The war in Lebanon has entered its second week, and, as all the war correspondents keep saying, there is no end in sight. According to the BBC, 230 Lebanese and 25 Israelis have been killed to date, the vast majority of them civilians.
Leaving aside the reasons for the conflict, I am amazed by the refusal of the international community to demand an immediate ceasefire. It is becoming increasingly clear that the United States tacitly supports the Israeli army’s stated goal of “neutralizing” Hezbollah, and that it is willing to risk the destabilization of the Lebanese government, as well as the lives of countless civilians, to achieve it.
I’m far from an expert on the Middle East, but this strategy strikes me as being dangerously naive. Even if Israel succeeds in routing Hezbollah--which, by all accounts, is unlikely--this will only displace the problem it is attempting to solve. The anger and resentment that fuels Hezbollah will inevitably find another agent, and the cycle of violence will continue.
Setare just sent me a link to this Guardian piece, which neatly summarizes the problem:
[T]here is nothing in the history of the region to suggest that Israel's destruction of mass popular movements such as Hamas or Hizbullah (even if this were possible) would drive their successors closer to western-style democracy, and every reason to believe the opposite. Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 did away with the PLO and produced Hizbullah instead, the incarceration and elimination of Arafat only served to strengthen Hamas, and the wars in Afghanistan, the Gulf and Iraq gave birth to Bin Ladenist terrorism and extended its reach and appeal. And we should not be surprised if the summer of 2006 produces more of the same.
What the author describes is a series of actions that have had unintended but entirely predictable consequences, all of which have taken Israel farther away from its goal of securing peace for its citizens—which, I should add, no sane person would suggest that they do not deserve. The average person in Haifa has had nothing whatsoever to do with the creation of Israel, with the displacement of the Palestinians, or with the invasion of Lebanon. The average person in Haifa, like the average person in Beirut, is simply trying to live amidst forces over which she has absolutely no control.
That being said, what the Israeli government and its Western allies consistently fail to understand is that few human beings will respond to being attacked by embracing their attacker. When confronted with soldiers, or snipers, or missiles, most of us will feel fear above all else, and fear inexorably drives us to seek protection for ourselves and our loved ones. If the only protection that is available comes from a terrorist organization, then we will gladly take it, regardless of our political inclinations, because it gives us a chance to live.
Moreover, what those of us who have never experienced mass killing cannot possibly comprehend is that identity becomes profoundly essentialized in war. The desire for physical survival leaves little room for discussion about our political or philosophical views, or the precise degree of our empathy for the other side. In conflicts that are based on ethnic and/or religious affiliation, the attacker confronts you as one of them, which is to say, not one of us, and in the milliseconds before violence occurs, it is infinitely more sensible to run for cover than to protest.
Even more dangerous than fear, though, is grief, which is as much a factor in armed conflict as political ideology. For every person who is killed, there is a larger community of family and friends who are wounded by loss. For them, the conflict ceases to be an abstract argument about rights or land or power, and instead becomes a violation of their deepest personal bonds.
What does it do to a person to collect the scraps of flesh of their child from a bomb crater? What is politics then? At best, the experience will radicalize them; at worst, it will destroy them. Either way, the experience will haunt them for life, and often for the lifetimes of their children and grandchildren as well. This historical memory may fade as the conflict fades, but it remains sequestered in the DNA of the family, ready to reemerge when violence next erupts. Governments and terrorist groups understand this, and both are all too willing to turn grief to their advantage. They know that it is the lifeblood of power.
This, in essence, is why I am a pacifist, even when great injustice has been committed. It is also why I am not optimistic about the outcome of current events in the Middle East, even if a ceasefire is reached tomorrow. It still wouldn’t be over.
Postscript: According to this UN report, over 3000 people were killed in Iraq during the month of June alone. See above.