See you at the next war: from Qana to Beit HanounTuesday 10 April 2007, by
All the versions of this article: [English] [עברית]
Now that the dust has settled and a slightly clearer picture has emerged, perhaps the discussion of last summer‘s  war in Lebanon can shift to a more thoughtful, less impassioned mode.
The imprisoned and the kidnapped
Israel, along with the rest of the Western world and even some Arab leaders, expressed surprise and protest at the abduction of two Israeli soldiers by Hizbullah, leading to Israel’s reckless attack ostensibly to secure the return of the kidnapped soldiers. Israel received broad support in the West, silent assent from the Arab world and an unprecedented measure of justification and agreement among the Jewish population of Israel.
A question that arose repeatedly, both during and after this war, was whether the Shebaa Farms, the excuse offered for continued fighting along Israel’s northern border, was worth the bloodshed that ensued as a direct result of the abduction and of Israel’s “understandable” response to it. Here I would like to propose a thesis that differs from the accepted view in Israel and the West.
Who began it? Why an abduction? For many years, Israel abducted Lebanese citizens and combatants and kept them as hostages, and still holds hundreds of such kidnapped people as hostages. Israel has never tried to hide its motives for these abductions, and has declared openly that it kidnaps and detains these people to be used in negotiating for the eventual return, someday, of the bodies of Israeli casualties or IDF prisoners from the first Lebanon War in 1982. Two days before this writing, in a television interview, Israeli Brigadier General (Res.) Uzi Dayan said that he had been sent more than once to abduct soldiers, in order to exchange them for Israel’s own captured soldiers.
The Lebanese prisoners held hostage in Israel are never mentioned. In the best case, they are mentioned only as statistics, as future bargaining chips, but only when the time is ripe for a hostage exchange the foremost goal of which is to bring “our children” home to their families. The kidnapped Lebanese are never mentioned as human beings, as children missing from their family, as parents of children or as a humanitarian question requiring a resolution. The Geneva Accords were mute about their situation, despite international conventions governing treatment of prisoners of war.
It is even more amazing (or perhaps not) that this issue is never fully addressed by the leaders of the Arab nations or even by the Lebanese government itself, whose citizens are involved. Nor are other prisoners, captives, detainees and hostages held by Israel alluded to in any way whatever. Two days before the two Israeli soldiers were abducted at the Lebanese border, Israel abducted a doctor and his brother in Gaza. Does anyone have a clue about what happened to them? Is anyone trying to find out? I am ashamed to say that even I do not remember their names.
In the past, Israel has openly abducted people to exchange for Israelis held prisoner or for the bodies of Israelis, and Hizbullah abducts people for the same purpose with the result that hostage exchanges have in fact taken place; otherwise, Lebanese and other Arab hostages and prisoners would languish in captivity in Israel forever.
These days, after the cease-fire ending the fighting in Lebanon, what concerns the rest of the world is the existential danger to Israel, the approximately 50 Israeli civilian casualties and another 120 or so Israeli soldiers killed in the war, and the destruction caused to northern Israeli cities and towns, and the manner of their rehabilitation. The more than a thousand Lebanese civilians who died, and the hundreds of thousands forced to flee their homes during Israel’s use of banned weapons, have been quickly forgotten. As for the Hizbullah fighters who fell, the West’s view is that they “deserved” to die; the total razing of entire villages and massive destruction in other villages and in Lebanese cities is also seen as their own fault and no more than what they deserve. There is no talk of reconstruction, of emotional suffering or economic damage. (At the Paris conference on aid for Lebanon at the beginning of February , the Lebanese government declared that it would use the aid funds to pay down its debts and not to provide post-war rehabilitation for the country or its citizens.) The widespread view in Israel and the West is that the Israeli attack, aiming to secure the return of the two soldiers abducted by the forces of evil, was more than justified - whatever the consequences.
Everyone, everywhere, and not just in Israel, is proud that they know the names of the two Israeli soldiers abducted by Hizbullah in June of 2006. Does either Tony Blair or Bush know the name of a single Lebanese hostage or prisoner held by Israel? I seriously doubt whether anyone other than [Israeli journalists] Zvi Yehezkeli and Ehud Yaari knows even a few of those names.
I will wrap up this subject with an anecdote from my work with encounter programs between Arabs and Jews.
