20 July 2006 Edition

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International Lebanon: Deadly consequences of Israeli domination

Bush gives Israel free hand in Middle East

Israel's assault on Lebanon, following Hezbollah's cross-border raid on Wednesday 12 July and weeks of unremitting bloodshed in Gaza, brought demands for international action to contain the crisis and mediate an end to the fighting. Lebanon's appeal for the UN Security Council to step in is supported by most Arab governments and by France, Lebanon's former colonial master and the current Security Council President. But the council has been vainly trying for a fortnight to agree a resolution on Gaza, with the US threatening to use its veto in defence of Israel, while US President, George Bush, expressed support for Israel's strategy at the G8 summit in St. Petersburg. A consensus on the more complicated, fast-moving crisis now engulfing Lebanon is highly unlikely.

Far reaching potential

The Israeli offensive has the potential to reach Syria and even Tehran "the financial and logistical backers of Hezbollah". Furthermore, the Israeli press is buzzing with theories that the offensive is all part of a larger plan, and that President Ehud Olmert is using the abduction of Corporal. Gilad Shalit, on the Gazan border three weeks ago, as a pretext for toppling the Hamas government.

In the days and months leading up to Shalit's capture, Israel began arresting and targeting Hamas ministers in Gaza. In rhetoric similar to that invoked to justify the US invasion of Iraq after 9/11, Olmert announced his intention to, "fight Hamas here and abroad". "Abroad" refers of course to Syria, where two Israeli fighter jets buzzed the home of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, apparently to send a warning that the Syrians are next.

Israel's Operation 'Summer Rains' is an exercise in collective punishment. After three armed Palestinian groups killed two Israeli soldiers and took Shalit prisoner, Israeli warplanes bombed the power plant, which serves most of Gaza's 1.4 million people, sealed tight the only commercial crossing into the coastal strip and, until 1 July, also shut off the fuel pipeline. What remains of the Gazan electric company struggles to channel six hours of power per day to Palestinian homes. Hospitals are running neo-natal incubators and other equipment on their own generators.

Deaf ear to calls for restraint

In the face of this assault, not to speak of Israeli arrests of some its leaders and apparent assassination attempts on others, Hamas will be loath to use whatever leverage it has with Shalit's captors to secure the soldier's release.

For years, the Islamist movement lambasted the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority for knuckling under to Israel's shows of superior force. Now that they are nominally in charge, they do not wish to display weakness. Hamas hardliners who want the movement to go underground will be strengthened as the crisis develops, particularly after Olmert rebuffed the ceasefire offer from Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, their party leader.

So far, calls for restraint from the United Nations and the European Union, urging Israel to recognise that military escalation will ultimately undermine its national interests, have predictably fallen on deaf ears. Meanwhile non-committal statements by the Bush administration have been widely interpreted as unqualified support for Israeli prime minister Olmert's effort not only to free captured Israeli soldiers but also to inflict as much damage as possible on Hizbullah and Hamas in the process. This has strengthened regional perceptions that the current US administration, unlike those of Clinton and Bush Snr, is either unable or unwilling to play the honest broker.

US role

The Bush administration appears to have outsourced its Middle East policy to the Israeli government. Israel, post 9/11, has effectively a free hand. The US has effectively cut diplomatic relations with Syria and encouraged talk of regime change in Damascus. It regards Palestine's elected Hamas government, like Hezbollah's political wing, as a terrorist grouping and refuses to deal with either. In the ongoing stand-off with Iran, the US is pushing for pre-emptive action to stop Tehran's nuclear programme. At this point, even those governments considered pro-western, such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, have felt the repercussions of the US 'war on terror', feeling alienated from the US administration's aggressive rhetoric.

As the main funder of the Israeli military, Washington could easily put a stop to the offensive against Gaza and Lebanon and force the Israeli administration to follow the diplomatic path. This peaceful option would almost certainly achieve the liberation of the three soldiers captured - two by Hizbullah and one by Palestine activists in Gaza - without inflicting further suffering on the civilian population. Bush's decision not to intervene will only serve to increase regional distrust in Washington role as a 'peace‚ broker'.

Through three decades of Republican and Democratic administrations, Washington has played a vital role in tempering the trigger-happy policies of Israel. The Bush administration has deliberately changed that policy, and by tacitly approving Tel Aviv's disproportionate response, Washington is compromising its role as peacemaker.

From the very first meeting of his National Security Council six years ago, President Bush made it clear that he wanted the US to reverse 35 years of consistent engagement, dating back to Richard Nixon, in trying to manage the Israeli/Arab conflict. "I don't see much we can do over there at this point", he announced. When Colin Powell expressed grave concerns over the implications of disengagement, Bush replied: "Sometimes a show of force by one side can really clarify things."

The one side‚ is clearly Israel. Innocent civilians are dying in Gaza and Lebanon because of a policy decision in Washington that the region is best brought to heel by US-financed Israeli military might.

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