accept the findings.
Friedman’s contention does, however, point to the mix of myth and fact that continually feeds the flames of reciprocal war-fighting in the eastern Mediterranean in the area known as the Levant and Palestine. . As the fertile location at which three continents converge, it has been fought over continuously by competing empires and individuals seeking power relative to trade and commerce.
THE POLITICAL-MILITARY GEOGRAPHY
One need go back less than 80 years to set the political-military geography of the current warfare between Lebanon and Israel, the so-called “Blue Line.” The boundaries are based on the borders assigned by Britain and France to Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine in 1923 and reaffirmed as the Armistice Demarcation Line included in the 1949 agreement that ended hostilities triggered by Israel’s declaration of nationhood. The only part of the border undefined is the 14 kilometer long – 2 kilometer wide Shaaba Farms in the Golan which a UN survey assigned to Israel. (That said, things get complicated quickly. As part of the Golan, the area was Syrian territory until Israel captured the entire Golan and then “annexed” most of it – an annexation not recognized by other states or the UN. Syria says it has concluded an agreement with Lebanon that transfers Shaaba Farms to Lebanon, and that it turn is the basis of Lebanon’s current claim to Shaaba – which Israel does not recognize.)
In 1978 and again in 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon in pursuit of Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) which used southern Lebanon as its base for cross-border raids into northern Israel following the PLO’s expulsion from Jordan in 1970-1971. Each time, when the bulk of the Israeli invasion forces were withdrawn, Israeli–sponsored “militias” remained behind in southern Lebanon. In the aftermath of the 1982-85 invasion and occupation, which saw mass killings of refugees in the Sabra and Shatila camps, Israel left behind something it rues today: the beginnings of Hezbollah. What started as a militia dedicated to protecting Lebanon from Israel evolved also into a provider of social services and humanitarian assistance normally carried out by government.
By the 1990s, even the presence of the pro-Israeli South Lebanon Army could not prevent Hezbollah from firing rocket volleys into northern Israel. In 1993 and 1996, Israel mounted sustained attacks as it attempted to disable Hezbollah, but these achieved only short-term results. Finally, in May 2000, the steady trickle of dead and wounded Israeli soldiers proved too much for domestic Israeli politics. Withdrawing all its remaining forces from Lebanon, Israel abandoned the field to Hezbollah.
More significantly, in departing unilaterally on short notice and without allowing Lebanon or the international community time to prepare an alternative, Israel virtually guaranteed that the inevitable power vacuum would be filled by Hezbollah whose arsenal of weapons and training made it a more potent force than the Lebanese army. Within five months of Israel’s 2000 pull-out, Hezbollah ambushed an Israeli patrol along the border, killing three soldiers. Over the next three years, Hezbollah solidified its presence in south Lebanon’s landscape and made itself indispensable to governance in the border areas. Israel, for its part, consistently flew fighter jet and unmanned surveillance drones over Lebanon (Beirut has no air force) and carried out “targeted assassinations” of Hezbollah leaders.
THE UNINVITED PRESENCE: SYRIA
Despite Washington’s public stance, one cannot deal with Lebanon without including Syria. Like Israel, Syria has been a major influence on Lebanon in modern times. A Syrian “empire” stretching from Turkey to the Sinai Desert was created along the eastern Mediterranean after World War I. This was dissolved in 1923 by Britain and France, but the idea of “Greater Syria” remained. In the post-colonial Mediterranean, Syria, as one of Israel’s main opponents, was intent on maintaining a united “northern front” against Israel. In 1970, Syria announced that it intended to “reunite” Lebanon with Syria. Over the ensuing decade, Syrian troop strength in Lebanon grew, ostensibly to counteract the growing civil discord (which Syria encouraged). By 1990, Syrian forces (military and intelligence) in Lebanon numbered about 50,000.
Over the following 15 years, as Lebanon slowly recovered economically from its civil war, Syria gradually came under more and more international pressure to leave Lebanon. After Israeli forces departed in 2000, the pressure increased and was reinforced by new anti-Syrian alliances within Lebanon itself. Then in February 2005, former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated. Immediate suspicion fell on Syrian intelligence. The unrest that followed sparked the “Cedar Revolution” that, with international support, forced Syria to remove all its troops and operatives from Lebanon.
In the south, the only military power left was Hezbollah.
THE UN IN LEBANON
As already noted, in 2000 the UN surveyed the border between Israel and Lebanon to ensure that no Israeli forces were in Lebanon after July 2000. It also surveyed the Shaaba Farms strip and recommended disposition of that dispute to Syrian-Israeli peace talks.
