Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Our Military Account Is Overdrawn, and Our Moral Account Is Closed

The Israeli military has told UN peacekeepers not to make any attempts to repair bridges destroyed by IDF bombing; if they do, the IDF will kill them.

George Monbiot has an op-ed in The Guardian answering the question endlessly asked of those who oppose Israel's actions in Lebanon: What would you have done? The question, Monbiot writes, is based on a number of false assumptions.

Since Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000, there have been hundreds of violations of the "blue line" between the two countries. The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil) reports that Israeli aircraft crossed the line "on an almost daily basis" between 2001 and 2003, and "persistently" until 2006. These incursions "caused great concern to the civilian population, particularly low-altitude flights that break the sound barrier over populated areas". On some occasions, Hizbullah tried to shoot them down with anti-aircraft guns.

In October 2000, the Israel Defence Forces shot at unarmed Palestinian demonstrators on the border, killing three and wounding 20. In response, Hizbullah crossed the line and kidnapped three Israeli soldiers. On several occasions, Hizbullah fired missiles and mortar rounds at IDF positions, and the IDF responded with heavy artillery and sometimes aerial bombardment. Incidents like this killed three Israelis and three Lebanese in 2003; one Israeli soldier and two Hizbullah fighters in 2005; and two Lebanese people and three Israeli soldiers in February 2006. Rockets were fired from Lebanon into Israel several times in 2004, 2005 and 2006, on some occasions by Hizbullah. But, the UN records, "none of the incidents resulted in a military escalation".

On May 26 this year, two officials of Islamic Jihad - Nidal and Mahmoud Majzoub - were killed by a car bomb in the Lebanese city of Sidon. This was widely assumed in Lebanon and Israel to be the work of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. In June, a man named Mahmoud Rafeh confessed to the killings and admitted that he had been working for Mossad since 1994. Militants in southern Lebanon responded, on the day of the bombing, by launching eight rockets into Israel. One soldier was lightly wounded. There was a major bust-up on the border, during which one member of Hizbullah was killed and several wounded, and one Israeli soldier wounded. But while the border region "remained tense and volatile", Unifil says it was "generally quiet" until July 12.

There has been a heated debate on the internet about whether the two Israeli soldiers kidnapped by Hizbullah that day were captured in Israel or in Lebanon, but it now seems pretty clear that they were seized in Israel. This is what the UN says, and even Hizbullah seems to have forgotten that they were supposed to have been found sneaking around the outskirts of the Lebanese village of Aita al-Shaab. Now it simply states that "the Islamic resistance captured two Israeli soldiers at the border with occupied Palestine". Three other Israeli soldiers were killed by the militants. There is also some dispute about when, on July 12, Hizbullah first fired its rockets; but Unifil makes it clear that the firing took place at the same time as the raid - 9am. Its purpose seems to have been to create a diversion. No one was hit.

But there is no serious debate about why the two soldiers were captured: Hizbullah was seeking to exchange them for the 15 prisoners of war taken by the Israelis during the occupation of Lebanon and (in breach of article 118 of the third Geneva convention) never released. It seems clear that if Israel had handed over the prisoners, it would - without the spillage of any more blood - have retrieved its men and reduced the likelihood of further kidnappings. But the Israeli government refused to negotiate. Instead - well, we all know what happened instead. Almost 1,000 Lebanese and 33 Israeli civilians have been killed so far, and a million Lebanese displaced from their homes.

On July 12, in other words, Hizbullah fired the first shots. But that act of aggression was simply one instance in a long sequence of small incursions and attacks over the past six years by both sides. So why was the Israeli response so different from all that preceded it? The answer is that it was not a reaction to the events of that day. The assault had been planned for months.

Tyler Marshall and Alissa J. Rubin report in the Los Angeles Times about why the U.S. holds such a weak hand in the Middle East. The answer is a four-letter word:

As the Bush administration seeks to negotiate a diplomatic end to the fighting in the Middle East, it finds it has a strikingly weak hand.

The war in Iraq, a halting U.S. response to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and now the prolonged fighting in Lebanon and Israel have led to intense anti-Americanism in the Arab world. Alliances with longtime Arab friends are strained. And the U.S. lacks relations with two key regional players: Iran and Syria.

"The Lebanon crisis is the end of the myth that we can tell the world what to do and they'll line up to do it," said Nancy Soderberg, a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Clinton administration. "They are going to have to do real diplomacy."

Adding to the challenge is, remarkably, inexperience. Despite 5 1/2 years in office, President Bush's foreign policy team has been involved in surprisingly few high-stakes negotiations in the region.
Since U.S. forces captured Baghdad without a serious fight in spring 2003, fear of America's military might has melted away as its soldiers and Marines have been unable to control the insurgency or stem Iraq's escalating sectarian violence. The result has reduced America's aura of complete power and, with it, the ability to bend others to its will.

Successful diplomacy requires being able to broker between enemies by having the trust of both parties and enough force, moral and military, to enforce a deal. America's recent foreign forays have relied largely on force, but the military victories have been short-lived and unable to bring about the democracy that was promised.

"In the Middle East, historically people always go with the strong horse, but we don't look like the strong horse anymore," said Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and now director of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy. "To Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran, we look like we're short of breath."

Added Rand Corp. counter-terrorism specialist Bruce Hoffman, "If they felt threatened then, they are emboldened now."

The Bush administration faces an unprecedented level of anti-American feeling in the Arab world, emotions driven in part by its image as an unquestioning supporter of Israel and by allegations of U.S. torture and abuse of Muslim detainees in places such as Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

One survey conducted eight months ago in Egypt, a U.S. ally, by the polling group Zogby International found that just more than 3% of those questioned had a "very favorable" opinion of the United States, whereas 71% had a "very unfavorable" view.

The result is a serious erosion of political goodwill and moral authority, both important components of diplomatic influence historically available to the United States.

And yes, we told you so.

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