Evidence of Israeli “Cowardly Blending” Comes to Light

War Crimes Airbrushed from History

By JONATHAN COOK

Counterpunch

January 4, 2008

 

It apparently never occurred to anyone in our leading human rights organisations or the Western media that the same moral and legal standards ought be applied to the behaviour of Israel and Hizbullah during the war on Lebanon 18 months ago. Belatedly, an important effort has been made to set that right.

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Why did Israel attack Syria?

Global Research, September 27, 2007

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Israel’s air strike on northern Syria earlier this month should be understood in the context of events unfolding since its assault last summer on neighbouring Lebanon. Although little more than rumours have been offered about what took place, one strategic forecasting group, Stratfor, still concluded: “Something important happened.”

From the leaks so far, it seems that more than half a dozen Israeli warplanes violated Syrian airspace to drop munitions on a site close to the border with Turkey. We also know from the US media that the “something” occurred in close coordination with the White House. But what was the purpose and significance of the attack?

It is worth recalling that, in the wake of Israel’s month-long war against Lebanon a year ago, a prominent American neoconservative, Meyrav Wurmser, wife of Vice-President Dick Cheney’s recently departed Middle East adviser, explained that the war had dragged on because the White House delayed in imposing a ceasefire. The neocons, she said, wanted to give Israel the time and space to expand the attack to Damascus.

The reasoning was simple: before an attack on Iran could be countenanced, Hizbullah in Lebanon had to be destroyed and Syria at the very least cowed. The plan was to isolate Tehran on these two other hostile fronts before going in for the kill.

But faced with constant rocket fire from Hizbullah last summer, Israel’s public and military nerves frayed at the first hurdle. Instead Israel and the US were forced to settle for a Security Council resolution rather than a decisive military victory.

The immediate fallout of the failed attack was an apparent waning of neocon influence. The group’s programme of “creative destruction” in the Middle East — the encouragement of regional civil war and the partition of large states that threaten Israel — was at risk of being shunted aside.

Instead the “pragmatists” in the Bush Administration, led by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the new Defence Secretary Robert Gates, demanded a change of tack. The standoff reached a head in late 2006 when oilman James Baker and his Iraq Study Group began lobbying for a gradual withdrawal from Iraq — presumably only after a dictator, this one more reliable, had again been installed in Baghdad. It looked as if the neocons’ day in the sun had finally passed.

Israel’s leadership understood the gravity of the moment. In January 2007 the Herzliya conference, an annual festival of strategy-making, invited no less than 40 Washington opinion-formers to join the usual throng of Israeli politicians, generals, journalists and academics. For a week the Israeli and American delegates spoke as one: Iran and its presumed proxy, Hizbullah, were bent on the genocidal destruction of Israel. Tehran’s development of a nuclear programme — whether for civilian use, as Iran argues, or for military use, as the US and Israel claim — had to be stopped at all costs.

While the White House turned uncharacteristically quiet all spring and summer about what it planned to do next, rumours that Israel was pondering a go-it-alone strike against Iran grew noisier by the day. Ex-Mossad officers warned of an inevitable third world war, Israeli military intelligence advised that Iran was only months away from the point of no return on developing a nuclear warhead, prominent leaks in sympathetic media revealed bombing runs to Gibraltar, and Israel started upping the pressure on several tens of thousands of Jews in Tehran to flee their homes and come to Israel.

While Western analysts opined that an attack on Iran was growing unlikely, Israel’s neighbours watched nervously through the first half of the year as the vague impression of a regional war came ever more sharply into focus. In particular Syria, after witnessing the whirlwind of savagery unleashed against Lebanon last summer, feared it was next in line in the US-Israeli campaign to break Tehran’s network of regional alliances. It deduced, probably correctly, that neither the US nor Israel would dare attack Iran without first clobbering Hizbullah and Damascus.

For some time Syria had been left in no doubt of the mood in Washington. It failed to end its pariah status in the post-9/11 period, despite helping the CIA with intelligence on al-Qaeda and secretly trying to make peace with Israel over the running sore of the occupied Golan Heights. It was rebuffed at every turn.

So as the clouds of war grew darker in the spring, Syria responded as might be expected. It went to the arms market in Moscow and bought up the displays of anti-aircraft missiles as well as anti-tank weapons of the kind Hizbullah demonstrated last summer were so effective at repelling Israel’s planned ground invasion of south Lebanon.

As the renowned Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld reluctantly conceded earlier this year, US policy was forcing Damascus to remain within Iran’s uncomfortable embrace: “Syrian President Bashar al-Assad finds himself more dependent on his Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, than perhaps he would like.”

Israel, never missing an opportunity to wilfully misrepresent the behaviour of an enemy, called the Syrian military build-up proof of Damascus’ appetite for war. Apparently fearful that Syria might initiate a war by mistaking the signals from Israel as evidence of aggressive intentions, the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, urged Syria to avoid a “miscalculation”. The Israeli public spent the summer braced for a far more dangerous repeat of last summer’s war along the northern border.

It was at this point — with tensions simmeringly hot — that Israel launched its strike, sending several fighter planes into Syria on a lightning mission to hit a site near Dayr a-Zawr. As Syria itself broke the news of the attack, Israeli generals were shown on TV toasting in the Jewish new year but refusing to comment.

Details have remained thin on the ground ever since: Israel imposed a news blackout that has been strictly enforced by the country’s military censor. Instead it has been left to the Western media to speculate on what occurred.

One point that none of the pundits and analysts have noted was that, in attacking Syria, Israel committed a blatant act of aggression against its northern neighbour of the kind denounced as the “supreme international crime” by the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal.

Also, no one pointed out the obvious double standard applied to Israel’s attack on Syria compared to the far less significant violation of Israeli sovereignty by Hizbullah a year earlier, when the Shia militia captured two Israel soldiers at a border post and killed three more. Hizbullah‘s act was widely accepted as justification for the bombardment and destruction of much of Lebanon, even if a few sensitive souls agonised over whether Israel’s response was “disproportionate”. Would these commentators now approve of similar retaliation by Syria?

The question was doubtless considered unimportant because it was clear from Western coverage that no one — including the Israeli leadership — believed Syria was in a position to respond militarily to Israel’s attack. Olmert’s fear of a Syrian “miscalculation” evaporated the moment Israel did the maths for Damascus.

So what did Israel hope to achieve with its aerial strike?

The stories emerging from the less gagged American media suggest two scenarios. The first is that Israel targeted Iranian supplies passing through Syria on their way to Hizbullah; the second that Israel struck at a fledgling Syrian nuclear plant where materials from North Korea were being offloaded, possibly as part of a joint nuclear effort by Damascus and Tehran.

(Speculation that Israel was testing Syria’s anti-aircraft defences in preparation for an attack on Iran ignores the fact that the Israeli air force would almost certainly choose a flightpath through friendlier Jordanian airspace.)

How credible are these two scenarios?

