The Screaming Pen

Providing Global Insight, Context, and Perspective

Israel’s Fog of War

Guest Author KPC Weighs the Costs of Battle in the Middle East

August 19, 2006 – The Israeli-Lebanese conflict entered a new phase on Monday, August 14 when a cease-fire negotiated by the United Nations came into effect. Now as the fog of war dissipates, Israel must weigh the outcome of the fighting against the objectives of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Despite 33 days of intense bombing of Hezbollah strongholds and a ground assault, which pushed North to the Litani River, Israel may have done more harm to its interests than good.

The most recent Middle East conflict was ignited on July 12 when agents of Hezbollah crossed the Israeli border, killed eight Israeli soldiers and captured two others. In retaliation, Israel launched a military campaign against Hezbollah’s fractious state within Lebanon.

Olmert’s decision to mobilize the military was based largely on his determination to save the captured soldiers, deter future terrorist attacks, cripple Hezbollah and cut off the militant group’s supply of arms from Iran and Syria.


Which way home?

As Hezbollah began to launch hundreds of rockets each day into Northern Israel, Olmert also sought to push Hezbollah out of range of Israel’s densely populated cities.

While Israel has a right to protect its interests and defend itself against attacks, it is difficult to determine how Olmert’s recent military campaign has served these interests.

In the first days of the fighting, Israel seemed to garner support from countries around the world, including moderate Arab states such as Egypt. Even many within Lebanon initially viewed Hezbollah’s incursion as an unprovoked and foolish attack. But as the days wore on and as images of Lebanese civilian casualties flooded the mass media, anti-Israeli sentiment began to spread at a pace that rivaled Israel’s rush to destroy Hezbollah targets.

As sympathy for Israel has declined, support for Hezbollah and its charismatic leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, has surged within Lebanon and throughout the region. Nasrallah has galvanized a resistance movement that has spread well beyond Lebanon’s borders, creating a burgeoning group of followers eager to challenge Israel’s military might, if not its very existence.

Israel forged its status as a regional superpower in 1967 when it vanquished a coalition of Arab armies in six days, capturing Gaza, the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. But now, unable to claim a decisive victory over Hezbollah, Israel risks tarnishing that reputation, which has long served as a deterrent to militant groups.

In the wake of the fighting, Nasrallah has become an international hero. From Iran to Palestine, followers chant his name, wave his image as a banner of defiance and revere him for defending Lebanon against a Zionist “oppressor.” Not to be outdone, even al-Qaida has issued statements praising Hezbollah and its leader. Nasrallah has become a hero because he is viewed as a man who accomplished what a host of Arab armies failed to do in 1967.

This hero worship will only grow as Hezbollah, with financial support from Iran, begins to help rebuild the areas of Lebanon devastated by Israeli bombing. Hezbollah’s reconstruction project will also have the effect of marginalizing Lebanon’s democratically-elected government.

Contrary to Olmert’s aims, Hezbollah—although weakened—remains in possession of its arms and has gained hero status among hoards of militant groups. Olmert has failed to secure the safe return of the captured Israeli soldiers, and worst of all, Israel has called its own military strength into question.

In the days to come, Israel must fight hard to garner through negotiations what it could not achieve in battle.

August 27, 2006 Posted by | Israel, Middle East, Palestine | Leave a comment

Slippery As an Eel

Momentum Undercut in the World’s Most Intractable Dispute

It was but a mere blip on the radar screen. For just several hours a fortnight ago, an article ran on the major news sites stating that Hamas and Fatah – the two primary groups representing Palestinians – had reached an agreement that could lead to talks with Israel. News watchers will be forgiven if they missed it; as quickly as the story appeared it was buried in the second half of lengthy articles about the latest development: a stout Israeli military offensive into Gaza.

True, Palestinian militants were launching rockets into southern Israel from Gaza for the past month, sporadically costing civilian lives. Spoilers have captured a severely unfortunate young soldier, Corporal Gilad Shalit, and held him hostage somewhere in Gaza for ten days while making overblown demands for Israel to empty their jails of Palestinians – albeit more legitimately for women and children – in return for his release. And despite the Palestinian compromise, Hamas hadn’t accepted legitimate international demands that it recognize Israel.


