[VIEWPOINT]The Middle East mayhem benefits IranWhile Hezbollah’s kidnapping of Israeli soldiers has provided Israel with a reason to wreak widespread death and destruction in Lebanon, its continuing resistance raises its standing in the Arab and Muslim worlds ― despite Hezbollah’s minority Shiite credentials, closeness to Iran and censure by many Arab governments.
If the current fighting ends in a prisoner exchange ― as part of a package, or separately, as has happened in the past ― the bloody episode will only widen the gap between the ruler and the ruled in the authoritarian Arab world, leading the ruling elites to resort to repression.
To understand how and why Hezbollah has loomed so large on Israel’s radar, take a quick canter down history lane. By all accounts, Muslims now make up two-thirds of the Lebanese population, with Christians half as numerous. But such is the “confessional democracy” ― established by France, modified after the 1975-1990 civil war and buttressed by the Cedar Revolution of 2005 ― that Muslims and Christians have an equal share of seats in the 128-member parliament.
While Shiites are three-fifths of the Muslim population, they are entitled to two-fifths of the Muslim seats. Among high officials, Maronite Catholics are entitled to the presidency, elected by the parliament; Sunni Muslims to the premiership; and Shiite Muslims merely to parliamentary speaker.
Being the poorest, Lebanese Shiites have been the traditional underdogs.
After the Israeli invasion and occupation of Lebanon in June 1982, radicals formed Hezbollah, or the Party of God, to resist the occupation actively. This brought it in cahoots with the 2,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guards, based in the eastern Lebanese town of Baalbek after their arrival via Syria.
As Hezbollah escalated guerrilla attacks on Israel in southern Lebanon, Tehran increased its military aid, with Syria acting as the conduit. Through its Martyrs Foundation, Iran sent funds to Hezbollah to provide health, education and other public services to needy Shiites.
Hezbollah assisted Iran by periodically taking Westerners, mainly Americans, as hostages, using such labels as the Organization of the Oppressed of the Earth. After the end of the Lebanese civil war in October 1990, Hezbollah fighters moved to the area adjacent to Israeli-occupied southern Lebanon.
Steadily, Hezbollah increased attacks on Israel and its surrogate south Lebanon army targets, pushing the total to 1,200 in 1998. Unable to withstand the pressure, Israel withdrew unconditionally from most of southern Lebanon in May 2000.
After the start of the Second Palestinian Intifada in September 2000, Hezbollah abducted a former Israeli colonel from inside Israel. Following tortuous negotiations, in January 2004, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon exchanged 436 Lebanese prisoners and 59 corpses of Lebanese soldiers for one Israeli hostage and three corpses of Israeli soldiers.
At the last minute, Mr. Sharon held back three prominent Lebanese detainees. Since then, Hezbollah has vowed to secure their release by abducting Israeli soldiers. The latest abduction, which Israel treated as a major provocation, is more a continuation of the earlier struggle than the opening salvo of a wider Iranian-Shiite campaign against Israel.
On July 12, Hezbollah mounted its attack inside Israel, killing three Israeli soldiers and taking two as hostages. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah claimed planning for the assault began five months earlier. Equally, Israel’s massive retaliation showed that its objective went far beyond the release of a couple of abducted soldiers. Lacking the military experience of Mr. Sharon, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has ceded his supreme political authority to the defense forces’ high command imbued with thinking in purely military terms.
The resulting mayhem benefits Tehran diplomatically. The UN Security Council put on hold drafting of a resolution critical of Iran for its failure to suspend its uranium-enrichment activities.
Iran improved the chances of a continued freeze by informing Russia, the host of the G-8 summit, on July 16, that the six-nation incentives package on the nuclear issue was “an acceptable basis” for discussion.
On the other hand, the timing has been awkward for the region’s Arab regimes, which did nothing when Israel applied disproportionate force in Gaza following the kidnapping and killing of Israeli soldiers.
Earlier, except for Syria and Qatar, most Arab nations were shocked and embarrassed by Hamas’ landslide victory in the Palestinian elections. They did nothing to help Hamas when the West cut financial aid of about $1 billion a year to the Palestinian Authority. By contrast, Iran was the first country to publicly offer $30 million to the Hamas government.
By inflicting collective punishment on the Lebanese by wantonly destroying their bridges, power plants, factories, air and seaports and residential blocks ― Israel stokes hatred for decades. Israel also undermines the legitimacy of the moderate Arab regimes and unwittingly shores up the fortunes of Islamist forces in the Arab world as well as in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Or it may be that Israel is exploiting Hezbollah’s aggressive action to destroy its arsenal and render it virtually harmless. Then, Israel would be free to bomb Iran’s suspected nuclear sites ― if the Bush administration decides against doing so ― without worrying about Hezbollah’s response.
But Israel’s strategy exacts a high political price. With Arab television channels relaying images of Lebanese civilians killed and maimed by Israeli bombs, popular anger against the Arab regimes rises. As Hezbollah slams missiles into Israel and its stock among Arab television viewers soars, most Arab leaders grow nervous and defensive.
Repeating the past pattern, Arab leaders will resort to repression. That will be a setback for the movement toward democracy in the region which, we are told, remains the overarching aim of America, the prime protector and guardian of Israel.
* The writer is the author of “The Essential Middle East: A Comprehensive Guide,” published by Carroll & Graf, and most recently, “The Iranian Labyrinth: Journeys Through Theocratic Iran and Its Furies,” published by Nation Books.
by Dilip Hiro