Rage of the elephant: Israel in Lebanon

Israel is like the elephants of the Kruger National Park, observed Ariel Sharon’s former spokesperson on a recent visit to South Africa. Ra’anan Gissin was speaking as the guest of the country’s Zionist Federation: “We just want to be left alone,” he pleaded. “We seem docile, but if you wound us we can go crazy because we are an endangered species.”

As the world has seen, Lebanon—half Israel’s size—has just experienced the wrath of the behemoth: its people, capital, towns, villages, highways, bridges, power and water utilities ground into the dust.

The apparent trigger of rage was the seizure by Hizbullah of two Israeli soldiers—one originally from Durban.

For a Hamas attack on an Israeli army post two weeks previously—and the abduction of a soldier—the people of Gaza paid a price of 200-to-one killed and vital infrastructure flattened. The death toll in Lebanon is more than 1 200 to 150 Israeli dead, 120 of the latter being soldiers. One third of Lebanon’s dead are children. Thousands more have been mutilated, their homes razed to the ground; one quarter of Lebanon’s population were displaced. The country remains blockaded.

Norwegian writer Joostein Gaarder responded: “We no longer recognise the state of Israel. We could not recognise the apartheid regime. We call child murderers ‘child murderers’. We do not recognise the principle of a thousand Arab eyes for one Israeli eye.”

The world struggles to understand the cause of the conflict. Talk of Israeli Jews being an endangered species is the standard Zionist position. The Jews began returning to Palestine at the end of the 19th century to reclaim their biblical homeland. As they acquired land, they were met with increasingly violent opposition from the Arabs. The settlers were forced to defend themselves.

In fact, from the onset, Zionism aimed at the dispossession of the indigenous population so that Israel could become a wholly Jewish state. As the Palestinians became aware of these intentions they, quite naturally, began resisting. At Israel’s independence in 1948, based on the United Nations Partition Plan—about 56% of the land to the Jewish state and 44% to the Palestinians—Israel acquired the power, aid and resources to expand to 78% of the former territory, expelled Palestinians and, with American backing, became the regional superpower.

With the illegal Jewish settlements, security road network and the construction of the monstrous wall around the militarily occupied West Bank, the remaining Palestinians are ghettoised within 12% of their original territory. This dispossession is reminiscent of apartheid and its 13% of Bantustan homelands. For many this is the fundamental cause of the conflict.

Lebanon, too, has been a part of Zionist annexation plans. Israel long regarded the Litani river to its north as its natural border, and constantly sought to turn the country into a Christian bulwark against the Muslims. It invaded in 1948, 1978 and 1982 and stayed in the south until 2000, before being driven out by Hizbullah. In that period Israel provoked civil war, connived in massacres, created a proxy army in the south, and still holds on to strategic farmland. No wonder a retreating Israeli soldier grumbled that Lebanon was a never-ending story.

What lies behind Israel’s latest aggression? Could such a disproportionate response really have been because of the abduction of two soldiers? There have been constant border skirmishes. Israel could have responded with local action or the prisoner exchange sought by Hizbullah. The dogs of war were let loose instead.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was, of course, the subject of a testosterone evaluation. Unlike most of his predecessors, he is no former army general. As new bull elephant he had to prove his mettle, see off attacks from his right flank and teach the Arabs a lesson. But there is more to Israel’s backlash than that.

Noted Israeli peace activists had previously warned that the military was waiting to use any provocation in order to unleash “a possible combination of intensified state terror and mass killing” on the population of Gaza to protect Sharon’s “unilateral disengagement” strategy at all costs.

Additionally, Israel has positioned itself within the new strategy of counter-terrorism propounded by the Washington neo-conservatives in the post-9/11 world. Many commentators suggest that, for the United States, the broader goal is to strangle the axis of Hizbullah, Hamas, Syria and Iran, which the Bush administration believes is pooling resources to change the strategic playing field in the Middle East. A senior Israeli official explained that the Hizbullah raid had provided “a unique moment with a convergence of interest”. For Israel this new paradigm is seen as most welcome, for it shifts focus away from the Arab-Israeli conflict as the root cause of the problem. Some would argue that such “convergence” gave Israeli hawks the incentive for launching the Lebanon onslaught. Some would point out the grave risks of tying the destiny of Israel’s people to such an agenda.

People’s resistance in a just cause is not easily crushed. One reason for Gissin’s South African visit was to assure local Zionists that Israel did not lose the war to Hizbullah. They lost the war on the airwaves, he said, not on the ground. But, clearly, they lost it both ways. Hizbullah, whom they declared they would eradicate, again taught them a lesson in the Litani valley, and again exposed the myth of Israeli invincibility. Repression has the habit of generating more resolute resistance—in Lebanon and in Palestine.

Israel lost the battle for public opinion because the world saw the corpses of Arab children being dug out from the rubble of destroyed buildings.

Are people not saying: “Now Jews, too, have behaved like Nazis.”

Those were the words of Israel’s first minister of agriculture, Aharon Cizlang, in May 1948 after the Deir Yassin massacres. He added: “And my entire being has been shaken.”

How much longer will the world permit Israel to get away with land theft and child murder? The sieges and check-points, the collective punishment and targeted executions, the house demolitions and ethnic cleansing, and the abduction of legally elected parliamentarians and government ministers. When Israel’s new military chief, Dan Halutz, ordered a one-ton bomb dropped on an apartment block in Gaza City to take out a Hamas leader, he said that his only feeling was the sensation of the bump of the plane as the device was released. No remorse for the women and children blown to smithereens along with the target. He said he slept well at night. 

Like Cizlang, we are all shaken. We feel sorrow for those who died under rocket fire in Israel. But we do not blame Hizbullah or Palestinian resistance any more than we blamed South Africa liberation forces when civilians died. We blamed the racist policies of a corrupt government that cynically placed its own people in the line of danger.

By bombing Beirut, Israel’s leaders knew there would be retaliation, just as when they carry out targeted assassinations to provoke reaction and wreck unwanted negotiations. To them the terror of their own citizens, fleeing south or hiding in their bomb shelters, is an acceptable part of their cynical calculations. As Tanya Reinhart, Israeli peace activist, observed: “For the Israeli military leadership, not only the Lebanese and the Palestinians, but also the Israelis, are just pawns in some big military vision.” And how telling it was that when the missiles fell on Haifa, among the victims were Israeli Arabs whose government does not bother to provide them with shelters!

Like Gaarder, we must call baby killers “baby killers” and declare that those using methods reminiscent of the Nazis be told that they are behaving like Nazis. May Israelis wake up and see reason, as happened in South Africa, and negotiate peace. And finally, yes, let us learn from what helped open white South African eyes: the combination of a just struggle reinforced by international solidarity utilising the weapons of boycott and sanctions.

Ronnie Kasrils is the South African Minister of Intelligence and writes in his personal capacity

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