The nuclear claims against Damascus were discounted so quickly by experts of the region that Washington was soon downgrading the accusation to claims that Syria was only hiding the material on North Korea’s behalf. But why would Syria, already hounded by Israel and the US, provide such a readymade pretext for still harsher treatment? Why, equally, would North Korea undermine its hard-won disarmament deal with the US? And why, if Syria were covertly engaging in nuclear mischief, did it alert the world to the fact by revealing the Israeli air strike?

The other justification for the attack was at least based in a more credible reality: Damascus, Hizbullah and Iran undoubtedly do share some military resources. But their alliance should be seen as the kind of defensive pact needed by vulnerable actors in a Sunni-dominated region where the US wants unlimited control of Gulf oil and supports only those repressive regimes that cooperate on its terms. All three are keenly aware that it is Israel’s job to threaten and punish any regimes that fail to toe the line.

Contrary to the impression being created in the West, genocidal hatred of Israel and Jews, however often Ahmadinejad’s speeches are mistranslated, is not the engine of these countries’ alliance.

Nonetheless, the political significance of the justifications for the the Israeli air strike is that both neatly tie together various strands of an argument needed by the neocons and Israel in making their case for an attack on Iran before Bush leaves office in early 2009. Each scenario suggests a Shia “axis of evil”, coordinated by Iran, that is actively plotting Israel’s destruction. And each story offers the pretext for an attack on Syria as a prelude to a pre-emptive strike against Tehran — launched either by Washington or Tel Aviv — to save Israel.

That these stories appear to have been planted in the American media by neocon masters of spin like John Bolton is warning enough — as is the admission that the only evidence for Syrian malfeasance is Israeli “intelligence”, the basis of which cannot be questioned as Israel is not officially admitting the attack.

It should hardly need pointing out that we are again in a hall of mirrors, as we were during the period leading up to America’s invasion of Iraq and have been during its subsequent occupation.

Bush’s “war on terror” was originally justified with the convenient and manufactured links between Iraq and al-Qaeda, as well as, of course, those WMDs that, it later turned out, had been destroyed more than a decade earlier. But ever since Tehran has invariably been the ultimate target of these improbable confections.

There were the forged documents proving both that Iraq had imported enriched uranium from Niger to manufacture nuclear warheads and that it was sharing its nuclear know-how with Iran. And as Iraq fell apart, neocon ideologues like Michael Ledeen lost no time in spreading rumours that the missing nuclear arsenal could still be accounted for: Iranian agents had simply smuggled it out of Iraq during the chaos of the US invasion.

Since then our media have proved that they have no less of an appetite for such preposterous tales. If Iran’s involvement in stirring up its fellow Shia in Iraq against the US occupation is at least possible, the same cannot be said of the regular White House claims that Tehran is behind the Sunni-led insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. A few months ago the news media served up “revelations” that Iran was secretly conspiring with al-Qaeda and Iraq’s Sunni militias to oust the US occupiers.

So what purpose does the constant innuendo against Tehran serve?

The latest accusations should be seen as an example of Israel and the neocons “creating their own reality”, as one Bush adviser famously observed of the neocon philosophy of power. The more that Hizbullah, Syria and Iran are menaced by Israel, the more they are forced to huddle together and behave in ways to protect themselves — such as arming — that can be portrayed as a “genocidal” threat to Israel and world order.

Van Creveld once observed that Tehran would be “crazy” not to develop nuclear weapons given the clear trajectory of Israeli and US machinations to overthrow the regime. So equally Syria cannot afford to jettison its alliance with Iran or its involvement with Hizbullah. In the current reality, these connections are the only power it has to deter an attack or force the US and Israel to negotiate.

But they are also the evidence needed by Israel and the neocons to convict Syria and Iran in the court of Washington opinion. The attack on Syria is part of a clever hustle, one designed to vanquish or bypass the doubters in the Bush Administration, both by proving Syria’s culpability and by provoking it to respond.

Condoleezza Rice, it emerged at the weekend, wants to invite Syria to attend the regional peace conference that has been called by President Bush for November. There can be no doubt that such an act of détente is deeply opposed by both Israel and the neocons. It reverses their strategy of implicating Damascus in the “Shia arc of extremism” and of paving the way to an attack on the real target: Iran.

Syria, meanwhile, is fighting back, as it has been for some time, with the only means available: the diplomatic offensive. For two years Bashar al-Assad has been offering a generous peace deal to Israel on the Golan Heights that Tel Aviv has refused to consider. This week, Syria made a further gesture towards peace with an offer on another piece of territory occupied by Israel, the Shebaa Farms. Under the plan, the Farms — which the United Nations now agrees belongs to Lebanon, but which Israel still claims is Syrian and cannot be returned until there is a deal on the Golan Heights — would be transferred to UN custody until the dispute over its sovereignty can be resolved.

Were either of Damascus’ initiatives to be pursued, the region might be looking forward to a period of relative calm and security. Which is reason enough why Israel and the neocons are so bitterly opposed. Instead they must establish a new reality — one in which the forces of “creative destruction” so beloved of the neocons engulf yet more of the region. For the rest of us, a simpler vocabulary suffices. What is being sold is catastrophe.

Jonathan Cook is a journalist and writer based in Nazareth, Israel. He is the author of “Blood and Religion: The Unmasking of the Jewish and Democratic State” (Pluto Press). His forthcoming book is “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East”. His website is www.jkcook.net 

Revisiting the summer war – A MUST READ

THIS IS A MUST READ.  Israeli press confess that ISRAEL started the war, not Hezbollah.  Any rational thinker knew this already, but now we have it in print.  Also that the UN cartographer has said the Shebaa farms are lebanese, therefore Israel still occupies Lebanon in violation of UN resolution 425 (although the UN seems to have been muzzled, see Franklin Lambs article for more info).

Jonathan Cook, Electronic Lebanon, Aug 16, 2007

Hizballah supporters hold a rally in south Beirut one year after Israel’s “Second Lebanon War.” Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah addressed the crowd of thousands from a remote location, 14 August 2007. (Matthew Cassel)

This week marks a year since the end of hostilities now officially called the Second Lebanon War by Israelis. A month of fighting — mostly Israeli aerial bombardment of Lebanon, and rocket attacks from the Shia militia Hizballah on northern Israel in response — ended with more than 1,000 Lebanese civilians and a small but unknown number of Hizballah fighters dead, as well as 119 Israeli soldiers and 43 civilians.

When Israel and the United States realized that Hizballah could not be bombed into submission, they pushed a resolution, 1701, through the United Nations. It placed an expanded international peacekeeping force, UNIFIL, in south Lebanon to keep Hizballah in check and try to disarm its few thousand fighters.

But many significant developments since the war have gone unnoticed, including several that seriously put in question Israel’s account of what happened last summer. This is old ground worth revisiting for that reason alone.

