Preparing the Way for Hudna

Preparing the Way for Hudna

By Irfan Husain

AS Israel bombs Lebanon with calculated ferocity, we are reminded yet again of the wide gap between military force and security. One can be the bully on the block, and still feel insecure.

And yet security is what Israel has craved for since it came into existence nearly 60 years ago. The Jewish state was a haven for a traumatised community, survivors of the worst genocide in history. The founders of the state vowed that never again would they be weak and vulnerable. To this end, they set about building a fearsome war machine that has come to be the dominant force in the region. In the process, however, they developed a siege mentality that has prevented them from engaging productively with their neighbours.

In their elusive search for security, Israeli generals and politicians sought to talk to their Arab neighbours from a position of strength. For this, they needed to obtain western military and diplomatic backing. Thus, when Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal in 1956, Israel colluded enthusiastically with France and Britain in attacking Egypt. The Suez war was perceived across the Muslim world as a perfidious ganging up of western powers, and confirmed the view that Israel was, and always had been, a colonial enterprise.

In one sense, the Israeli and Arab narratives have glided past each other, with each side too intent with its own viewpoint to be receptive to the other. This was never truer than now, as Hezbollah rockets rain down on Israeli towns, and Israeli planes range over Lebanon, raining down death and destruction. As the tempo of violence quickens and the tide of hatred rises, it might be useful to step back and try and assess what each side really wants.

The Palestinian position is clearer than the Israeli one: while Palestinians would prefer a life without Israel, most of them have come to terms with their Jewish neighbour and realise they have to live with it. So the bargaining position of the mainstream is pretty straightforward: a return of Israel to its pre-1967 borders but without all the qualifications Tel Aviv has attempted to impose. Israel, on the other hand, is deliberately ambiguous in spelling out what it wants, although its actions have clarified any doubts people might have harboured. Apart from all of Jerusalem, it wants to retain the major settlements it has built since 1967, and continues to expand today.

In addition, it wants to retain a security zone on the Jordanian border. And it wants to ensure that the Palestinian state that ultimately emerges would never be viable by fragmenting it with roads connecting various settlements with each other and with Israel.

Clearly, such a one-sided solution would be unacceptable to any Palestinian leadership. Of course, Hamas has made Israel’s task of dragging its feet easier by refusing to recognise its right to exist. For years now, Israel has used the mantra of ‘no partner to negotiate with’ in order to avoid meaningful negotiations. The point is that you negotiate differences with adversaries, not with friends. And you do not choose your foes. So clearly, every act of violent resistance to the Israeli occupation has been used by Tel Aviv to fend off western pressure to sit down with the Palestinians to negotiate a final border.

Apart from this gross mismatch in expectations from an agreement, there is a view that somehow, Israeli security takes precedence over its neighbours. Thus, the smallest provocation has to be answered with disproportionate use of force. There is a widespread feeling in the West, and even in some Arab countries, that the current escalation is due to Hezbollah’s capture of two Israeli soldiers. In reality, when the Israelis retreated from occupied Southern Lebanon in 2000, an agreement had been worked out according to which Israel and Hezbollah would not attack civilians along the border.

Military targets were not covered by the accord, and over the last six years, civilians were not deliberately targeted. But when Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers and killed several others in a daring cross-border raid, Israel retaliated against civilian targets, including the destruction of entire villages, bridges and a power plant. This in turn drew return fire at Israeli civilians in the form of Hezbollah rockets.

This has been the form of past spirals of violence in the Middle East: one act triggers another, and so on. On each occasion, Israel has quickly raised the stakes, as it has done this time. But far too often, Israeli military actions have produced the opposite effect from the one their authors sought. Ahmad Khalidi, senior associate of St Antony’s College, Oxford, writes in the Guardian of July 18:

“Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 did away with the PLO and produced Hezbollah 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.”

The one thing Israeli leaders forget in their hubris is that security is not a one-way street: their country cannot enjoy peace unless its neighbours also feel secure. Israel has sought to build a wall to keep Palestinians out of sight, and therefore out of mind. But by tunnelling under it, Hamas showed that even a 20-foot high wall is not impregnable. Will the Israelis now build a wall on their Lebanese border?

Clearly, no long-term peace is possible without a political settlement. And a settlement will not be reached at gunpoint. Both in strategic and moral terms, Israelis have to come to terms with the fact that as long as they continue to occupy Palestinian land, they will have no peace. More and more, the argument that they have to hold on to land for their security rings hollow: no objective observer will buy the thesis that a viable Palestinian state could ever pose a threat to the Jewish state.

To find true peace, Israelis have to move past the dark memories of the Holocaust, and accept the fact that they can hang on to illegally occupied land, or they can have security. They cannot simultaneously have both.

Originally published July 22, 2006 in Dawn under the title “Insecurities of the local bully”