Mary Dejevsky: Israel has an entitlement to defend its security, and a UN resolution on its side

It is easy from the comparative safety of Britain to assert that Israel's action has been disproportionate
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No one on this earth can describe the violence currently being perpetrated by Israel and the armed forces of the Islamic militant group Hizbollah as anything other than appalling. Lebanon, which had looked forward to a flourishing independent future, is being destroyed. The human suffering, especially in the Shia areas targeted by Israeli air strikes, becomes more acute with every day.

In one month, more than 1,000 people have been killed and as many as one million civilians have become refugees. The vast majority of the victims are Lebanese; the vast preponderance of the blame is, naturally, being laid at the door of the Israelis.

And, as this war has escalated, so too has the all too familiar shrill and simplistic condemnation of Israel; not just from Muslim countries - which seem temporarily to have buried their Sunni-Shia rivalry in the face of a greater threat - but from whole swathes of the liberal West. After all, in this latter-day David and Goliath contest, what right-thinking person would not be in sympathy with David - even this David, whose identity, split between Lebanese Christians, Lebanese Shia civilians and Hizbollah fighters, remains conveniently hazy?

In Britain and elsewhere in Europe, opponents of the Iraq war have had little hesitation in joining the cause. Their campaigning zeal is now directed to marching, orating and blogging against Israel's action in Lebanon. The Blair-Bush axis, demonised for its belligerent mismanagement in Iraq, is now the Blair-Bush-Israel axis. Just as George Bush and Tony Blair see in the actions of Hizbollah just another tentacle of the global terrorist hydra, so Israel's critics see its latest use of military force as an arrogant overreaction to a couple of kidnappings that masks an insatiable hunger for (Muslim) territory.

As a die-hard opponent of the war in Iraq - a war that flouted the will of the UN, ignored history, relied on faulty intelligence and has now reaped the whirlwind - I regret that the anti-war movement has aligned itself so swiftly, and so uncritically, with those who object to Israeli action against Hizbollah. Its voice will be less effective as a result. From now on it risks being subsumed in leftish, rather ill-defined, distaste for military action in general, and Israeli military action in particular. In this country, Mr Blair and his co-warriors will be able to dismiss it all the more easily as a result.

There are, however, key differences between the US-British intervention in Iraq and Israel's action in Lebanon that demand a more discriminating approach. And Messrs Blair and Bush could have made a far more convincing case for Israel - if that is what they wanted to do - had they not rushed to place Hizbollah in their favoured wider context - the supposed "arc" - of international terrorism. For Israel has a case, and it is a case that deserves a more sympathetic hearing than it is getting. But it has to do far less with any threat from global terrorism than with Israel's entitlement to security as a sovereign and democratic state.

It can be argued that the kidnapping by Hizbollah of two Israeli soldiers on the Lebanese frontier, and the killing of five more, was just the latest in a series of border violations that goes right back to Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon six years ago. In other words, it was not in itself a cause for war, as the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, claimed. It can also be argued that Israel has committed as many border violations as Hizbollah over the years, and holds hundreds of Lebanese and Palestinians prisoner in defiance of the Geneva conventions. In other words, that Hizbollah was, according to a primitive sort of logic, warranted in trying to obtain a prisoner exchange.

And it can be argued that Mr Olmert, as a non-soldier, faced political pressure to show that he could be as tough as his soldier-predecessor, Ariel Sharon. In other words, he could not afford to appear intimidated in the face of increasingly bold missile attacks from Hizbollah in the north and Hamas militants in the south.

Undoubtedly, these are all elements in the equation. What is incontestable, however, is that Israel has on its side a UN Security Council resolution, 1559, from 2 September, 2004, which called for the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon and the disarming of Hizbollah. The last Syrian troops stationed in Lebanon withdrew last year, in the wake of the so-called "cedar revolution". Hizbollah, however, far from being disarmed, only grew.

Precisely how comprehensively it had equipped itself and prepared for battle appears to have surprised even Israel's supposedly crack military intelligence service. The short, sharp victory Mr Olmert might have expected has not materialised. Instead, a messy conflict has evolved, in which Israel has suffered its own civilian casualties, and inflicted many times more.

In an ideal world, Israel would have left the disarming of Hizbollah to the Lebanese government or the UN. But both had proved pathetically unequal to the task. Indeed, the failure of the UN force, Unifil - dispatched to the region in 1978 - was one reason why George Bush and others were so sceptical of the UN's ability to disarm Iraq, and now Iran. Missile attacks into Israel were not halted either by Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon or by its withdrawal from Gaza last year. Israel can be forgiven for concluding that its policy of "land for peace" would work only if it enforced the peace itself.

It is easy from the comparative safety of Britain or the US to assert with all confidence that Israel's action against Hizbollah has been "disproportionate". And it is true that neither Hizbollah, even in its recent emboldened state, nor Hamas militants in Gaza have the capacity to erase Israel from the map, even if formally they still harbour this goal. However contentious its origins, however, Israel has the same right as any other state to national security and the same right to defend its borders. The half-heartedness with which this elementary right has been guaranteed internationally, and not only by the UN, is the reason why peace has never been possible and why the Palestinians have been able to persist in their destabilising vision of their "right to return".

Two other misconceptions need to be cleared up. First, there may indeed be a connection between the war in southern Lebanon and the war in Iraq. But it is not the one identified by Mr Bush and Mr Blair. It is that the US failure in Iraq may have emboldened Syria and Iran to increase their support for Hizbollah. And second, while the Shia of Lebanon have borne the brunt of the casualties in immediate, human terms, Israel is also a victim of this conflict. This time last year, Israel's withdrawal from Gaza had calmed Israeli insecurities, improved the country's image and fostered hope of eventual peace. The damage in all these areas is already catastrophic.