At one of the meetings of a mixed group of Arab and Jewish university students after the Second Lebanon War, the Arab group talked about the cruelty the Israeli army displayed in the bombing of a single building in the south Lebanese village of Qana, the result of which was the murder of approximately 50 Lebanese children, women and old people who had taken shelter there. One of the young Jewish women in this student group argued, in defense of the Israeli army, that it had warned those in the building before the air raid, and that people who chose to remain were in fact committing suicide and hence the responsibility was theirs, and that they do not value human life the way we do. A young Arab woman in the group responded that, according to this thesis, the people who remained in Haifa after Nasrallah declared that he was going to shell the city were also committing suicide and deserved to die. The Jewish participant replied: “It’s not the same thing. What do you want? You think they should leave their homes because of a statement by some crazy person?”
Who is a missing person?
In the Israeli mindset, and to some degree it is the mindset of everyone who takes an interest in the Middle East, certainly of those in the White House, a missing person is someone like Ron Arad, the Israeli navigator missing since the First Lebanon War when his plane exploded over Lebanon. And who else is missing? The automatic response in Israel is to mention those who went missing at Sultan Yacoub. Sultan Yacoub is an area in southern Lebanon where Israeli soldiers disappeared in the course of fighting in that sector during the Israeli attack on Lebanon in 1982. Without exaggerating I can safely assume that the same, or a similar, response would be made by the rest of the world, including a large chunk of the Arab world, and certainly by the Arab leadership. And who comes to mind in your case, dear reader?
Here is another story about mindset:
Last summer, I was returning from Jordan via the Allenby Bridge between Jordan and Jericho [in the Palestinian National Authority], with a group of representatives of Israeli and Palestinian peace groups who had conducted a joint seminar on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea. Holders of Israeli passports need special permission to cross at the Allenby Bridge and must pay a fee to the tour company that arranges a VIP authorization for them. When we got to the border station, Israeli security directed the Jews to an express track; the Palestinians from diverse categories (holders of Jordanian, Palestinian, or Israeli passports or documents with their VIP authorizations) were directed to a different room to undergo an inspection. When I entered the room for the inspection of Arabs only, I was surprised to see on the wall a poster with the names and photographs of the missing soldiers of Sultan Yacoub - with the captions in Arabic - accompanied by the promise of a very large cash award to anyone providing information about them.
Reality has different faces! If you ask this question - Who is missing? - in southern Lebanon and other areas of that country, you will get a very different answer. For them, the missing are hundreds of their children, their parents, and other relatives who disappeared during the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon (1982-1999). These people are still classified as missing, fate unknown. Israel refuses to provide information about the missing Lebanese. Sometimes Israel replies to questions about them with evasive and uninformative statements, and sometimes recites various excuses, claiming it has no information about what happened to them. On the other hand, to me and to the Lebanese it is clear that since Israel was the conqueror and ruler of southern Lebanon during the period when those people disappeared, Israel also bears direct responsibility for their fate. Myself, I would not be surprised if mass graves were someday to be discovered in southern Lebanon dating back to the period of the Israeli occupation. Meanwhile, no one mentions or seems to care about what happened to those missing people, not even the various Lebanese governments as they come and go.
In the Israeli mindset, when we talk of minefields we are obviously talking about parts of the conquered Golan Heights where people cannot go without fear for their lives. The area is still dangerous, even after Israel released a lot of cattle into the fields there who were sacrificed to save human lives. One may periodically detect the trembling in the voice of a radio or television presenter or hiking guide, or just an ordinary citizen who loves animals and nature, when reporting about the many cattle blown to bits after stepping on one of the unexploded mines left by the Syrians when they withdrew from the Golan Heights after their defeat in 1967.
All these observers add their various editorial comments about the cruelty, indifference and inhumanity of the Syrians for having left tens of thousands of mines behind on Syrian land conquered during a war “for the defense of Israel.”
Do any of us remember, or even know about, the minefields that Israel left behind in southern Lebanon after withdrawing in 1999? Israel to this day refuses to provide to the Lebanese government, or even to the United Nations or international forces, precise maps of those minefields. Does anyone acknowledge, remember, or mention the numerous Lebanese who have lost their lives by treading on the mines that Israel left buried in southern Lebanon? Does this issue even come up nowadays? Is a solution sought in any of the negotiations, cease-fire agreements, plans for deployment of international forces, or any other plan for future arrangements? Is southern Lebanon still occupied, or is it liberated? Are the Shebaa Farms the issue, or just an excuse?
The Lebanese who live in or traverse the areas with minefields are well acquainted with the issue of mines. From their standpoint, the minefields are about a close relative or a near neighbor who was blown up, shattering the tranquility of an ordinary afternoon; or a neighbor’s goat or dog that lost a limb after treading on a mine and triggering an explosion. The cats, who afterwards come sniffing around at the flesh, are luckily not heavy enough to set off an underground mine.