The war began on 12 July, when Israel launched waves of air strikes on Lebanon after Hizballah killed three soldiers and captured two more on the northern border. (A further five troops were killed by a land mine when their tank crossed into Lebanon in hot pursuit.) Hizballah had long been warning that it would seize soldiers if it had the chance, in an effort to push Israel into a prisoner exchange. Israel has been holding a handful of Lebanese prisoners since it withdrew from its two-decade occupation of south Lebanon in 2000.

The Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, who has been widely blamed for the army’s failure to subdue Hizballah, appointed the Winograd Committee to investigate what went wrong. So far Winograd has been long on pointing out the country’s military and political failures and short on explaining how the mistakes were made or who made them. Olmert is still in power, even if hugely unpopular.

In the meantime, there is every indication that Israel is planning another round of fighting against Hizballah after it has “learnt the lessons” from the last war. The new defense minister, Ehud Barak, who was responsible for the 2000 withdrawal, has made it a priority to develop anti-missile systems such as “Iron Dome” to neutralize the rocket threat from Hizballah, using some of the recently announced $30 billion of American military aid.

It has been left to the Israeli media to begin rewriting the history of last summer. Last weekend, an editorial in the liberal Haaretz newspaper went so far as to admit that this was “a war initiated by Israel against a relatively small guerrilla group.” Israel’s supporters, including high-profile defenders like Alan Dershowitz in the US who claimed that Israel had no choice but to bomb Lebanon, must have been squirming in their seats.

There are several reasons why Haaretz may have reached this new assessment.

Recent reports have revealed that one of the main justifications for Hizballah’s continuing resistance — that Israel failed to withdraw fully from Lebanese territory in 2000 — is now supported by the UN. Last month its cartographers quietly admitted that Lebanon is right in claiming sovereignty over a small fertile area known as the Shebaa Farms, still occupied by Israel. Israel argues that the territory is Syrian and will be returned in future peace talks with Damascus, even though Syria backs Lebanon’s position. The UN’s admission has been mostly ignored by the international media.

One of Israel’s main claims during the war was that it made every effort to protect Lebanese civilians from its aerial bombardments. The casualty figures suggested otherwise, and increasingly so too does other evidence.

A shocking aspect of the war was Israel’s firing of at least a million cluster bombs, old munitions supplied by the US with a failure rate as high as 50 percent, in the last days of fighting. The tiny bomblets, effectively small land mines, were left littering south Lebanon after the UN-brokered ceasefire, and are reported so far to have killed 30 civilians and wounded at least another 180. Israeli commanders have admitted firing 1.2 million such bomblets, while the UN puts the figure closer to 3 million.

At the time, it looked suspiciously as if Israel had taken the brief opportunity before the war’s end to make south Lebanon — the heartland of both the country’s Shia population and its militia, Hizballah — uninhabitable, and to prevent the return of hundreds of thousands of Shia who had fled Israel’s earlier bombing campaigns.

Israel’s use of cluster bombs has been described as a war crime by human rights organizations. According to the rules set by Israel’s then chief of staff, Dan Halutz, the bombs should have been used only in open and unpopulated areas — although with such a high failure rate, this would have done little to prevent later civilian casualties.

After the war, the army ordered an investigation, mainly to placate Washington, which was concerned at the widely reported fact that it had supplied the munitions. The findings, which should have been published months ago, have yet to be made public.

The delay is not surprising. An initial report by the army, leaked to the Israeli media, discovered that the cluster bombs had been fired into Lebanese population centers in gross violation of international law. The order was apparently given by the head of the Northern Command at the time, Udi Adam. A US State Department investigation reached a similar conclusion.

Another claim, one that Israel hoped might justify the large number of Lebanese civilians it killed during the war, was that Hizballah fighters had been regularly hiding and firing rockets from among south Lebanon’s civilian population. Human rights groups found scant evidence of this, but a senior UN official, Jan Egeland, offered succor by accusing Hizballah of “cowardly blending.”

There were always strong reasons for suspecting the Israeli claim to be untrue. Hizballah had invested much effort in developing an elaborate system of tunnels and underground bunkers in the countryside, which Israel knew little about, in which it hid its rockets and from which fighters attacked Israeli soldiers as they tried to launch a ground invasion. Also, common sense suggests that Hizballah fighters would have been unwilling to put their families, who live in south Lebanon’s villages, in danger by launching rockets from among them.

Now Israeli front pages are carrying reports from Israeli military sources that put in serious doubt Israel’s claims.

Since the war’s end Hizballah has apparently relocated most of its rockets to conceal them from the UN peacekeepers, who have been carrying out extensive searches of south Lebanon to disarm Hizballah under the terms of Resolution 1701. According to the UNIFIL, some 33 of these underground bunkers — or more than 90 percent — have been located and Hizballah weapons discovered there, including rockets and launchers, destroyed.

The Israeli media has noted that the Israeli army calls these sites “nature reserves;” similarly, the UN has made no mention of finding urban-based Hizballah bunkers. Relying on military sources, Haaretz reported last month: “Most of the rockets fired against Israel during the war last year were launched from the ‘nature reserves.'” In short, even Israel is no longer claiming that Hizballah was firing its rockets from among civilians.

According to the UN report, Hizballah has moved the rockets out of the underground bunkers and abandoned its rural launch pads. Most rockets, it is believed, have gone north of the Litani River, beyond the range of the UN monitors. But some, according to the Israeli army, may have been moved into nearby Shia villages to hide them from the UN.

As a result, Haaretz noted that Israeli commanders had issued a warning to Lebanon that in future hostilities the army “will not hesitate to bomb — and even totally destroy — urban areas after it gives Lebanese civilians the chance to flee.” How this would diverge from Israel’s policy during the war, when Hizballah was based in its “nature reserves” but Lebanese civilians were still bombed in their towns and villages, was not made clear.

If the Israeli army’s new claims are true (unlike the old ones), Hizballah’s movement of some of its rockets into villages should be condemned. But not by Israel, whose army is breaking international law by concealing its weapons in civilian areas on a far grander scale.

As a first-hand observer of the fighting from Israel’s side of the border last year, I noted on several occasions that Israel had built many of its permanent military installations, including weapons factories and army camps, and set up temporary artillery positions next to — and in some cases inside — civilian communities in the north of Israel.

Many of those communities are Arab: Arab citizens constitute about half of the Galilee’s population. Locating military bases next to these communities was a particularly reckless act by the army as Arab towns and villages lack the public shelters and air raid warning systems available in Jewish communities. Eighteen of the 43 Israeli civilians killed were Arab — a proportion that surprised many Israeli Jews, who assumed that Hizballah would not want to target Arab communities.

In many cases it is still not possible to specify where Hizballah rockets landed because Israel’s military censor prevents any discussion that might identify the location of a military site. During the war Israel used this to advantageous effect: for example, it was widely reported that a Hizballah rocket fell close to a hospital but reporters failed to mention that a large army camp was next to it. An actual strike against the camp could have been described in the very same terms.

