The relationship between Israel and Lebanon is deteriorating again - and it's civilians who will suffer

“Above and below live civilians whom we have nothing against – a kind of human shield,” Eshel threatened. “And that is where the war will be. That is where we will have to fight in order to stop it and win.  Whoever stays in these bases [sic] will simply be hit…”  

Robert Fisk
Thursday 23 June 2016 14:19
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The Lebanon-Israel border has been a site of conflict in the past
The Lebanon-Israel border has been a site of conflict in the past

Major General Herzl ‘Herzi’ Halevy was at it again a few days ago. Another war in Lebanon, the Israeli chief of the country’s ‘Military Intelligence Directorate’ threatened, would turn it into “a country of refugees”. Not very original, when you come to think of it, because Lebanon already hosts around 350,000 Palestinian refugees from the land which Herzi calls Israel and a further million refugees from Syria. In total, that’s about a fifth of the entire population of Lebanon. The Lebanese might be forgiven for yawning. Haven’t we been here before?

Well, yes, as a matter of fact, we have. But first the usual context. Herzi was talking to the annual Herzliya conference in Israel where chiefs of staff and military intelligence bosses warn their countrymen of the massive firepower which may be unleashed on them by Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, Isis, Arab states with whom they don’t have a peace treaty, Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all. Herzi was marking the 10th anniversary of the last Lebanon war – the third Lebanon war, according to the Israelis, who would have to explain why there have really been five Lebanon wars (1978, 1982, 1994, 1996 and 2006) if they stuck with the facts. But there you go.

If Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, “knew our abilities, our knowledge, our preparedness, he wouldn’t risk another conflict,” quoth Herzi on 15th June. The next conflict may be in the making, but Israel “will recover and rebuild”. This may well have been an allusion to the 2006 war in which the Israeli army got thrashed and Hezbollah claimed a victory (without explaining how its ‘victory’ included 1,200 mostly civilian Lebanese dead). Hezbollah was now better armed than ever since Damascus was manufacturing weapons solely for the militia, Herzi announced – an unlikely claim since the Syrian regime is desperate for new weapons for its own army inside Syria. But in another war, “Lebanon will become a country of refugees which will have difficulty recovering and Hezbollah will lose its political support base.”

But hold on. For those of us who live in the Middle East and keep good, old-fashioned paper archives, all this flummery sounds a little familiar. So let’s go back to the Jerusalem Post of 25th January 2010 – almost an entire decade ago - where we find Israel’s Northern Commander, Major General Gadi Eizenkot, warning that Hezbollah had “significantly increased its missile capability”. The Israeli army therefore had the “moral” right, he said, to disproportionately [sic] attack Hezbollah strongholds [sic again] inside 160 Lebanese villages in southern Lebanon if it was attacked by the guerrillas. Only two days earlier, then Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak claimed that Hezbollah possessed 42,000 missiles to fire at Israel and that in a new war Israel would target Lebanese government offices.

Now we zip forward to 2013, and this time it’s Major General Sami Turgeman, Israel’s retiring Ground Forces commander, who’s throwing threats around. A future war with Lebanon, he announced, “will be a hard one. It will involve a great amount of units, attacks day and night, very massive attacks. It would be very hard for our citizens, but much harder for the other side.”

And now to 2014 where the head of Israel’s air force, Major General Amir Eshel, is doing the threat routine. Hezbollah is now putting “thousands” of bases in “residential buildings” in southern Lebanon, being all the while re-armed by Iran and Syria and with increased missile capability. Sound familiar? And Hezbollah has entire storeys of residential buildings ready for the war. “Above and below live civilians whom we have nothing against – a kind of human shield,” Eshel threatened. “And that is where the war will be. That is where we will have to fight in order to stop it and win. Whoever stays in these bases [sic] will simply be hit…” And the latest Hezbollah missile tally: 100,000 - quite an increase in just four years.

Needless to say, Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader – a “megalomaniac”, according to the Israeli army – rants away in reverse. In 2011, he dismissed yet another threat by Barak, who had just told his Israeli soldiers to be ready for another “occupation” of Lebanon. “If Israel attacks Lebanon,” Nasrallah responded, “the Holy Warriors could [sic, yet again] receive the order to liberate [Israeli] Galilee.”

“Whoever buries himself in a bunker, must stay in his bunker,” Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu replied to the Hezbollah leader, whose whereabouts in Lebanon are known only to a trusted few – his predecessor, after all, was assassinated in his car in southern Lebanon when an Israeli helicopter fired a missile into the vehicle.

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Nasrallah has made other threats. A new war with Israel would mean “no limits, and no red lines”, he said this year, and promised to target Israel’s ammonia storage depot in Haifa in the north of the country if Israeli pilots assaulted the southern suburbs of Beirut – which Barak himself had several times threatened to do - where tens of thousands of Hezbollah’s supporters live. “Our rockets combined with the ammonia storage facility in Haifa will create the effect of a nuclear weapon.”

But strange to say, the Lebanese-Israeli border has endured its quietest, most peaceful history over the past decade – in gentle contrast to the constant cross-frontier wars over the border of the previous quarter century. Yes, of course Churchill was right when he said – at the White House, no less, in 1954 - that to jaw-jaw was always better than to war-war. But I wonder if the Israelis – yes, and Nasrallah, too – are not jaw-jawing at all. Always aware that they can say “Well, I warned you” afterwards, the danger is that they and their antagonists are already planning their excuses for their next crimes against civilians in the Middle East. And who will complain if or when they commit these atrocities? Surely not those who invaded Iraq and have the blood of up to half a million civilians on their hands? Because that’s how precedents are set. And that’s how to provide everyone else with credible threats and excuses for war crimes.

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