In its short modern history, Lebanon has been brutalized by both its neighbors and its own internal divisions. Syria, the Palestinians, Hezbollah, Israel and the country’s own religious militias all have inflicted blows on the small Mediterranean state. Besides its 1982 invasion to dislodge the Palestine Liberation Organization from Beirut and its 18-year-long occupation of south Lebanon, Israel twice invaded Lebanon in the 1990’s, in Operation Accountability (1993) and in Operation Grapes of Wrath (1996). In both cases, the intent was to put an end to Hezbollah’s shelling of towns in northern Israel, but in each case the victim of the assault was the Lebanese people. During these last weeks history has been repeating itself.
The present conflict has been long in preparation. Hezbollah has been building up its rocket arsenal since the Israelis withdrew from south Lebanon in 2000, and the Israelis have reportedly been preparing the current assault as a pre-emptive strike for almost as long. The kidnapping of two soldiers along the border was not so much a provocation as a pretext for a combat both sides desired. Only after two weeks of savage bombardment did the adversaries engage each other in direct, face-to-face combat.
On both sides of the border, the victims have been mainly civilians. Northern Israel has become void of everyday activity, and south Lebanon has been made a wasteland; but Lebanese casualties have outnumbered Israeli deaths more than 10 to one. A third of them have been children. Pleading in vain for a cease-fire, Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora asked: Is the value of human life less in Lebanon than that of citizens elsewhere? Are we children of a lesser god? Is an Israeli teardrop worth more than a drop of Lebanese blood? In the eyes of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, apparently so. For she held out against European and Arab pressure for an immediate truce for nearly a month, to allow Israel time to degrade Hezbollah’s fighting capacity.
The siege tactics the Israeli Defense Force employed, supposedly to prevent the escape of Hezbollah fighters and to block their resupply, only worsened the situation. On at least three occasions, Israel has distributed messages urging people to flee, but at no time, it seems, did the shelling let up to permit free passage to the north. Even a two-day halt in bombing announced on July 30 failed to materialize as Israel responded to Hezbollah attacks on its troops. If Lebanon were Bosnia, the destruction of neighborhoods and the killing of civilians would have been labeled ethnic cleansing. In the case of Lebanon, we are told, the bombardment is simply creating a buffer zone to protect northern Israel from attack. But depopulating south Lebanon is not a legitimate tool for protecting the population of Galilee.
The Bush administration, Congress and the media seem to be indifferent to the large-scale violation of civilian immunity. The House of Representatives even refused to include language calling for restraint in attacks against civilian targets in a resolution supporting Israel. Meanwhile, the rest of the world sees the carnage, is appalled and rightly thinks that once again the United States is employing a double standard. With the Middle East hurtling out of control, we may live to regret this hypocrisy. Every country has a stake in preserving civilian immunity in wartime. By violating the taboo, the United States and Israel, as well as Hezbollah, are sowing the wind. One day all could reap the whirlwind.
The strategy of going after Hezbollah by attacking Lebanon is a return to Bush II illusions about remaking the Middle East by armed force. Lebanon was one country in the region where democracy had begun to take a fragile hold. The Cedar Revolution was the poster child of Arab democratic renewal. The Israeli assault and U.S. acquiescence to the Israeli strategy has severely undermined the Lebanese state along with chances of democracy elsewhere in the region. It has weakened the hand of moderate Arab forces generally and strengthened that of the Islamic militants, including Iran’s theocratic government.
Christians, and Catholics in particular, have reason for acute concern, because Lebanon has been the last country in the Middle East where Christians play a significant role in society. The Lebanese experiment in multireligious co-existence, what the Lebanese call conviviality, a promising alternative to government by the mullahs, has been dealt a crippling blow. The weakening of Lebanon means fading possibilities not only for Middle Eastern Christianity but also for interreligious coexistence. The days when the Maronites could retreat to Mount Lebanon are past. The current crisis calls for American and other Western Christians to defend Lebanon and its Christians with the strongest expressions of solidarity.