It seems likely that Hizballah, which had flown pilotless spy drones over Israel earlier in the year, similar to Israel’s own aerial spying missions, knew where many of these military bases were. The question is, was Hizballah trying to hit them or — as most observers claimed, following Israel’s lead — was it actually more interested in killing civilians.

A full answer may never be possible, as we cannot know Hizballah’s intentions — as opposed to the consequences of its actions — any more than we can discern Israel’s during the war.

Human Rights Watch, however, has argued that, because Hizballah’s basic rockets were not precise, every time they were fired into Israel they were effectively targeted at civilians. Hizballah was therefore guilty of war crimes in using its rockets, whatever the intention of the launch teams. In other words, according to this reading of international law, only Israel had the right to fire missiles and drop bombs because its military hardware is more sophisticated — and, of course, more deadly.

Nonetheless, new evidence suggests strongly that, whether or not Hizballah had the right to use its rockets, it may often have been trying to hit military targets, even if it rarely succeeded. The Arab Association for Human Rights, based in Nazareth, has been compiling a report on the Hizballah rocket strikes against Arab communities in the north since last summer. It is not sure whether it will ever be able to publish its findings because of the military censorship laws.

But the information currently available makes for interesting reading. The Association has looked at northern Arab communities hit by Hizballah rockets, often repeatedly, and found that in every case there was at least one military base or artillery battery placed next to, or in a few cases inside, the community. In some communities there were several such sites.

This does not prove that Hizballah wanted only to hit military bases, of course. But it does indicate that in some cases it was clearly trying to, even if it lacked the technical resources to be sure of doing so. It also suggests that, in terms of international law, Hizballah behaved no worse, and probably far better, than Israel during the war.

The evidence so far indicates that Israel:

  • established legitimate grounds for Hizballah’s attack on the border post by refusing to withdraw from the Lebanese territory of the Shebaa Farms in 2000;
  • initiated a war of aggression by refusing to engage in talks about a prisoner swap offered by Hizballah;
  • committed a grave war crime by intentionally using cluster bombs against south Lebanon’s civilians;
  • repeatedly hit Lebanese communities, killing many civilians, even though the evidence is that no Hizballah fighters were to be found there;
  • and put its own civilians, especially Arab civilians, in great danger by making their communities targets for Hizballah attacks and failing to protect them.


It is clear that during the Second Lebanon War Israel committed the most serious war crimes.

Jonathan Cook, a journalist based in Nazareth, Israel, is the author of Blood and Religion: The Unmasking of the Jewish and Democratic State (Pluto Press, 2006). His website is www.jkcook.net.

Blood and Religion: Jonathan Cook

“Blood and Religion – The Unmasking of the Jewish and Democractic State”(Pluto Press 2006). Interview with Jonathan Cook, a former staff journalist of the Guardian and Observer newspapers, from Nazareth, Israel about his last book. Middle East Panorama on Resonance FM, London 16 June 2006

Listen to the audio interview here

http://progressivepodcast.info/archives/5

Olmert’s testimony reveals the real goal of the war in Lebanon

Global Research, March 13, 2007

Nazareth. 12 March 2007. Israel’s supposedly “defensive” assault on Hizbullah last summer, in which more than 1,000 Lebanese civilians were killed in a massive aerial bombardment that ended with Israel littering the country’s south with cluster bombs, was cast in a definitively different light last week by Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert.

His leaked testimony to the Winograd Committee — investigating the government’s failures during the month-long attack — suggests that he had been preparing for such a war at least four months before the official casus belli: the capture by Hizbullah of two Israeli soldiers from a border post on 12 July 2006. Lebanon’s devastation was apparently designed to teach both Hizbullah and the country’s wider public a lesson.

Olmert’s new account clarifies the confusing series of official justifications for the war from the time.

First, we were told that the seizure of the soldiers was “an act of war” by Lebanon and that a “shock and awe” campaign was needed to secure their release. Or, as the then Chief of Staff Dan Halutz — taking time out from disposing of his shares before market prices fell — explained, his pilots were going to “turn the clock back 20 years” in Lebanon.

Then the army claimed that it was trying to stop Hizbullah’s rocket strikes. But the bombing campaign targeted not only the rocket launchers but much of Lebanon, including Beirut. (It was, of course, conveniently overlooked that Hizbullah’s rockets fell as a response to the Israeli bombardment and not the other way round.)

And finally we were offered variations on the theme that ended the fighting: the need to push Hizbullah (and, incidentally, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese civilians) away from the northern border with Israel.

That was the thrust of UN Resolution 1701 that brought about the official end of hostilities in mid-August. It also looked suspiciously like the reason why Israel chose at the last-minute to dump up to a million tiny bomblets — old US stocks of cluster munitions with a very high failure rate — that are lying in south Lebanon’s fields, playgrounds and back yards waiting to explode.

What had been notable before Olmert’s latest revelation was the clamour of the military command to distance itself from Israel’s failed attack on Hizbullah. After his resignation, Halutz blamed the political echelon (meaning primarily Olmert), while his subordinates blamed both Olmert and Halutz. The former Chief of Staff was rounded on mainly because, it was claimed, being from the air force, he had over-estimated the likely effectiveness of his pilots in “neutralising” Hizbullah’s rockets.

Given this background, Olmert has been obliging in his testimony to Winograd. He has not only shouldered responsibility for the war to the Committee, but, if Israeli media reports are to be believed, he has also publicised the fact by leaking the details.

Olmert told Winograd that, far from making war on the hoof in response to the capture of the two soldiers (the main mitigating factor for Israel’s show of aggression), he had been planning the attack on Lebanon since at least March 2006.

His testimony is more than plausible. Allusions to pre-existing plans for a ground invasion of Lebanon can be found in Israeli reporting from the time. On the first day of the war, for example, the Jersualem Post reported: “Only weeks ago, an entire reserve division was drafted in order to train for an operation such as the one the IDF is planning in response to Wednesday morning’s Hizbullah attacks on IDF forces along the northern border.”

Olmert defended the preparations to the Committee on the grounds that Israel expected Hizbullah to seize soldiers at some point and wanted to be ready with a harsh response. The destruction of Lebanon would deter Hizbullah from considering another such operation in the future.

There was an alternative route that Olmert and his commanders could have followed: they could have sought to lessen the threat of attacks on the northern border by damping down the main inciting causes of Israel’s conflict with Hizbullah.

According to Olmert’s testimony, he was seeking just such a solution to the main problem: a small corridor of land known as the Shebaa Farms claimed by Lebanon but occupied by Israel since 1967. As a result of the Farms area’s occupation, Hizbullah has argued that Israel’s withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000 was incomplete and that the territory still needed liberating.

Olmert’s claim, however, does not stand up to scrutiny.

