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The Storm before the Calm?
A Turbulent Middle East

30 July   |   2006   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

In its latest release of 25 th July entitled Israel/Palestine/Lebanon: Climbing out of the Abyss , the non-governmental and analysis-based International Crisis Group (ICG) suggested several key principles:

  • The Palestinian and Lebanon crises need to be dealt with separately. Bundling them together complicates efforts at resolution;
  • Resolution of the Palestinian crisis should rest on a simple equation: allowing the elected government to govern in exchange for a cessation of hostilities;
  • Israel's pursuit of a knockout against Hizbullah is unrealistic and counterproductive. Reports from the ground suggest Hizbullah has yet to be weakened; its popularity among Shi'ites is intact while other forces are too weak to challenge it. A domestic confrontation with the movement could push Lebanon to breaking point;
  • In Lebanon, the cessation of hostilities should be followed by an exchange of prisoners and, if agreed by all parties, the dispatch of a UN-authorised international force charged with verifying adherence to the ceasefire;
  • Achieving sustainable peace will require continued EU and UN engagement with Hamas and Hizbullah, and renewed US engagement with Syria and Iran;
  • The key to resolving both crises is reinvigorating the Israeli-Arab peace processes.

Such principles counter the ill-advised belief held by some politicians or pundits that sheer military power would resolve the conflicts of the Middle East. After all, have both history and experience not proven time and again that only negotiated processes addressing the real root causes of these conflicts would stem the spiralling violence? Indeed, the latest alarming chapters of carnage we have been witnessing are broadly the cumulative after-effects of an international community that has largely opted to stay on the diplomatic sidelines of many of the critical issues in the Middle East. Some others, though, have rushed headlong with their yo-yo foreign policies, misreading the dynamics and variables of those conflicts and refusing in the process to engage the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a hub of instability region-wide.

At the risk of sounding gauche after three weeks of fierce fighting that have sadly claimed altogether hundreds of Lebanese and Israeli civilian lives (not least in Qana), as well as displaced wholesale communities, I suggest that the ingredients of a deal for the Israeli-Lebanese crisis are quite clear. They include an immediate cessation of hostilities between the two parties so that humanitarian efforts could also be geared up, the return of the two Israeli soldiers held hostage by Hizbullah, the release by Israel of Lebanese prisoners and its withdrawal from the occupied Shaba'a Farms area (irrespective of Syro-Lebanese ownership issues), the gradual integration of Hizbullah into the Lebanese military and the introduction of a transient albeit muscular UN-led stabilisation force that enjoys a well-defined mandate.

However, to introduce hope, stability and ultimately peace with security into the region, as much as stanch the rise in religious and sectarian strife, one must also address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a key issue of the overall conflict.

In fact, whilst Lebanon is being pounded remorselessly, how could one ignore that Israel is also attacking Gaza (and other parts of the West Bank) with regular impunity? Moreover, if we disregard for one moment the sanitised news items breaking on our European and American channels and look instead at the Arabic channels, we might understandably be shaken by the deadly brutality of the pictures that depict a whole region littered with ever-mounting deaths, injuries, displaced people and rubble. In fact, those pictures not only put paid to the Augustinian tradition of proportionality, they also challenge the human rights discourse of today. After all, Article 51 of the first additional protocol to the Geneva Conventions outlaws attacks that "may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life" and which would be "excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage". Although the 1949 Conventions are inapplicable in this instance since Hizbullah is a non-state, its language at least is a guide to the spirit of customary humanitarian law.

US President Bush and his Secretary of State insist that an immediate ceasefire is "unsustainable" as it would drag the region back to the status quo ante . It should be associated, they add, with the tackling of the root causes of the conflict. Yet, a cardinal truth gone missing from this equation is that a ceasefire constitutes an essential pre-requisite for a long-term solution - not the other way round! Besides, I would also respectfully submit that aiming for a 'sustainable' de-escalation of violence without tackling the root causes of this conflict - in essence, occupation of land and subjugation or dispossession of people - is like dousing the flames of a burning depot with a leaking hose! As Mou'in Rabbani, senior ICG analyst in Jordan averred, "The Arab-Israeli conflict remains the most potent issue in this part of the world."

But another danger for the future of the region is the accruing bitterness and hatred that are gripping large swathes of Arab, Muslim and Israeli populations alike. New generations of boys and girls are growing up hating each other and denying the humanity of their neighbours. As Robert Malley, ICG Director for the Middle East & North Africa, reflected recently, "Waiting and hoping for military action to achieve its purported goals will have not only devastating humanitarian consequences: it will make it much harder to pick up the political pieces when the guns fall silent".