No Messing Around

Israel’s response was swift and effective, and was accomplished as much through the media as on the battlefield. Israeli officials lamented Hamas’ pigheaded refusal to recognize the state of Israel’s right to exist and twisted the screws tighter than at any time since the two-year-old ceasefire began. Israel reoccupied central Gaza, a first since unilaterally withdrawing from the territory last year. Israel arrested some 60-odd officials from Hamas and eight elected government ministers, and purposefully flew bombers over Bashir Assad, the unfriendly president of neighboring Syria (where some of the Hamas leadership resides).

Yet despite Hamas’ intransigence, the Israeli campaign is grossly disproportionate to the offences committed by the group holding the young soldier hostage. Analysts also differ fundamentally as to how much control the political wing of Hamas has over the three factions – one of which is nominally tied to Hamas – that played a role in the capturing raid. Israel’s operation will likely prove counterproductive as well: far from securing the release of Cpl. Shalit, the effective decapitation of Hamas’ leadership in Gaza may only serve to solidify Palestinian support for their embattled leaders.

It would be foolhardy to rush to the support of a group that refuses to renounce terrorism and recognize Israel’s right to exist. Yet as all practitioners of diplomacy know, however depraved, these are sticking points used as bargaining chips in negotiations, and aren’t given up lightly; especially when they’ve been bedrock principles for decades. In just a few short months, however, momentum had been building for change. Since Hamas’ election in January, the Palestinian Authority’s leader, the secular Mahmoud Abbas, had been trying to force Hamas’ into embracing these notions. He called for a referendum in which it looked possible that wearied voters would give Hamas the cover needed to reverse policy and avoiding the appearance of caving under foreign pressure. The reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah was an additionally auspicious development.

Post-reoccupation, these events have no chance of being carried forward. Any opportunity for a referendum, much less recognition of Israel, has evaporated. Under siege, Hamas will maintain support by appearing as the martyred defender against a harsh foreign invader. Hamas won’t be allowed to either achieve change or turbidly stagnate and prove its own deficiencies. Moreover, the timing of Israel’s military incursion was suspiciously close to the announcement of the Hamas-Fatah accord, and peace is as far away as ever.

Of course, it’s beginning to be accepted wisdom that this is actually what Israel desires, as Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas Prime Minister, argues in today’s Washington Post. Suicide-bombings in Israel have slowed to a trickle in the last year and the country occupies all territory vital to its security. In May, President Bush sanctioned Israel’s land claims. States that possess everything they desire and face no pressure to give any of it up have never made for good faith negotiating partners. Squared off against a bitter enemy that does itself no favors in the public debate, don’t look for Israel to prove itself an exception to the rule.

– DML

 2006. All rights reserved.

July 12, 2006 Posted by | Hamas, Israel, Middle East, Palestine, Politics | Leave a comment

Sin Padre, Thy Wither

How Venezuela, Iran, China, and Russia are Undermining Human Rights Everywhere

If you’re ever feeling overly happy and want to come down a bit, take a survey of the human condition around the world. Among a sea of rights violators in Africa, you’ll find the worst cases in Darfur, the D.R. Congo, Somalia, Eritrea, and Cote d’Ivoire. Robert Mugabe is systematically destroying Zimbabwe. The Middle East has long seen gross injustice and political repression in Syria, Iran, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Turkey has its Kurdish problem, which flares up from time to time when it feels Europe slipping away. To the north, Russia fights endlessly in the Caucuses and forces compulsory military service on its poor, dehumanizing a generation of young men with beatings and forced labor. Political opponents are jailed and attacked. Andijan and the “Stans” of Central Asia, Azerbaijan, Pakistan, Nepal, Burma, and North Korea. Colombia, Cuba, Venezuela, the favelas of Brazil and the poverty of Bolivia and Peru. The folks at Human Rights Watch are depressingly busy.