The Israeli media revealed in January that for much of the past two years Syria’s leader, Bashir Assad, has been all but prostrating himself before Israel in back-channel negotiations over the return of Syrian territory, the Golan, currently occupied by Israel. Although those talks offered Israel the most favourable terms it could have hoped for (including declaring the Golan a peace park open to Israelis), Sharon and then Olmert — backed by the US — refused to engage Damascus.

A deal on the Golan with Syria would almost certainly have ensured that the Shebaa Farms were returned to Lebanon. Had Israel or the US wanted it, they could have made considerable progress on this front.

The other major tension was Israel’s repeated transgressions of the northern border, complemented by Hizbullah’s own, though less frequent, violations. After the army’s withdrawal in 2000, United Nations monitors recorded Israeli warplanes violating Lebanese airspace almost daily. Regular overflights were made to Beirut, where pilots used sonic booms to terrify the local population, and drones spied on much of the country. Again, had Israel halted these violations of Lebanese sovereignty, Hizbullah’s own breach of Israeli sovereignty in attacking the border post would have been hard to justify.

And finally, when Hizbullah did capture the soldiers, there was a chance for Israel to negotiate over their return. Hizbullah made clear from the outset that it wanted to exchange the soldiers for a handful of Lebanese prisoners still in Israeli jails. But, of course, as Olmert’s testimony implies, Israel was not interested in talks or in halting its bombing campaign. That was not part of the plan.

We can now start to piece together why.

According to the leaks, Olmert first discussed the preparations for a war against Lebanon in January and then asked for detailed plans in March.

Understandably given the implications, Olmert’s account has been decried by leading Israeli politicians. Effi Eitam has pointed out that Olmert’s version echoes that of Hizbullah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, who claims his group knew that Israel wanted to attack Lebanon.

And Yuval Steinitz argues that, if a war was expected, Olmert should not have approved a large cut to the defence budget only weeks earlier. The explanation for that, however, can probably be found in the forecasts about the war’s outcome expressed in cabinet by Halutz and government ministers. Halutz reportedly believed that an air campaign would defeat Hizbullah in two to three days, after which Lebanon’s infrastructure could be wrecked unimpeded. Some ministers apparently thought the war would be over even sooner.

In addition, a red herring has been offered by the General Staff, whose commanders are claiming to the Israeli media that they were kept out of the loop by the prime minister. If Olmert was planning a war against Lebanon, they argue, he should not have left them so unprepared.

It is an intriguing, and unconvincing, proposition: who was Olmert discussing war preparations with, if not with the General Staff? And how was he planning to carry out that war if the General Staff was not intimately involved?

More interesting are the dates mentioned by Olmert. His first discussion of a war against Lebanon was held on 8 January 2006, four days after he became acting prime minister following Ariel Sharon’s brain haemorrhage and coma. Olmert held his next meeting on the subject in March, presumably immediately after his victory in the elections. There were apparently more talks in April, May and July.

Rather than the impression that has been created by Olmert of a rookie prime minister and military novice “going it alone” in planning a major military offensive against a neighbouring state, a more likely scenario starts to take shape. It suggests that from the moment that Olmert took up the reins of power, he was slowly brought into the army’s confidence, first tentatively in January and then more fully after his election. He was allowed to know of the senior command’s secret and well-advanced plans for war — plans, we can assume, his predecessor, Ariel Sharon, a former general, had been deeply involved in advancing.

But why would Olmert now want to shoulder responsibility for the unsuccessful war if he only approved, rather than formulated, it? Possibly because Olmert, who has appeared militarily weak and inexperienced to the Israeli public, does not want to prove his critics right. And also because, with most of his political capital exhausted, he would be unlikely to survive a battle for Israeli hearts and minds against the army (according to all polls, the most revered institution in Israeli society) should he try to blame them for last summer’s fiasco. With Halutz gone, Olmert has little choice but to say “mea cupla”.

What is the evidence that Israel’s generals had already established the protocols for a war?

First, an article in the San Franscisco Chronicle, published soon after the outbreak of war, revealed that the Israeli army had been readying for a wide-ranging assault on Lebanon for years, and had a specific plan for a “Three-Week War” that they had shared with Washington think-tanks and US officials.

“More than a year ago, a senior Israeli army officer began giving PowerPoint presentations, on an off-the-record basis, to US and other diplomats, journalists and think tanks, setting out the plan for the current operation in revealing detail,” wrote reporter Matthew Kalman.

That view was confimed this week by an anonymous senior officer who told the Haaretz newspaper that the army had a well-established plan for an extensive ground invasion of Lebanon, but that Olmert had shied away from putting it into action. “I don’t know if he [Olmert] was familiar with the details of the plan, but everyone knew that the IDF [army] had a ground operation ready for implementation.”

And second, we have an interview in the Israeli media with Meyrav Wurmser, the wife of one of the highest officials in the Bush Administration, David Wurmser, Vice-President Dick Cheney’s adviser on the Middle East. Meyrav Wurmser, an Israeli citizen, is herself closely associated with MEMRI, a group translating (and mistranslating) speeches by Arab leaders and officials that is known for its ties to the Israeli secret services.

She told the website of Israel’s leading newspaper, Yediot Aharonot, that the US stalled over imposing a ceasefire during Israel’s assault on Lebanon because the Bush Administration was expecting the war to be expanded to Syria.

“The anger [in the White House] is over the fact that Israel did not fight against the Syrians The neocons are responsible for the fact that Israel got a lot of time and space. They believed that Israel should be allowed to win. A great part of it was the thought that Israel should fight against the real enemy, the one backing Hizbullah. It was obvious that it is impossible to fight directly against Iran, but the thought was that its [Iran’s] strategic and important ally [Syria] should be hit.”

In other words, the picture that emerges is of a long-standing plan by the Israeli army, approved by senior US officials, for a rapid war against Lebanon — followed by possible intimidatory strikes against Syria — using the pretext of a cross-border incident involving Hizbullah. The real purpose, we can surmise, was to weaken what are seen by Israel and the US to be Tehran’s allies before an attack on Iran itself.

That was why neither the Americans nor Israel wanted, or appear still to want, to negotiate with Assad over the Golan and seek a peace agreement that could — for once — change the map of the Middle East for the better.

Despite signs of a slight thawing in Washington’s relations with Iran and Syria in the past few days, driven by the desperate US need to stop sinking deeper into the mire of Iraq, Damascus is understandably wary.

The continuing aggressive Israeli and US postures have provoked a predictable reaction from Syria: it has started building up its defences along the border with Israel. But in the Alice Through the Looking Glass world of Israeli military intelligence, that response is being interpreted — or spun — as a sign of an imminent attack by Syria.

Such, for example, is the opinion of Martin Van Creveld, an Israeli professor of military history, usually described as eminent and doubtless with impeccable contacts in the Israeli military establishment, who recently penned an article in the American Jewish weekly, the Forward.

