If Israel has the right to use force in self defence, so do its neighbours
The west appears to insist that only one side in the conflict is able to intervene militarily across borders. That will never be accepted.
Much has been made in recent days - at the G8 summit and elsewhere - of Israel's right to retaliate against the capture of its soldiers, or attacks on its troops on its own sovereign territory. Some, such as those in the US administration, seem to believe that Israel has an unqualified licence to hit back at its enemies no matter what the cost. And even those willing to recognise that there may be a problem tend to couch it in terms of Israel's "disproportionate use of force" rather than its basic right to take military action.
But what is at stake here is not proportionality or the issue of self-defence, but symmetry and equivalence. Israel is staking a claim to the exclusive use of force as an instrument of policy and punishment, and is seeking to deny any opposing state or non-state actor a similar right. It is also largely succeeding in portraying its own "right to self-defence" as beyond question, while denying anyone else the same. And the international community is effectively endorsing Israel's stance on both counts.
From an Arab point of view this cannot be right. There is no reason in the world why Israel should be able to enter Arab sovereign soil to occupy, destroy, kidnap and eliminate its perceived foes - repeatedly, with impunity and without restraint - while the Arab side cannot do the same. And if the Arab states are unable or unwilling to do so then the job should fall to those who can.
It is important to bear in mind that in both the case of the Hamas raid that led to the invasion of Gaza and the Hizbullah attack that led to the assault on Lebanon it was Israel's regular armed forces, not its civilians, that were targeted. It is hard to see how this can be filed under the rubric of "terrorism", rather than a straightforward tactical defeat for Israel's much-vaunted military machine; one that Israel seems loth to acknowledge.
Some of this has to do with the paradox of power: the stronger the Israeli army becomes, the more susceptible and vulnerable it becomes to even a minor setback. The loss of even one tank, the capture of one soldier or damage done to one warship has a negative-multiplier effect: Israel's "deterrent" power is dented out of all proportion to the act itself. Israel's retaliation is thus partly a matter of restoring its deterrence, partly sheer vengeance, and partly an attempt to compel its adversaries to do its bidding.
But there is also something else at work: Israel's fear of acknowledging any form of equivalence between the two sides. And it is precisely this that seems to provide the moral and psychological underpinning for Israel's ongoing assault in both Gaza and Lebanon - the sense that it may have met its match in audacity, tactical ingenuity and "clean" military action from an adversary who may even have learned a thing or two from Israel itself, and may be capable of learning even more in the future.
There has of course been nothing "clean" about Israeli military action throughout the many decades of conflict in Palestine and Lebanon. Israel's wanton disregard for civilian life during the past few days is neither new nor out of character. For those complaining about violations of Israeli sovereignty by Hizbullah or Hamas, it may be useful to recall the tens of thousands of Israeli violations of Lebanese sovereignty since the late 60s, the massive air raids of the mid-70s and early 80s, the 1978 and 1982 invasions and occupation of the capital Beirut, the hundreds of thousands of refugees, the 28-year-old buffer zone and proxy force set up in southern Lebanon, the assassinations, car bombs, and massacres, and finally the continuing violations of Lebanese soil, airspace and territorial waters and the detention of Lebanese prisoners even after Israel's withdrawal in 2000.
It is unnecessary here to recount the full range of Israel's violations of Palestinian "sovereignty", not least of which is its recent refusal to accept the sovereign electoral choice of the Palestinian people. Israel's extraterritorial, extrajudicial execution of Palestinian leaders and activists began in the early 70s and has not ceased since. But for those seeking further enlightenment about Hamas's recent action, the fact is that some 650,000 acts of imprisonment have taken place since the occupation began in 1967, and that 9,000 Palestinians are currently in Israel's jails, including some 50 old-timers incarcerated before and despite the 1993 Oslo accords, and many others whom Israel refuses to release on the grounds that they have "blood on their hands", as if only one side in this conflict was culpable, or the value of one kind of human blood was superior to another.
If there ever was a case for establishing some form of mutually acknowledged parity regarding the ground rules of the conflict, Hamas and Hizbullah have a good one to make. And if there ever was a case for demonstrating that what is good on one side of the border should also good on the other, Hamas and Hizbullah's logic has strong appeal to Arab and Muslim public opinion - regardless of what the supine Arab state system may say.
Indeed as George Bush and other western leaders splutter on about freedom, democracy, and Israel's right to defend itself, Tony Blair's repeated claim that events in the region should not be linked to terrible events elsewhere is looking increasingly fatuous.
The slowly expanding war in Afghanistan, the devastation of Iraq, the death and destruction in Gaza and the bombing of Beirut are all providing a slow but sure drip feed for those who believe that the west is incapable of taking a balanced moral stance, and is directly or indirectly complicit in a design meant to break Arab and Muslim will and subjugate it to untrammelled Israeli force.
Contrary to what Blair seems to believe, the use of force is unlikely to breed western style-liberalism and moderation. What is at issue here is not democracy but the right to resist Israeli arrogance and be treated on a par with it in every respect, including the use of force. If Israel has the right to "defend itself" then so has everyone else.
Furthermore, there is nothing in the history of the region to suggest that Israel's destruction of mass popular movements such as Hamas or Hizbullah (even if this were possible) would drive their successors closer to western-style democracy, and every reason to believe the opposite. Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 did away with the PLO and produced Hizbullah instead, the incarceration and elimination of Arafat only served to strengthen Hamas, and the wars in Afghanistan, the Gulf and Iraq gave birth to Bin Ladenist terrorism and extended its reach and appeal. And we should not be surprised if the summer of 2006 produces more of the same.
However Israel's latest adventure ends, it will not produce greater sympathy and understanding between west and east, or a downturn in extremism. Indeed the most likely outcome is that a new wave of virulent and possibly unconventional anti-western terrorism may well crash against this and other shores. We will all - Israelis, Arabs and westerners - suffer as a result.