Depends on How You Look at It

Yet in spite of this dispiriting image and the gruesome confrontations between riot police and protesters caught on tape for everyone see, the news is not all disheartening. To be sure, most of these places were never free, open, or safe. It is only because of modern communication and the existence of vociferous groups like Human Rights Watch and Doctors Without Borders that one can list the egregious examples above. And there are also examples of places where life has improved: autocratic dictators are out in Indonesia, the Philippines, Chile, South Korea, Spain, parts of eastern Europe, and the states of the former Yugoslavia. Something may finally be done about Darfur. And perhaps most importantly, great power war has been avoided for sixty years.


Sportily Taking in a Soccer Match

So between the good news and the bad, what the world needs is a state or organization exerting pressure on countries to uphold human rights. Near-inherent anti-Americanism means that most of the world no longer views the United States as this model, with consequences for both equality and U.S. objectives of every stripe. The United Nations is a misunderstood body that is limited here because it is merely a collection of self-interested states. Europe espouses many of the right ideals but is mostly focused on itself, often has an uncomplicated view of the world, and has its own internal conflicts to settle.

What the world does not need is a provider of money and material through which outcast regimes can sustain themselves in the face of international pressure. During the Cold War the Soviet Union was this source and when it broke apart Syria, Cuba, and other former dependents found it far harder to resist outside pressure. Desiccation of patronage led to the signing of the Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians, largely because of a trickle down effect: without Soviet support Syria couldn’t continue to fund Palestinian resistance on par with American aid to Israel. Syria is weak now for this reason; without oil so too would be Iran and other former Soviet clients.

With Friends Like These

But today there is oil, and there are several antagonists capitalizing on anti-Americanism and spreading their largesse with debilitating effects for human rights. Hugo Chavez of Venezuela is using oil profits to destroy institutions within his own country, promote populist movements (see the election of Evo Morales), and reportedly to fund resistance in Colombia. Fidel Castro has found renewed sustenance through friendship with Chavez. Iran – crucially demonstrating that the Iranian issue encompasses more than just the nuclear dispute – is channeling aid to Hamas in Palestine and trying to build ties from Indonesia to Venezuela. In an effort to isolate Taiwan, China is active in Africa (Zimbabwe, Sudan), Asia (North Korea, Burma), and to a lesser degree Latin America. In unison with Russia through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), China helps prop up Central Asian dictators.

Patronage from all of these states allows rights violators to defy international norms while finding support elsewhere and thus avoiding isolation. Minatory characters everywhere find it easy to become eloquent, usurp valid arguments, and draw more reasonable people to their side (see Ahmadinejad’s letter to George Bush). Without a paragon of virtue the debate becomes muddled, the message unconvincing, and gross human rights violations overshadowed.

– DML

 2006. All rights reserved.

May 30, 2006 Posted by | Africa, Author: DML, China, Darfur, Foreign Aid, Hamas, Human Rights, Iran, Israel, Korea, Middle East, Oil, Palestine, Politics, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, United States, Venezuela | 1 Comment

And I Didn’t Even Mention Sharon

Israel Gains while an Incumbent Hamas Calculates its Direction

President Bush’s conference today in Washington with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was noticeable for more than just Bushisms like “suicider,” despite the bland analysis given initially by Wolf Blitzer et al. The chummy repoire between the leaders illustrated once again that Israel has the ear of the United States like almost no other nation. PM Olmert stated that the country would quit “most of the [West Bank] settlements” while annexing major “population centers,” a perhaps geographically logical maneuver but one that conflicts with the international Road Map to peace and is sure to upset Palestinians. Announced at the White House, the move clearly had the administration’s approval. Even more promisingly for Israel, Mr. Bush spoke passionately about the two nations’ shared views and goals, from Palestine to Iraq to Iran.

