Autonomy key to peace in Lebanon

Colin Rubenstein

New Zealand Herald – 25 July 2006  

Unless the Lebanese Government has international backing to become master of its own country, peace cannot come.  


IN AN extraordinary statement, the editor of a Kuwaiti newspaper, the Arab Times, argued last week that “the operations of Israel in Gaza and Lebanon are in the interest of people of Arab countries and the international community”.  

Milder statements in the same vein, blaming Hezbollah for the violence, have come from across the Arab world, including the governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan.  

These countries have not suddenly become Israel’s friends, but recognise that, as the veteran leader of Lebanon’s Druse community, Walid Jumblatt, put it: “The war is no longer Lebanon’s – it is an Iranian war. Iran is telling the United States: You want to fight me in the Gulf and destroy my nuclear programme? I will hit you at home, in Israel.” And the Arab states are worried about Iran’s power play, assisted by long-time ally Syria.  

The timing is doubtless partly to draw attention away from the controversy over Iran’s nuclear weapons programme. But it is primarily an attempt by Iran and Syria to display their power, win Arab support, and assert their dominance across the region.  

Hezbollah, a terrorist organisation banned by Western nations, was founded, trained, armed, funded and, in part, directed, by the Iranian revolutionary guards. It amassed a huge arsenal of more than 13,000 Iranian- supplied missiles pointed at Israeli towns and in effect it controls a mini-state in southern Lebanon, including the border with Israel.  

It is a strong supporter of Iran’s repeatedly articulated policy of destroying Israel, and uses terror and the missile threat to further Iran’s agenda.  

There was absolutely no justification, legal or ethical, for Hezbollah’s violation of sovereign Israeli territory to kill and kidnap Israeli soldiers, which triggered the present conflict.  

In May 2000, Israel withdrew from Lebanon behind a demarcated international border that was recognised by the community of nations, ending any territorial quarrel between Lebanon and Israel.  

The only way Israel can prevent Hezbollah from launching attacks is by disarming it and moving it away from the border. The Israeli Government has even concluded that suffering the hundreds of rocket attacks now occurring throughout Israel’s north is a price worth paying if it prevents even worse attacks later.  

Israeli attacks are concentrated on Hezbollah command centres, missile launchers and storage warehouses, most of which are illegally situated in the middle of civilian areas. Israel also seeks to isolate Hezbollah by cutting transport links, such as roads, bridges and ports. This is a perfectly legal and justified military tactic because it serves a genuine military purpose – to prevent Hezbollah getting armaments from its patrons, Syria and Iran, or moving missiles to the launchers.  

There is much talk of the supposed lack of “proportionality” of the Israeli response, with comparisons of casualty figures. But Israel is entitled to respond in proportion to the threat, not just to the specific illegal cross-border attack that sparked its counteractions.  

That threat is very large in this case, given the thousands of Hezbollah missiles and its clear and declared intent to use them against Israeli cities and towns.  

Hezbollah is deliberately and cynically trying to confront Israel with a no-win situation.  

If Israel doesn’t strike back for fear of hitting innocent Lebanese, Hezbollah gets the time to plan and arm for further attacks and drag Israel and Lebanon into conflict whenever it suits Iran.  

But when Israel retaliates and civilians are injured or killed, as is inevitable in the circumstances, the Jewish state is pilloried for its brutality.  

The obvious solution to the problem is to create security for all sides with arrangements that give Lebanon control over its own foreign policy and borders, thus protecting Israel and obviating any need for Israel to respond militarily to attacks.  

Lebanon needs international assistance to implement the United Nations Security Council resolutions that call for the Lebanese Government to disarm Hezbollah and take control of the border area with Israel.  

Hezbollah must be weakened enough, politically and military, so it has no ability to seriously interfere.  

No one wants the violence and suffering on both sides to continue.  

But if the problem of Hezbollah’s anomalous Iranian-backed state-within-a-state in Lebanon is not solved, not only will Lebanon remain unable to gain full democratic sovereignty, the violence and civilian deaths will certainly return repeatedly in coming months and years.  

That is why everyone of good will should be hoping and working for a ceasefire as soon as possible, but not one second before it is crystal clear that the conditions for stability and quiet will follow – Hezbollah dismantled as a military force and Lebanon in control of its own southern border.  

Dr Colin Rubenstein is executive director of the Australia-Israel and Jewish Affairs Council. Previously, he taught Middle Eastern politics at Melbourne’s Monash University.