This latest shift of attitudes is quite perceptible when viewed through the Arab populist lens across much of the region. For instance, the Egyptian poet and lyricist Ahmad Fouad Negm highlighted such large-scale sentiments when he stated in an interview this week that people are praying for Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah [Hizbullah's leader, successor to Abbas Mussawi], because Arabs were made to feel oppressed, weak and handicapped and he is the first leader (ostensibly since the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser) to provide them with national pride. In fact, Hizbullah's ability to withstand the Israeli assault and continue to lob missiles into Israel exposed the weaknesses of Arab governments with far greater resources than Hizbullah. Again, as the ICG Middle East analyst Rabbani put it, "In comparison with the small embattled guerrilla movement, the Arab states seem to be standing idly by twiddling their thumbs."

Equally pertinent is the public statement by Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qa'eda's deputy leader who stated last week that his organisation would not stand idly by while "these [Israeli] shells burn our brothers" in Lebanon and Gaza. He called on Muslims to join forces and fight what he called the "Zionist-crusader war" against Muslim nations. Whilst I disagree sharply with al-Qa'eda's terror-induced operations and its convulsive bigotry against other Muslims (namely Shi'ites in Iraq or elsewhere) let alone other religions, I also believe that his statement reflects a discomfiting realisation that the wider and hitherto elusive pan-Arab and Muslim consciousness are moving forward with greater urgency.

However, what is much more interesting to many observers is the rallying that is taking place round Hizbullah in Lebanon itself. After all, this is the country at the receiving end of all the retributive and retaliatory attacks. Yet, a national public opinion poll of the Lebanese people, conducted this week by the Beirut Centre for Research and Information, showed that 87% of all Lebanese support the Hizbullah military resistance to the Israeli attacks (including, notably, 89% of Sunnis and 80% of Christians). 89% of the respondents to the poll also added that the USA was not an honest broker and did not respond positively to Lebanon's concerns. Perhaps one indicator of the regional distrust in current American policies is a cartoon by Emad Hajjaj in Jordan labelled 'The New Middle East' (as flagged by the USA) that showed an Israeli tank sitting on a broken apartment house in the shape of the Arab world. In fact, a recent AOL poll revealed that 76% of their subscribers believed that the US and Britain moved too slowly to end the crisis.

In the midst of a hectic week, with reams of articles and op-eds, a piece entitled Waging war or winning peace by HRH Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan in the Israeli Ha'aretz daily drew my attention. Prince Hassan wrote:

The events of the past three weeks have brought us to the edge of the abyss. They are the result not of timeless and inevitable conflict, but of intransigence, fear and a shocking lack of creativity by leaders in our region and beyond. The indiscriminate loss of life on all sides has polarised our populations and shown diplomacy for the devalued and scorned art it has become. The focus on polemics and the ensuing escalation of violence has sidelined the very real and dangerous concerns that underlie our region's spiralling decline.

Aggressive ideology is nurtured by an increasing lack of economic equality, poor social mobility, a denial to many of human security, and the exclusion of the silenced majority. It is evident to us all that military might cannot cure the evils of our region. Violence begets violence, and the mass bombings of civilians can only result in increased use of terror tactics further down the line.

One of the prophetic and calm voices coming out from the heart of Beirut belongs to Revd Dr Paul Haidostian, President of the Haigazian University. Reflecting on the war damage caused to Lebanon in human, political, religious and socio-economic terms, one thought-provoking conclusion in his latest missive highlighted that "it has been seventeen days, and we still wonder what this war is all about. It has certainly not accomplished the aims listed two weeks ago."

During the Rome meeting last Wednesday, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, European Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighbourhood Policy, spoke about an EU pledge for a package of €50 million to help Lebanon. She also stressed the political dimension of the conflict and the need for an immediate ceasefire that would enable the implementation of the steps necessary to spare the whole region further violence - including humanitarian relief efforts.

But now that the 270-minute meeting in Rome ended less than conclusively, with a regrettable Anglo-American fudge, I wonder if our politicians would show enough gumption in the forthcoming rounds of negotiations to stress that this latest crisis does not need to be a tipping point for further disasters but could be transformed into an opportunity were it to be harnessed properly. Would the movers and shakers of the international community act with integrity, perspicacity and boldness to promote a just peace for the whole region (from Lebanon to Palestine, not ignoring all other major actors) that secures the right of Israel to be a secure regional pioneer, but only alongside other peoples enjoying co-equal rights?

Or would our politicians further damage the Middle East by continuing to promote those narratives that pander to their own benign worldly visions? If they choose this path, would they not lead the region into successive wars where all victory is pyrrhic since nobody could come out a winner?   Alas, the jury is still out.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2006   |   30 July


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