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Elaine Hagopian on Lebanon's history of war and resistance
Why the U.S. and Israel wanted this war

August 11, 2006 | Pages 12 and 13

ELAINE HAGOPIAN is the author of numerous books, including Civil Rights in Peril: The Targeting of Arabs and Muslims, and a frequent public speaker on Middle East issues. In May 2004, she led a 20-person delegation to meet with the forgotten Palestinian refugees of Lebanon and Syria. She spoke with Socialist Worker's ERIC RUDER about the roots of the crisis in Lebanon.

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CAN YOU talk about the history of Lebanon and the record of U.S. and Israeli intervention?

LET ME begin with Israel and Lebanon, and then get into the U.S. and the contemporary situation.

In 1919, at the Paris Peace Conference at the end of the First World War, the Zionist movement approached the delegation from Lebanon, in particular, the Christian community. They understood that the Maronites (though not all of them certainly) didn't consider themselves to be Arabs, and that there was a big debate in Lebanon.

At the time, the boundaries of Lebanon were significantly smaller. Lebanon was essentially the Lebanon Mountains in the West. The rest of what is Lebanon today was part of Syria. It was the French who originally drew the lines and called it Lebanon.

At the Paris Peace Conference, the Zionist delegation had gone to argue for the French Grand Levant, a larger Lebanon. The French wanted a larger area, and they wanted to make the Maronites the dominant group. Yet there had been this debate in Lebanon, with some saying let's have a smaller, Christian Lebanon that we'll be able to manage better. Ultimately, the Grand Levant won out.

But the Zionist delegation at this peace conference presented a map to the delegates to show what they wanted for a Jewish state. The map included South Lebanon up to the Litani River, which they wanted for water. It also included the Golan Heights of Syria, and even a slice of the east bank of the Jordan River--and, of course, all of Palestine.

The Lebanon delegation ultimately didn't cooperate with the Zionists, so that plan failed. The Zionists were promising that if the delegates supported their plan for a state of Israel, the Zionists would protect them, and they would forever be happy.

Then again, in 1954 and 1955, David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, argued that Israel should build a Maronite state in Lebanon. He said the time was right, Syria was weak, and they would be able to just walk in there.

Ben Gurion and his followers figured that the Maronites would recognize Israel. The Zionists coveted this area, because it controls the Mediterranean ports, it's adjacent to Syria, it's a good source of water, and they would have a client state.

Moshe Sharett, Israel's first foreign minister and second prime minister, recounted this period in his diary. He wrote, "The only thing that's necessary is to find an officer, even just a major. We should either win his heart or buy him with money to make him agree to declare himself the savior of the Maronite population.

"Then the Israeli army will enter Lebanon, will occupy the necessary territory and will create a Christian regime, which will ally itself with Israel. The territory from the Litani southward would be totally annexed to Israel, and everything will be alright."

This plan didn't work out either. But in the 1970s, Israel didn't find a major, they found Bashir Gemayel, the head of the Christian Phalange Party, and his militia. Gemayel agreed to cooperate with Israel.

In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon, expecting Gemayel to deliver. But while Gemayel initially wanted to be with Israel, he failed to recognize it. There was a lot of pressure from Syria and other Arab states, and Gemayel also realized that Lebanon was tied by trade and other relationships to the Arab world. So this didn't work out for Israel, either.

Hezbollah grew out of the 1982 war. The Shia of South Lebanon had long suffered neglect from the national Lebanese government, and they also suffered as a result of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) fighters operating in the area at that time. PLO fighters would stage operations from South Lebanon, and the Israelis would bomb the Shia, trying to turn them against the PLO.

In any case, the Shia began to feel oppressed by all sides. When Israel came into the area in 1982, the Shia welcomed them, and they thought that Israel would be their saviors. But the Israelis made a fatal mistake by mistreating and oppressing the Shia.

The Shia then formed Hezbollah. There's a long history to a different group that formed as well--Nabi Berri's Amal group, which was more secular. Hezbollah was a guerrilla force that began to protect itself against the Israelis, and defend the territorial integrity of Lebanon, which the Lebanese army couldn't do.

So the Israelis' 1982 plan also failed. Hezbollah turned against them and eventually pushed them out of South Lebanon in 2000.

HOW DOES this history relate to the current situation?

TODAY, ISRAEL is at it again. But why?

Let's now bring in the U.S., because the U.S. has long been Israel's patron. The Zionists, by choice, elected in the early days to go to Britain and offer their services in the protection of British interests. After the Second World War, Israel approached the U.S. and offered to be the U.S. client in the Middle East.

Israel chose to be with imperialism. The Zionists saw that as the only way they could have a Jewish state--that by coming under the umbrella of the U.S. and pledging to protect U.S. interests, they would be able to have their way and become the hegemonic power in the region.

One of the first actions that the U.S. took in Lebanon was in 1958, during the coup in Iraq, when the king, who was a British client, was assassinated. The U.S. was quite frightened by this, and its impact on the oil situation.

At the same time, Lebanon was on the verge of a civil war, and there was concern about "Communist activity" in the area. After all, this was the Cold War, and the U.S. was concerned with keeping the USSR out of the Middle East.

The threat of civil war in Lebanon was really prompted by Lebanese President Camille Chamoun, who had accepted an alliance with the U.S. under Eisenhower that violated a protocol the Lebanese had agreed to as their national covenant. Also, Chamoun was trying to extend his six-year term, which the U.S. tried to help him with, because Chamoun was a "friend."