Mr. Bush put his feelings on display by venting frustration at Hamas’ lack of recognition for Israel’s right to exist. Indeed, Hamas has to recognize Israel along with renouncing the use of terrorism as a legitimate method of diplomacy. Without these steps – already agreed to by previous Palestinian leaders – the peace process cannot proceed. As Hamas has refused to do so thus far, Israel and America have been spearheading efforts to cut funding to the Palestinian Authority (PA), which helps pay salaries, secure fuel, and fund hospitals in the territories. The idea is that Hamas will be forced to capitulate. The reality, however, is much more nuanced.

That is because the Palestinian people voted Hamas into power in January. So despite the legitimacy of qualms about Hamas’ hostile rhetoric, America looks hypocritical: calling for democracy in the region but resisting it in practice when unfriendly parties are elected. Moreover, turning off aid is already showing signs of strangling the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Further starving and depriving the Palestinian people cannot be the result here.


Where to now?

What it Wants to Do

Hamas may put its mettle on display through vitriolic resistance to Israel, taking a martyr’s stand and feeding off of frustration. In this scenario, hardliners would find it easy to exploit the standoff, and the peace process would stall as Israel further solidifies the borders of a final state. Sporadic suicide bombings, Israeli air strikes, and inflammation of opinion throughout the region would continue. Palestine and peace would be the losers.

Resistance to Israel and death to America may make popular campaign slogans, but fanaticism is hardly a policy used to build a strong society be it in Palestine or anywhere else. So while martyrdom may allow Hamas to maintain support for a time, endless penury will cause Palestinians to rethink their allegiance to an unyielding cause. Just as voters cast aside the late Yasser Arafat’s faction Fatah for failing to provide adequate public services, they would do the same to an ineffective, exposed, and incumbent Hamas. Systems defined by opposition – but lacking in constitution – everywhere crumble for the same reason: because they fail to deliver sustainable development and the people living under them tire of stale ideologies. How long this takes depends on the propaganda and guns of the regime, but in the meantime lives suffer.

And What it Should Do

There is chance for a rosier outcome, however, if Hamas reads the runes shrewdly. When Hamas won power it grabbed 76 out of 132 seats in parliament with the support of a majority of electorate. Most Palestinians don’t cling to unrealistic visions of Israel’s total destruction or desire the rejection of the peace process, and it wasn’t for such views that they backed Hamas. Instead, it was a desire for change and a backlash against the corruption and mismanagement of Fatah – without Arafat – that led them to Hamas, which was offering security and basic services, particularly in the Gaza Strip.

Could Hamas begin to court this mainstream segment of its supporters? Hamas may find the realities of power more trying than obstreperously playing the spoiler from the sidelines. Accordingly, it could try to score points through fostering infrastructure and becoming more conciliatory toward Israel. It should reject extremists and move towards normalization. Crazy? Unlikely maybe, but it took Nixon to go to China and Sharon to withdraw from Gaza. Some think it possible because Hamas counts several American-educated operators among its number.

Lantos Lay Off my Jam Toast

Closer to home, Tom Lantos (D-CA) is of indubitable moral character, founding the Congressional Human Rights Caucus and expounding about rights transgressions around the world for decades. He made headlines for getting arrested outside the White House at the Darfur protest rally in April. But the bill he co-sponsored today – which passed 361 to 37 and imposes sweeping sanctions on the PA in response to Hamas’ victory – was pointless, and even the White House said so. As the administration ended funding last month, it was an unnecessary act that accomplishes nothing while portraying the United States as insensitive to the Palestinian people.

How much outsiders can influence the direction Hamas takes is uncertain. But if blocking funds contributes to humanitarian problems within Palestine it will not only enervate the people but arguments for America’s integrity. Despite misgivings about its past, the Quartet must preclude a humanitarian crisis and offer significant carrots to Hamas for recognition of Israel and renunciation of violence. However unsavory, the platform was elected and must be tolerated. If Hamas insists on belligerence, failure and stagnation are guaranteed; yet until the people’s candidates are allowed to govern they will fight to the death for the opportunity to find that out for themselves.

– DML

 2006. All rights reserved.

May 24, 2006 Posted by | Author: DML, Congress, Hamas, International Relations, Israel, Middle East, Palestine, Politics, United States | 1 Comment