Dominic Lawson: For Israel this is a 'proportionate' response

Like any democracy, Israel's actions are conditioned by sensitivity to public opinion
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As he walked through the rubble of buildings destroyed by the Israeli air force, the UN's emergency relief co-ordinator, Jan Egeland, described what he saw, inevitably, as "a humanitarian tragedy". He was talking nonsense. It is, of course, a human tragedy. But for some reason it is now the habit of every commentator - especially on the BBC - to add four meaningless syllables to the truth, as if it were necessary to impress upon listeners just how terrible it all is. We do not need to be impressed. No sentient person who has seen the pictures of children killed or orphaned in the hostilities between Hizbollah and Israel requires such clumsy finger-pointing.

What is needed, however, is a little bit of context. And where better to get it than in the words of Sayed Nasrallah, the general secretary of Hizbollah in Lebanon? He is, after all, the man who planned the rocket attacks and military incursions into northern Israel which have provoked the Israel Defence Forces into such dire retribution. Nine years ago, after his 18-year-old son was killed by the IDF in an anti-Hizbollah operation, Nasrallah gave a very wide-ranging interview which is now to be found on a website devoted to the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (search for it on if you want to see the full text).

Asked by his interviewer whether he felt hatred or grief at the loss of his son, Nasrallah ticked none of the above: "I am happy. He will certainly take us to paradise. As the family of a martyr we will experience that joy." He went on to gloat that the Israeli Prime Minister at the time, Benjamin Netanyahu, "no longer demands a security zone. He wants only a guarantee that we will not pursue him to northern Israel. But never will we recognise the existence of a northern Israel ... the Jewish entity is the symbol of terrorism. There can be no peace with such an entity."

The interviewer points out - and how prescient that now seems - that if Nasrallah carried out his threats to continue its war against "the Jewish entity" on Israeli soil then "Israel has threatened to destroy the infrastructure of Lebanon - roads, bridges, electricity, water supply - to make the Lebanese realise what price they would have to pay for the attacks on Israel. Do you really want to risk everything that has been rebuilt after 15 years of civil war?"

The Hizbollah leader replies: "We are well aware of these threats. They are nothing new. They reflect nothing but sheer fear and helplessness; they prove the Zionists are no longer able to defeat us by military means." To which his interlocutor replies, bravely I think: "Oh yes they are."

That feisty retort sheds some light on the other over-used word in the crisis in Lebanon: "disproportionate". What is the proportionate response to a terrorist organisation which repeatedly sends rockets packed with ball bearings to cause maximum civilian casualties in your main domestic tourist resort? And what do you do if that organisation, backed by Iran and Syria, also has two ministers in the government of the country from which they are sending those rockets?

President Chirac, whose former ambassador to London called Israel "a shitty little country", was among those Europeans who criticised Israel's retaliation as "totally disproportionate". This was the same Chirac who in January said "states who would use terrorist means against us must understand they would lay themselves open to a firm and fitting response on our part. This response could be a conventional one. It could also be of a different kind." Or, in other words: we might nuke the bastards. Having already escalated the diplomatic language to "totally disproportionate", imagine the words Chirac would unleash if the Israeli government this week threatened the use of nuclear weapons against Iran, unless its proxies in Lebanon desisted from their acts of terrorism.

We do not, of course, have any proof that Tehran has, as some allege, engineered the latest crisis to deflect increasingly impatient Western powers from pursuing their action against Iran's nuclear programme. Let us assume it was a complete coincidence that the Hizbollah capture of two IDF conscripts (and the killing of eight others) within Israeli territory took place on the day after Javier Solana warned the chief Iranian negotiator, Ali Larijani, that his country's nuclear dossier would be referred back to the Security Council. And let us also accept that it is a complete coincidence that on his way back to Tehran from that bruising meeting, Ali Larijani dropped in to Damascus for a meeting with Hizbollah's other backer, President Bashar Assad.

Who needs to construct conspiracy theories when everything is so plain to see on the geopolitical chess board? Last week the Iranian News Channel broadcast a speech by the speaker of Iran's parliament, Gholam Ali Haddad Adel. Addressing his remarks to Israel - but also to the crowd in front of him - Gholam Ali declared: "Today the confrontation is not only within the borders of Lebanon. It is taking place deep within your own land. Today your flourishing cities in the north of Israel are within the range of the fire of the fighters and lion cubs of Hizbollah. No place in Israel will be safe."

At which observation the crowd chanted "Khamenei is the leader! Death to America! Death to England!" The speaker continued: "As said by Hassan Nasrallah, this courageous, vigilant and informed religious scholar, the war has just begun. To Hassan Nasrallah we say 'well done'. This religious scholar roars like a lion and the blood of the Imam Khomeini rages in his veins." To this the crowd chants: "No more humiliation! No more humiliation!"

It is humiliation, in fact, which the Israeli government is trying to avoid. Perhaps a former military leader such as Ariel Sharon could have withstood the terrific domestic pressure for retaliatory measures - always assuming that he would have wanted to. But the new Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, has no such track record with which to reassure the Israeli people. Like any democracy, Israel's actions are ultimately conditioned by sensitivity to public opinion - its own and not other countries'.

It was, after all, domestic public opinion rather than the requirements of military strategy which caused Israel to withdraw from Lebanon in 2000. Its own people had sickened at the casualties to its conscript army. But when the Israeli public believes that national survival is at stake - as it has proved on a number of occasions since 1948 - it will be deterred by no amount of international opprobrium.

Although the British state was not founded upon the experience of genocide, I suspect that most of the people of this country, in similar circumstances, would feel the same way.