Part of the growing pressure aimed at removing Syrian interference in Lebanon and restoring sovereignty to Beirut led to the adoption of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559 (2004). This directed that all remaining Lebanese militias were to disband, any remaining foreign forces to leave Lebanese territory, and called for the Lebanese army to deploy throughout the country. But the army, itself an amalgamation of confessional militias, was given nothing to help implement the UN resolution against a better trained, better armed, Hezbollah. Moreover, there was (and remains) some question whether the 40 percent of the Lebanese army that is Shi’ite would obey orders to fire upon Hezbollah fighters who are also Shi’ite.
In addition to Hezbollah, Syrian, and Israeli forces, south Lebanon has been home to the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) created in 1978, to verify Israel’s complete withdrawal across the border and to observe and report on activities along the border. This force has always been unarmed (at Israel’s insistence, as I recall) and therefore has not been able even to defend itself when attacked. In Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the UN outposts were literally overrun by the initial assault. The worst attack occurred in 1996 when Israeli artillery shelled the UN compound near the Lebanese village of Qana. More than 100 Lebanese who had sought safety were killed in what Israel claimed was an error. However, an independent UN inquiry by a general officer from The Netherlands called the shelling deliberate.
Israel has offered the same explanation in the air strike on the UNIFIL outpost that was hit July 25, 2006, killing four UN observers. With the improvements in “precision” munitions over the last decade, many find this explanation implausible since, over the preceding six hours, UNIFIL had contacted the Israel army at least 10 times warning that air and artillery fire by Israel was coming too close to the outpost – to no avail. (At the UN the U.S. blocked a UNSC resolution condemning the attack.)
BEYOND JULY 2006
Israel says – and international law agrees – that it has a right to defend itself when attacked. But despite “common wisdom,” there is some question about the incident on July 12 that started the current combat. Three highly respected news organizations – Associated Press (AP), MSNBC, and Agence France-Presse (AFP) – carried early stories that an Israeli commando force entered Lebanon and was ambushed near the Lebanese village of Aitta al-Chaab. Lebanese police were cited as the source for the AFP account, while the AP reporter referenced anonymous Israeli government officials, explaining that the rapid Israeli reaction was an attempt to prevent “the soldiers’ captors from moving them DEEPER into Lebanon” (emphasis added). The rapid and intense Israeli reaction, compared to the slow (three day) re-occupation of Gaza when Hamas captured one Israeli soldier in late June, does raise questions as to whether the Israelis were purposefully trying to provoke a reaction but – as always happens – had not considered the possibility that two soldiers would be captured. Because Israeli policy is to deny the media access to the front lines, confirmation will have to come from sources other than investigative journalists.
How long the combat will last is anyone’s guess. Israel wants its three soldiers back; Hezbollah and Hamas want a prisoner swap. Israel wants Hezbollah and Hamas destroyed; the U.S. is making sounds about the need for the militias to disband but tolerating their political and social service wings. The real question remains unaddressed by either approach: who controls the border area of south Lebanon and guarantees peace?
Israel doesn’t want to be in Lebanon permanently, but it doesn’t want rockets and mortars raining down either. That suggests some combination of Lebanese and international security forces will be needed up to the Litani River. Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert has talked about clearing a zone one to two miles into Lebanon and then turning that over to the Lebanese army. Presumably, any new international force that is sent to maintain the peace will fill in to the north.
Such considerations, while important, don’t do what is needed most right now: ending the killing by declaring an immediate and mutual cease-fire. Not yet, say Bush and Rice an Olmert. They claim a cease-fire by itself would not help; a framework must be created so that the region will not slip back into the status quo ante. What no one explains is how one gets a regional consensus if all the interested parties – in this case, Syria, Iran, Egypt, and Jordan – are not included or even not asked to discussions?
So the fighting continues, the casualties – civilian and military – and the destruction mount on both sides. Whether indiscriminate rocket and missile fire or highly discriminate artillery and air strikes, innocent civilians, those unable or unwilling to leave their homes as well as those exposed to attacks as they try to navigate bombed-out roads, fall victim most often. At last count, a ten-to-one Lebanese-Israeli fatality rate means that innocent Lebanese civilians pay the price for the bravado of others.
Which brings us back to Tom Friedman’s borders. Just as there are lines on maps and milestones on the ground delineating borders, so too there are borders of decency, proportionality, and restraint that every side has an obligation to respect. If Bush, Rice, and Olmert are looking for a framework, they could do worse than insist on these as status quo ante starting points.