Too High a Price

Too High a Price

The spreading violence in Lebanon and Gaza demonstrate that the collective punishment of the Palestinian and Lebanese people is not only inhumane and should be condemned but also leads to more radicalization and to more chaos.


With the spreading violence in Lebanon and Gaza, the Israeli doctrine of absolute security and massive retaliation–the notion that any attack or threat of attack on Israel will be met with a disproportionate response–is again proving counterproductive to Israel’s own security as well as to the larger stability of the region. It makes no sense for Israel to destroy the civil infrastructure of the Palestinians and of Lebanon in response to the kidnapping of its soldiers, or to further weaken the capacity of the governments of Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority while at the same trying to hold them accountable for the actions of groups and militias they cannot reasonably control. This collective punishment of the Palestinian and Lebanese people is not only inhumane and should be condemned but also leads to more radicalization and to more chaos.

That was the lesson of the Israeli siege of the Palestinian Authority in 2002, which severely weakened the PA’s ability to govern, helping to pave the way for the political success of Hamas. And it will be the lesson of the increasing destruction of Lebanon. Indeed, the most likely casualty of the latest case of Israel’s massive retaliation will be the fragile social peace and the democratically elected government in Lebanon. Ironically, the much-trumpeted Cedar Revolution, the only example of the success of the Bush doctrine that neoconservatives can still point to, could be brought down by the Likudnik policies of Israel that the neocons so champion. It took Lebanon more than twenty years to recover a degree of stability and civil peace after the last major incursion. How long will it take to recover from the unraveling of the stability that American and Israeli policies are helping to bring about?

It is now clear that the American and Israeli strategy of trying to isolate Hamas and Hezbollah on the one hand, and Syria and Iran on the other, have backfired. Would the situation in Gaza have gotten so out of hand if Israel, the United States and the European Union had tried to work with the democratically elected Hamas government from the outset? And would Hezbollah have felt the freedom to take the reckless action it took–the deplorable firing of rockets on Israeli civilians? As Juan Cole points out today on Informed Comment, “A Lebanon with no Syrian troops and Hizbullah in the government was inherently unstable. With Syria gone, Hizbullah filled a security vacuum and also was less restrained.”

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said that Syria has a special responsibility to resolve this crisis. But the whole thrust of American policy of the last two years has been to reduce unconditionally Syria’s influence in Lebanon so as to leave Lebanon to the Lebanese. By what logic does the Administration now seek to hold Syria accountable for the reckless action of Hezbollah militia in southern Lebanon? As Cole suggests, the hasty unplanned departure of Syrian forces may have ironically given Hezbollah more freedom to act than before. A dialogue with Syria together with an effort to have a more careful planned disengagement of Syrian forces would have given the Lebanese government a better chance of establishing control over its sovereignty in southern Lebanon.

The big beneficiaries of American policy have been the more radical wings of Hamas and Hezbollah and the Iranians, who more and more look like the champions of the Palestinian people. The big losers are the so-called moderate Arab regimes, which again look helpless in the face of what is seen as Israeli aggression, and the moderate Israelis, Palestinians and Lebanese who hoped for some normalcy of life with the prospect of peace, especially when the Hamas leadership appeared to be moving toward recognition of Israel. The United States and the larger world, too, are losers, for no one benefits from this mindless escalation of violence, particularly at a time of growing sectarian violence in Iraq and rising oil prices.

The events of the past two weeks should remind us that the peace and stability of the region is too important to be left to Israel and to Washington. There is a need for much greater and more forceful UN and European Union involvement and for the kind of diplomacy that the Europeans and the UN conducted in the late 1980s and the early ’90s that led to the mutual release of prisoners and eventually to the Oslo peace process. The UN Quartet–consisting of the UN, the United States, Russia and the EU–has been far too deferential to the Bush Administration’s failed road map strategy, and it is time for more active and comprehensive G-8 and UN-led diplomacy. Secretary General Kofi Annan’s dispatch of two representatives to the region is a start, but it must be followed up by G-8 and UN Security Council action to rein in forces on all sides. This diplomacy should be aimed first at establishing a cease-fire and a mutual prisoner exchange and second at recognizing Hamas in Palestine and establishing talks with Syria and Iran. The United States must urgently back this diplomacy as well as make clear to Israel that it cannot support its current military action. The price it will pay in Iraq and in the region as a whole for doing so is just too large.

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