He suggests that Syria, rather than wanting to negotiate over the Golan — as all the evidence suggests — is planning to launch an attack on Israel, possibly using chemical weapons, in October 2008 under cover of fog and rain. The goal of the attack? Apparently, says the professor, Syria wants to “inflict casualties” and ensure Jerusalem “throws in the towel”.

What’s the professor’s evidence for these Syrian designs? That its military has been on an armaments shopping spree in Russia, and has been studying the lessons of the Lebanon war.

He predicts (of Syria, not Israel) the following: “Some incident will be generated and used as an excuse for opening rocket fire on the Golan Heights and the Galilee.” And he concludes: “Overall the emerging Syrian plan is a good one with a reasonable chance of success.”

And what can stop the Syrians? Not peace talks, argues Van Creveld. “Obviously, much will depend on what happens in Iraq and Iran. A short, successful American offensive in Iran may persuade Assad that the Israelis, much of whose hardware is either American or American-derived, cannot be countered, especially in the air. Conversely, an American withdrawal from Iraq, combined with an American-Iranian stalemate in the Persian Gulf, will go a long way toward untying Assad’s hands.”

It all sounds familiar. Iran wants the nuclear destruction of Israel, and Syria wants Jersualem to “throw in the towel” — or so the neocons and the useful idiots of “the clash of civilisations” would have us believe. The fear must be that they get their way and push Israel and the US towards another pre-emptive war — or maybe two.

Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. His book “Blood and Religion: The Unmasking of the Jewish and Democratic State” is published by Pluto Press. His website is www.jkcook.net

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End of the Strongmen

Do America and Israel Want the Middle East Engulfed By Civil War?

By JONATHAN COOK

Counterpunch

December 19, 2006

The era of the Middle East strongman, propped up by and enforcing Western policy, appears well and truly over. His power is being replaced with rule by civil war, apparently now the American Administration’s favoured model across the region.

Fratricidal fighting is threatening to engulf, or already engulfing, the occupied Palestinian territories, Lebanon and Iraq. Both Syria and Iran could soon be next, torn apart by attacks Israel is reportedly planning on behalf of the US. The reverberations would likely consume the region.

Western politicians like to portray civil war as a consequence of the West’s failure to intervene more effectively in the Middle East. Were we more engaged in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or more aggressive in opposing Syrian manipulations in Lebanon, or more hands-on in Iraq, the sectarian fighting could be prevented. The implication being, of course, that, without the West’s benevolent guidance, Arab societies are incapable of dragging themselves out of their primal state of barbarity.

But in fact, each of these breakdowns of social order appears to have been engineered either by the United States or by Israel. In Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq, sectarian difference is less important than a clash of political ideologies and interests as rival factions disagree about whether to submit to, or resist, American and Israeli interference. Where the factions derive their funding and legitimacy from — increasingly a choice between the US or Iran — seems to determine where they stand in this confrontation.

Palestine is in ferment because ordinary Palestinians are torn between their democratic wish to see Israeli occupation resisted — in free elections they showed they believed Hamas the party best placed to realise that goal — and the basic need to put food on the table for their families. The combined Israeli and international economic siege of the Hamas government, and the Palestinian population, has made a bitter internal struggle for control of resources inevitable.

Lebanon is falling apart because the Lebanese are divided: some believe that the country’s future lies with attracting Western capital and welcoming Washington’s embrace, while others regard America’s interest as cover for Israel realising its long-standing design to turn Lebanon into a vassal state, with or without a military occupation. Which side the Lebanese choose in the current stand-off reflects their judgment of how plausible are claims of Western and Israeli benevolence.

And the slaughter in Iraq is not simply the result of lawlessness — as is commonly portrayed — but also about rival groups, the nebulous “insurgents”, employing various brutal and conflicting strategies: trying to oust the Anglo-American occupiers and punish local Iraqis suspected of collaborating with them; extracting benefits from the puppet Iraqi regime; and jockeying for positions of influence before the inevitable grand American exit.

All of these outcomes in Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq could have been foreseen — and almost certainly were. More than that, it looks increasingly like the growing tensions and carnage were planned. Rather than an absence of Western intervention being the problem, the violence and fragmentation of these societies seems to be precisely the goal of the intervention.

Evidence has emerged in Britain that suggests such was the case in Iraq. Testimony given by a senior British official to the 2004 Butler inquiry investigating intelligence blunders in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq was belatedly published last week, after attempts by the Foreign Office to hush it up.

Carne Ross, a diplomat who helped to negotiate several UN security council resolutions on Iraq, told the inquiry that British and US officials knew very well that Saddam Hussein had no WMDs and that bringing him down would lead to chaos.

“I remember on several occasions the UK team stating this view in terms during our discussions with the US (who agreed),” he said, adding: “At the same time, we would frequently argue, when the US raised the subject, that ‘regime change’ was inadvisable, primarily on the grounds that Iraq would collapse into chaos.”

The obvious question, then, is why would the US want and intend civil war raging across the Middle East, apparently threatening strategic interests like oil supplies and the security of a key regional ally, Israel?

Until the presidency of Bush Jnr, the American doctrine in the Middle East had been to install or support strongmen, containing them or replacing them when they fell out of favour. So why the dramatic and, at least ostensibly, incomprehensible shift in policy?

Why allow Yasser Arafat’s isolation and humiliation in the occupied territories, followed by Mahmoud Abbas’s, when both could have easily been cultivated as strongmen had they been given the tools they were implicitly promised by the Oslo process: a state, the pomp of office and the coercive means to impose their will on rival groups like Hamas? With almost nothing to show for years of concessions to Israel, both looked to the Palestinian public more like lapdogs rather than rottweilers.

Why make a sudden and unnecessary fuss about Syria’s interference in Lebanon, an interference that the West originally encouraged as a way to keep the lid on sectarian violence? Why oust Damascus from the scene and then promote a “Cedar Revolution” that pandered to the interests of only one section of Lebanese society and continued to ignore the concerns of the largest and most dissatisfied community, the Shia? What possible outcome could there be but simmering resentment and the threat of violence?

And why invade Iraq on the hollow pretext of locating WMDs and then dislodge its dictator, Saddam Hussein, who for decades had been armed and supported by the US and had very effectively, if ruthlessly, held Iraq together? Again from Carne’s testimony, it is clear that no one in the intelligence community believed Saddam really posed a threat to the West. Even if he needed “containing” or possibly replacing, as Bush’s predecessors appeared to believe, why did the president decide simply to overthrow him, leaving a power void at Iraq’s heart?

The answer appears to be related to the rise of the neocons, who finally grasped power with the election of President Bush. Israel’s most popular news website, Ynet, recently observed of the neocons: “Many are Jews who share a love for Israel.”

The neocons’ vision of American global supremacy is intimately tied to, and dependent on, Israel’s regional supremacy. It is not so much that the neocons choose to promote Israel’s interests above those of America as that they see the two nations’ interests as inseparable and identical.

