comsc US Politics | AMERICAblog News: Middle East crisis: round and round it goes, where it stops, nobody knows
Join Email List | About us | AMERICAblog Gay
Elections | Economic Crisis | Jobs | TSA | Limbaugh | Fun Stuff

Middle East crisis: round and round it goes, where it stops, nobody knows

| Reddit | Tumblr | Digg | FARK

It's very difficult to assess violent flare-ups, especially in a place as complex as the Middle East, while the conflict is raging. By the time one catches up with the news, something else has happened. But many people at this site and throughout the blogosphere have expressed confusion about what's going on, so here's a quick rundown and as much assessment as I can responsibly do in the midst of a raging conflict.

The abridged backstory is this: On June 25, an Israeli soldier was kidnapped by purported Hamas militants, supposedly in retaliation for a June 9 Israeli artillery hit on a Gaza beach which killed seven and wounded dozens. Israel initially issued an apology, but later said that the explosion could not have come from their artillery and was likely an old unexploded bomb on the beach or the result of a militant group's screwup. Two things about this initial exchange: first, it's weird that Israel would first apologize and then, after an investigation, deny responsibility. From initial reports, I thought the beach strike was likely either stray artillery or a mistake from the belief that the area was uninhabited, but at this point, it's impossible to know. I don't trust either side to be honest about an event like that. Also, the kidnapping, while supposedly retributive, was probably the result of a target of opportunity. Having an Israeli soldier hostage is pretty much as good as it gets for a militant group: strategically, it captures the heart of the entire Israeli nation, and tactically, Israel is sometimes willing to exchange huge numbers of prisoners for a small number of its own people.

In response to the kidnapping, and reacting to its apparent sanction by the Hamas government (which had officially ended the previous 16-month-old cease-fire after the Gaza beach deaths), Israel began a massive incursion into Gaza. The movement included destroying Gaza's only power plant, which, among other things, caused a severe humanitarian crisis. Militants in Gaza stepped up their shelling of Israeli border towns and Israel's army carried out operations which reportedly killed both militants and civilians.

At this point, the conflict was a crisis, but one which was relatively contained. As of early July, the tension was definitely simmering, and the implications for Israel-Palestinian relations were pretty bad. Regional powers, however, were generally keeping their powder dry.

Let me pause to say that, frankly, the acts on both sides at that point were terrible. I find hostage-taking exceptionally repulsive, and the constant -- if largely ineffective -- shelling of Israeli territory by militants is awful, especially considering much of it was occurring under a putative cease-fire. Conversely, Israel's destruction of infrastructure punished Palestinians who had nothing to do with any militant activity, and could be construed as collective punishment, which is expressly forbidden by the Geneva Conventions and other international law. But I'm not going to try to assign tiered moral blame, I'll leave that to pundits more self-righteous than I.

Two days ago, of course, Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based terrorist group (and political party) rashly, and I think unforgivably, upped the ante by staging a raid, kidnapping two Israeli soldiers and killing three others. Action by Hezbollah inevitably regionalizes conflict because it is based in Lebanon, where it's a political party with significant power in the parliament, but it's also supported (and controlled, to an extent that is hotly debated) by Syria and Iran. This was an unconscionable adventure by Hezbollah, one that immediately turned a limited crisis into a greater one. Israel viewed the action as an act of war, and prepared to respond vigorously. It's really important to note that while the Gaza and Lebanon crises are related (in that they're both generally motivated by the Israel/Palestinian conflict), they are separate things. Different political issues, different militants, etc.

The fairly elected government of Lebanon (everybody remember 2005's Cedar Revolution?) doesn't have control over Hezbollah, which is probably the most highly functional organization in the country, and the only one that is significantly armed. When Syrian troops were in Lebanon, they could assert some authority over militant activity, but they're gone, and Hezbollah largely filled that vacuum of armed authority. Over the last two days, Israel has carried out massive retaliatory strikes in Lebanon, its most significant offensive there in 24 years. Israel has struck most major highways (including the primary route from Beirut to Damascus), the Beirut airport, a variety of Hezbollah-controlled areas, and other targets. This offensive continues as the international community scrambles to figure out what the hell it can do.

Timeout for more moral reprobation: Israel, due to having great military power and an elected democracy, has a responsibility to avoid punishing innocents for the actions of barbarians. With special power comes special responsibility. Collective punishment is a bad, bad thing, and the line between that an collateral damage can be a fine one. Conversely, one cannot overestimate the damage done by Hezbollah (and its state supporters, if they in any way sanctioned the kidnappings) in this situation. Israel, keyed up by the Gaza situation, was in no mood to be provoked, and the Hezbollah kidnapping was a terrible provocation.

So . . . what now? There are some cooler heads, among them tangential regional powers (e.g. Saudi Arabia) and even Secretary Rice, all of whom condemned Hezbollah and also urged Israel to utilize diplomacy and patience. Israel (Olmert, supposedly) reportedly told her to back off, and this morning's tepid statement from the Bush administration asking Israel to try to "limit . . . collateral damage" signals that the U.S. will sit this one out, at least for now. Yikes.

As usual, all politics is local. Bush knows that his evangelical base is vehemently pro-Israel (or, I should say, pro-Likud). Olmert knows that he can't look weak after withdrawing from Gaza, so he has to respond forcefully to provocation. The Lebanese government knows that it is in serious danger of being toppled, after which new elections would likely favor Hezbollah (currently a minority party) due to nationalist anger over the Israeli incursion. Hezbollah knows this as well, and so has a political interest in maintaining the violence. Iran and Syria certainly aren't unhappy about the mayhem, as it ties up the attention of U.S. and Israel, as well as undermining international support for both.

One of the scariest and most dangerous things about war is the randomness of its course. It's impossible to predict how this will end up: if Hezbollah rockets continue to miss Haifa, perhaps a diplomatic solution is in the cards; if fate lands one in the midst of Israeli civilians, fighting could go on for weeks or months. If Hezbollah moves the captives to Syria, that could open up another front; if Israel manages to rescue the soldiers quickly, that would go a long way towards management of the crisis. As for U.S. interests in the region, we've got 20 million restive Shia in Iraq around 130,000 American troops as this whole thing plays out, with the Sunni Speaker of Parliament in Iraq blaming Iraq's violence on "the Jews." History may look back at this series of weeks and say it was inevitable in one way or another, but unpredictable events will steer the course over the coming days and weeks.

blog comments powered by Disqus