The government of Lebanon has never set free a herd of cattle in the minefields of its southern territory. The UN has not done so, nor has Israel.
Hopeless cease-fire agreement
Israeli analysts talk bout another war in the north, maybe even this summer . This fear is realistic and renewed fighting perhaps inevitable if the cease-fire is not accompanied by agreements that respect Lebanese sovereignty, Lebanese human life and the Lebanese people; the existing cease-fire does not address the unresolved issues I have raised in this article. Israel continues to openly abrogate the cease-fire, morning, noon and night, sending its planes into Lebanese airspace with no interference - and certainly without any loud and clear international protest - and violating Lebanon’s territorial waters, all without serious opposition from the Lebanese government or any demand for international sanctions.
From Qana to Beit Hanoun
Finally, I would like to address a speech made by John Bolton, [then] US Ambassador to the United Nations, in a debate on the Second Lebanon War. Bolton said: “You can’t draw comparisons between Israeli blood and Lebanese blood.” When I heard this, I thought - in my innocence, and despite my acquaintance with US and Western policy on the Israeli-Arab question - that this repulsive and racist statement by Bolton would create a furor, an uproar, and possibly lead to his resignation or his being fired from his post. But no. No uproar, no resignation, no firing. What was said, was said, and was heard, and met with silent assent.
That statement, for me, sums up the essence of the conflict in the Middle East and the policy of the West toward it. Arab blood, Arab lives, and Arab deaths are worth less. This is the policy of the United States in the region, and the policy of its allies and delegates among the Arab leaders and the other Arab countries, with minor differences. Try to imagine what would happen if some leader were to come out with a statement saying the same thing in reverse.
This is the thread that ties together Gaza and Beirut, Iraq and Syria, the Gulf and Mauritania.
The Arabs - who, unlike their leaders, are not dependent on or propped up by the West, or led by the US - the Arabs see, feel, and pay the price for this duality. The Arab nation sees the double standard, in general and in moral terms, of the rest of the world’s leaders with regard to the Arab-Israeli question.
Permit me to describe one further anecdote.
Guy Zohar, host of “The Day that Was” on Israel’s Channel 10 television and an excellent journalist, reported on a survey conducted in Germany that found that 12 percent of Germans believe that they are a superior people. Repelled by the findings, “The Day that Was” set out to investigate what the Jews of Israel think about themselves. The results showed that one-third of the Jews in Israel believe that they are a superior people. [excerpted from Channel 10 Television]
Just as this is the key to the next war, it is also the key to preventing the next war. Openly, courageously and fairly addressing these issues could prevent the next war and its consequences, just as denying reality is liable to bring on the next war and all its horrors.
This is the link, I believe, that connects various events. It connects the abduction of a soldier in Gaza and the abduction of two soldiers in the north. It connects Lebanon with everywhere else in the Arab world.
Israel’s desire, abetted by the West, to separate these issues and events will not prevail. Even the Israeli people do not make these distinctions and do not believe that they can be made. The hope, doomed in advance, is that withdrawal from southern Lebanon will be perceived as having no connection with what is going on in Palestine, and that withdrawal from Gaza will bring quiet with no connection to what is going on in the West Bank, or that what happens in Jenin will not be linked with what happens in Nablus or Hebron, and that what happens in the Nablus casbah will not be connected with what happens in the refugee camps around Nablus.
Again, this wish is unrealistic and impractical, no matter how often repeated. These distinctions are not useful and will not accomplish anything. The cessation of hostilities on the Lebanese border is connected with the cessation of fighting and achievement of peace in Gaza, which is connected with the West Bank which is connected with what happens in Beirut which is connected with what happens on the Golan Heights. What is needed is a fundamental change in the modes of thinking rather than a change in tactics or in particular points of policy.
The government of Israel and its partners have an interest in attempting to artificially separate these various issues, but clearly the Arabs have no such interest; rather, the opposite. The Arabs will realize their power in a unified perspective and in unity, not in separation. But to us as Arabs I say that so long as the value of our lives is not respected here at home, by our leaders, it will not be respected by others, either.
Permit me to conclude on an optimistic note, with a bit of hope, by mentioning Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom, the place where I live and where I am raising my children, and where I also work. I believe in the message of Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom. I can testify proudly that here we have successfully evolved a fundamentally different way of thinking that relates to people as they are, as individuals, as national and cultural groups and as a human society overall. For us, everyone’s blood is equal to everyone else’s.
Translated from the Hebrew by Deb Reich.
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