Although usually identified with the Israeli right, the neocons’ political alliance with the Likud mainly reflects their support for adopting belligerent means to achieve their policy goals rather than the goals themselves.

The consistent aim of Israeli policy over decades, from the left and right, has been to acquire more territory at the expense of its neighbours and entrench its regional supremacy through “divide and rule”, particularly of its weakest neighbours such as the Palestinians and the Lebanese. It has always abominated Arab nationalism, especially of the Baathist variety in Iraq and Syria, because it appeared immune to Israeli intrigues.

For many years Israel favoured the same traditional colonial approach the West used in the Middle East, where Britain, France and later the US supported autocratic leaders, usually from minority populations, to rule over the majority in the new states they had created, whether Christians in Lebanon, Alawites in Syria, Sunnis in Iraq, or Hashemites in Jordan. The majority was thereby weakened, and the minority forced to become dependent on colonial favours to maintain its privileged position.

Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, for example, was similarly designed to anoint a Christian strongman and US stooge, Bashir Gemayel, as a compliant president who would agree to an anti-Syrian alliance with Israel.

But decades of controlling and oppressing Palestinian society allowed Israel to develop a different approach to divide and rule: what might be termed organised chaos, or the “discord” model, one that came to dominate first its thinking and later that of the neocons.

During its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, Israel preferred discord to a strongman, aware that a pre-requisite of the latter would be the creation of a Palestinian state and its furnishing with a well-armed security force. Neither option was ever seriously contemplated.

Only briefly under international pressure was Israel forced to relent and partially adopt the strongman model by allowing the return of Yasser Arafat from exile. But Israel’s reticence in giving Arafat the means to assert his rule and suppress his rivals, such as Hamas, led inevitably to conflict between the Palestinian president and Israel that ended in the second intifada and the readoption of the discord model.

This latter approach exploits the fault lines in Palestinian society to exacerbate tensions and violence. Initially Israel achieved this by promoting rivalry between regional and clan leaders who were forced to compete for Israel’s patronage. Later Israel encouraged the emergence of Islamic extremism, especially in the form of Hamas, as a counterweight to the growing popularity of the secular nationalism of Arafat’s Fatah party.

Israel’s discord model is now reaching its apotheosis: low-level and permanent civil war between the old guard of Fatah and the upstarts of Hamas. This kind of Palestinian in-fighting usefully depletes the society’s energies and its ability to organise against the real enemy: Israel and its enduring occupation.

The neocons, it appears, have been impressed with this model and wanted to export it to other Middle Eastern states. Under Bush they sold it to the White House as the solution to the problems of Iraq and Lebanon, and ultimately of Iran and Syria too.

The provoking of civil war certainly seemed to be the goal of Israel’s assault on Lebanon over the summer. The attack failed, as even Israelis admit, because Lebanese society rallied behind Hizbullah’s impressive show of resistance rather than, as was hoped, turning on the Shia militia.

Last week the Israeli website Ynet interviewed Meyrav Wurmser, an Israeli citizen and co-founder of MEMRI, a service translating Arab leaders’ speeches that is widely suspected of having ties with Israel’s security services. She is also the wife of David Wurmser, a senior neocon adviser to Vice-President Dick Cheney.

Meyrav Wurmser revealed that the American Administration had publicly dragged its feet during Israel’s assault on Lebanon because it was waiting for Israel to expand its attack to Syria.

“The anger [in the White House] is over the fact that Israel did not fight against the Syrians The neocons are responsible for the fact that Israel got a lot of time and space They believed that Israel should be allowed to win. A great part of it was the thought that Israel should fight against the real enemy, the one backing Hizbullah. It was obvious that it is impossible to fight directly against Iran, but the thought was that its [Iran’s] strategic and important ally [Syria] should be hit.”

Wurmser continued: “It is difficult for Iran to export its Shiite revolution without joining Syria, which is the last nationalistic Arab country. If Israel had hit Syria, it would have been such a harsh blow for Iran that it would have weakened it and [changed] the strategic map in the Middle East.”

Neocons talk a great deal about changing maps in the Middle East. Like Israel’s dismemberment of the occupied territories into ever-smaller ghettos, Iraq is being severed into feuding mini-states. Civil war, it is hoped, will redirect Iraqis’ energies away from resistance to the US occupation and into more negative outcomes.

Similar fates appear to be awaiting Iran and Syria, at least if the neocons, despite their waning influence, manage to realise their vision in Bush’s last two years.

The reason is that a chaotic and feuding Middle East, although it would be a disaster in the view of most informed observers, appears to be greatly desired by Israel and its neocon allies. They believe that the whole Middle East can be run successfully the way Israel has run its Palestinian populations inside the occupied territories, where religious and secular divisions have been accentuated, and inside Israel itself, where for many decades Arab citizens were “de-Palestinianised” and turned into identity-starved and quiescent Muslims, Christians, Druze and Bedouin.

That conclusion may look foolhardy, but then again so does the White House’s view that it is engaged in a “clash of civilisations” which it can win with a “war on terror”.

All states are capable of acting in an irrational or self-destructive manner, but Israel and its supporters may be more vulnerable to this failing than most. That is because Israelis’ perception of their region and their future has been grossly distorted by the official state ideology, Zionism, with its belief in Israel’s inalienable right to preserve itself as an ethnic state; its confused messianic assumptions, strange for a secular ideology, about Jews returning to a land promised by God; and its contempt for, and refusal to understand, everything Arab or Muslim.

If we expect rational behaviour from Israel or its neocon allies, more fool us.

Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. He is the author of the forthcoming “Blood and Religion: The Unmasking of the Jewish and Democratic State” published by Pluto Press, and available in the United States from the University of Michigan Press. His website is www.jkcook.net

Source

Prime suspects: Pierre Gemayel’s assassination

Prime suspects

While many seem to have made up their minds that Pierre Gemayel’s murder was down to Syria, the blame could still lie elsewhere.

Jonathan Cook

The Guardian: Comment is Free

November 24, 2006

Commentators and columnists seem agreed: Pierre Gemayel’s assassination must have been the handiwork of Syria. President Bush thinks so too. Case, apparently, closed.

I do not claim to know who killed Gemayel. Maybe Syria was behind the shooting. Maybe, in Lebanon’s notoriously intrigue-ridden political system, someone with a grudge against Gemayel pulled the trigger. Or maybe, Israel once again flexed the muscles of its long arm in Lebanon.

It seems, however, as if the last possibility cannot be entertained in polite society. So let me offer a few impolite thoughts. As anyone who watches TV crime series will know, when there is insufficient physical evidence in a murder investigation for a conviction, detectives examine the motives of the parties who stood to benefit from the crime.

Better detectives also consider whether the prime suspect – the person who looks at first sight to be the guilty party – is not, in fact, being turned into a fall guy by one of the other parties. The murderer may be the person who benefits most clearly from the crime, or the murderer may also be the person who benefits from the prime suspect being fingered.

