The West fiddles while Lebanon burns

America and the European Union must intervene, says Anthony Parsons
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The Independent Online
By early spring the temperature between the Hizbollah guerrillas in south Lebanon and the Israelis in the so-called "security zone" had been rising for some time, and it was no surprise when the Israelis retaliated for the rocketing by Hizbollah of Kiryat Shmona on the northern Israeli border. Needless to say, each side blamed the other for being the first to breach a 1993 understanding that neither would attack civilian targets. With Israeli elections less than two months away, the opposition accusing the government of being soft on terrorism, with the growing effectiveness of Hizbollah attacks and the corresponding frustration in the Israeli military, and, of course, with the serious plight of the inhabitants of Kiryat Shmona and other northern towns, no-one expected the Israeli retaliation to be confined to a simple tit for tat.

However, a week later, it is impossible to use phrases like "measured response" and "proportionate retaliation" with any degree of credibility. The Israeli operation, although avoiding the use of ground troops, has been conducted on a massive scale. The inhabitants of south Lebanon have been forced to flee their homes in even greater numbers than in the equivalent crisis in 1993. It appears that over 10 per cent of Lebanon's population (about 400,000 people) are now refugees, the equivalent, in relation to the size of population, of 5.5 million people in Britain. In addition, Lebanese infrastructure has been targeted, including an important source of electricity supply for the capital.

As regards casualties, the Israelis emphasise the care they are taking to avoid killing or wounding innocent civilians. But this is an impossibility in an operation of this magnitude. The guerrillas are fish swimming in the sea of the civilian population, and things go wrong even in the most carefully conducted military operations. Every day the civilian casualty figures mount. Yesterday there was an exponential leap with the killing of scores of refugees sheltering in a UN compound and the wiping out of a family in Nabatea. Every day brings new horrors.

It is hard to imagine a military solution. Hizbollah remains defiant and continues to fire rockets into Israel. The Lebanese government cannot and will not respond to Israeli pressure to move in and disarm the guerrillas. Only the Syrians could do that and they have no intention of doing so. Apart from any other consideration, the Lebanese government cannot be seen by its own people as abetting the Israeli occupation of the south against which Hizbollah, its national support growing by the day, presents itself as the champion.

Only international diplomacy can defuse the crisis and reopen the path to a resumption of Israeli/Syrian discussions on the Golan Heights, which are the key to an eventual settlement in the Lebanon involving Israeli withdrawal from the "security zone". With such an agreement, Hizbollah's fangs would be drawn. Syria would see to that.

At the moment, the international effort is unco-ordinated. The United States has blocked action by the UN, and is, in bilateral negotiations with the parties, obviously closer to Israel than to the Lebanese or Syria. France is also pursuing an initiative that may or may not be possible to combine with American ideas. The European Union as a whole is nowhere to be seen and nothing much appears to have emerged from the Lebanese Prime Minister's visit to London.

If, as I regret, the UN is to be excluded from peacemaking, why can't the United States and the European Union collectively get together and co-ordinate a vigorous diplomatic initiative with the parties? The Europeans have access in places where the Americans do not, and vice versa. Such an approach would surely be more effective than the piecemeal efforts at present being pursued.

A full settlement of the problem must, as I have suggested, await an Israeli/Syrian agreement on the Golan Heights leading to Israeli withdrawal from the "security zone" and a full Israeli/Lebanese peace treaty. That is for the longer term. Meanwhile, if the present crisis is not defused quickly, the Lebanon, still on the road to recovery after 15 years of grim civil war, could drown beneath the weight of the tragedies being heaped upon it.

The author was UK Permanent Representative to the United Nations, (1979- 82).