As most of our politicians and the media’s commentators have deduced, suspicion falls automatically on Syria because Gemayel’s Christian Phalangists are one of Syria’s main enemies in Lebanon. Partly as a result, they have opposed recent attempts by Syria’s main ally in Lebanon, the Shia group Hizbullah, to win a greater share of political power.

They are also – and this seems to clinch it for most observers – part of the majority in the government of Fouad Siniora that supports a UN tribunal to try the killers of Rafik Hariri, an anti-Syria politician and leader of the Sunni Muslim community, who was blown up by a car bomb more than a year and a half ago.

After all six Shia ministers walked out of the cabinet two weeks ago, and now with Gemayel’s assassination, the government is close to collapse, and with it the tribunal that everyone expects to implicate Syria in Hariri’s murder. If Syria can bump off another two cabinet ministers and the government loses its quorum, Syria will be off the hook – or so runs the logic of western observers.

But does this “evidence” make Syria the prime suspect or the fall guy? How will Syria’s wider interests be affected by the killing, and what about Israel’s interests in Gemayel’s death – or rather, its interests in Syria or Hizbullah being blamed for Gemayel’s death?

In truth, Israel will benefit in numerous ways from the tensions provoked by the assassination, as the popular and angry rallies in Beirut against Syria and Hizbullah are proving.

First, and most obviously, Hizbullah – as Syria’s main political and military friend in Lebanon – has been forced suddenly on to the back foot. Hizbullah had been riding high after its triumph over the summer of withstanding the Israeli assault on Lebanon.

Hizbullah’s popularity and credibility rose so sharply that the leaders of the Shia community had been hoping to cash in on that success domestically by demanding more power. That is one of the reasons why the six Shia ministers walked out of Siniora’s cabinet.

Despite the way the Shia parties’ political position has been presented in the west, there is considerable justification for their demands. The system of political representation in Lebanon was rigged decades ago by the former colonial power, France, to ensure that power is shared between the Christian and Sunni Muslim communities. The Shia Muslims, the country’s largest religious sect, have been kept on the margins of the system ever since, effectively disenfranchised.

With their recent military victory, this was the moment Hizbullah hoped to make a breakthrough and force political concessions from the Sunnis and Christians, concessions that indirectly would have benefited Syria. With Gemayel’s death, the chances of that now look slim indeed. Hizbullah, and by extension Syria, are the losers; Israel, which wants Hizbullah weakened, is the winner.

Second, the assassination has pushed Lebanon to the brink of another civil war. With a political system barely able to contain sectarian differences, and with the various factions in no mood to compromise after the spate of recent assassinations, there is a real danger that fighting will return to Lebanon’s streets.

This will most certainly not be to the benefit of Lebanon or any of its religious communities, who will be dragged into another round of bloodletting. Hizbullah’s underground cadres who took on the Israeli war machine will doubtless have to come out of hiding and will pay a price against other well-armed militias.

The benefits for Syria are at best mixed. A possible benefit is that a bloody civil war may increase the pressure on the United States to talk to Syria, and possibly to invite it to take a leading role again in stabilising Lebanon, as it did during the last civil war.

But, given the continuing ascendancy of the hawks in Washington, it may have the opposite effect, encouraging the US to isolate Syria further. Conversely, civil war may pose serious threats to Syrian interests – and offer significant benefits to Israel. If Hizbullah’s energies are seriously depleted in a civil war, Israel may be in a much better position to attack Lebanon again. Almost everyone in Israel is agreed that the Israeli army is itching to settle the score with Hizbullah in another round of fighting. This way it may get the next war it wants on much better terms.

Certainly, one of the main goals of Israel’s bombing campaign over the summer, when much of Lebanon’s infrastructure was destroyed, appeared to be to provoke such a civil war. It was widely reported at the time that Israel’s generals hoped that the devastation would provoke the Christian, Sunni and Druze communities to rise up against Hizbullah.

Third, Syria is already the prime suspect in Hariri’s murder and in the assassination of three other Lebanese politicians and journalists, all seen as anti-Syrian, over the past 21 months.

The US exploited Hariri’s death, and the widespread protests that followed, to evict Syria from Lebanon. Syria’s removal from the scene also paved the way, whether intentionally or not, for Israel’s assault this summer, which would have been far more dangerous to the region had Syria still been in Lebanon.

Despite the looming threat of the UN tribunal into Hariri’s death, from Syria’s point of view the accusations had grown stale with time and threatened to prove only what everyone in the west already believed. With the walk-out by the Shia ministers from the Lebanese government, the investigations were looking all but redundant in any case.

Gemayel’s assassination, however, has dramatically revived interest in the question of who killed Hariri and brings Syria firmly back into the spotlight. None of this benefits Syria, but no doubt Israel will be able to take some pleasure in Damascus’s discomfort.

Fourth, the Israeli government has been under international and domestic pressure to engage with Syria and negotiate a return of the Golan Heights, an area of Syrian territory it has been occupying since 1967. President Assad of Syria has been hinting openly that he is ready to discuss Israel’s return of the Golan Heights on better terms for Israel than it has ever before been offered.

According to reports in the Israeli media, Assad is prepared to demilitarise the Golan and turn it into a national park that would be open to Israelis. He would probably also not insist on a precise return to the 1967 border, which includes the northern shoreline of the Sea of Galilee. Israel’s leaders traditionally balked at this idea.

But if negotiations on the Golan are desperately sought by the young Assad, Israel shows no interest in exploring the option. That is for several reasons:

•Israel, as might be expected on past form, is not in the mood for making territorial concessions

•It does not want to end Syria’s pariah status and isolation by making a peace deal with it

•It fears that such a deal might suggest that negotiations with the Palestinians are feasible too.

Peace with Syria, in Israeli eyes, would inexorably lead to pressure to make peace with the Palestinians. That is most certainly not part of Israel’s current agenda. Gemayel’s death, and Syria being blamed for it, forces Damascus back into the fold of the “axis of evil”, and forestalls any threat of talks on the Golan.

Fifth, pressure has been growing in the US administration to start talking to Syria, if only to try to recruit it to Washington’s “war on terror”. The US could desperately do with local help in managing its occupation of Iraq. It is unclear whether Bush is ready to make such an about-turn, but it remains a possibility.

Key US allies such as Britain’s Tony Blair are pushing strongly for engagement with Syria, both to further isolate Iran – the possible target of either a US or Israeli strike against its presumed ambitions for nuclear weapons – and to clear the path to negotiations with the Palestinians.

Gemayel’s death, and Syria’s blame for it, strengthens the case of the neoconservatives in Washington – Israel’s allies in the administration – whose star had begun to wane. They can now argue convincingly that Syria is unreformed and unreformable. Such an outcome helps to avert the danger, from Israel’s point of view, that White House doves might win the argument for befriending Syria.

For all these reasons, we should be wary of assuming that Syria is the party behind Gemayel’s death – or the only regional actor meddling in Lebanon.

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