So using the excuse of "civil war," the U.S. sent troops into Lebanon in 1958, justifying the action as an attempt to preserve the government. But what they were really concerned about was that there might be a "domino effect" in Iraq, and that oil supplies would be somehow threatened. So they wanted to have troops in the region. Eventually, the U.S. withdrew its troops.

Now fast forward to the 1982 war. The Israelis had invaded Lebanon in 1978, but they withdrew because they got more of a beating than they expected. They had set up the South Lebanese Army, which was a rogue Christian army. The Israelis worked with this army from 1978 on, hoping that it would become the nucleus of a Christian Lebanon that would recognize Israel.

Then you had the 1982 invasion, and the rest is history. The Israelis occupied a large part of Lebanon, withdrew to the south in 1985, and stayed there until they were ousted in 2000.

In the meantime, during the civil war in Lebanon from 1975 to 1989, which was triggered by Gemayel's actions, the U.S. gave the green light to the Syrians to go into Lebanon in 1976 and quiet the situation down. The U.S. that saw the Israelis were unable to do this, but figured maybe fellow Arabs could succeed.

In the late 1980s, pressure began to grow on Syria to withdraw. But when the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq broke out, George Bush Sr. looked to some Arab states to contain Saddam Hussein. Syria joined that coalition.

Syria didn't directly fight other Arabs, but the decision to stand with the U.S. still wasn't popular with the Syrian population. Nevertheless, Hafez al-Assad, then the president of Syria, felt this would be a good move because it would contain Saddam Hussein, whom he saw as a competitor, and because Bush Sr. made the promise that Syria could stay in Lebanon. Needless to say, the Israelis were displeased by this.

Jump ahead now to 2000. Hezbollah forces Israel out of Lebanon. Various right-wing Lebanese groups in the U.S., working with the likes of Daniel Pipes and the U.S. neoconservatives, begin to draw up plans about how to stop Hezbollah, how to control Lebanon as a client state of the U.S., and how to isolate Syria.

They didn't see Syria as capable of defeating Israel, but so long as the alliance of Hezbollah, Syria, Iran and Hamas hung together as the only countries and forces resisting American and Israeli imperial interests in the area, no part of the alliance could really be defeated.

So the idea was to work on separating them--to push them apart and weaken them. And then they could find a way to pick off the big one, which is Iran. This is what they were working towards.

In the U.S., they pushed for the Syria Accountability Act of 2003, which called on Syria to get out of Lebanon and threatened it with sanctions. Bush Jr. did impose some sanctions on Syria, despite the fact that the Syrians had provided very good intelligence on al-Qaeda and largely cooperated with the U.S.

The Zionists in the U.S., with their strong lobby, were saying that Syria supports Hezbollah, and Hezbollah is a terrorist group. Of course, Hezbollah is a national liberation group. But the act passed overwhelmingly, with pressure from the lobby, working with the Lebanese right.

Still, there wasn't much success in forcing apart the alliance of Syria, Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. So the U.S. pushed Resolution 1559 through the United Nations in September 2004, which called for Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon and the disarming of Hezbollah.

Syria didn't leave. But then, Rafiq Hariri, who resigned as Lebanon's prime minister in October 2004 and was known for his opposition to Syria's presence in Lebanon, was assassinated in February 2005. Everybody pointed fingers at Syria as the architect of the operation.

I think that the Israelis and the U.S. were behind the Hariri assassination, although I don't have any proof of this. But it makes sense if you ask who benefited from the assassination. There may have been some Syrian collaborators, and there may have even been some Lebanese collaborators, who benefited from working with certain imperialist forces or perhaps were promised advantages for their business interests. This is only speculation, but this analysis makes even more sense now.

After Hariri's death, Resolution 1559 was resurrected. Bush hadn't tried to push hard for its implementation before, because he was having a tough time in Iraq, but the "manufacturing" of Hariri's assassination, according to my thinking, creates a lot of pressure. So Syria withdrew its 14,000 troops from Lebanon in March 2005.

The so-called Cedar Revolution followed Hariri's death, with thousands of people in the streets. While the people in the streets were genuine, the "revolution" was really manufactured in Israel and the U.S. They had a lot of think tanks and various "centers for democracy" operating there. The people who came out wanted change, and you can always get a group out when you instill them with fear, or some new energy, or a new interpretation of events.

The result was a sense of unity and a new government. A lot of the old hacks, like former Prime Minister Michel Aoun, who had been in exile in France since 1989, came back. Aoun also came to the U.S. to testify before Congress, and he and many of the other old leaders met with a number of the Zionists as well.

So the hacks came back to Lebanon and vied with one another for power. Everybody had high hopes for change, but the result was the same old, same old. The new government was, in theory, democratically elected, but the old sectarian divisions and power plays came into play. And Hezbollah was not disarmed.

So this brings us to the present situation--the invasion of Lebanon on the pretext of the capture of these two Israeli soldiers.

Of course, Israel is forever violating Arab air space--especially Lebanon--at any time, entering and kidnapping people, blocking some of the Lebanese fishermen from fishing in their own waters, and doing whatever they want in violation of Lebanese sovereignty.

However, when these two soldiers were taken prisoner by Hezbollah--in the hopes that Israel would bargain, as in the past, for some of their prisoners in Israeli camps--the Israelis were handed an opportunity to implement their long-term plan for Lebanon. Even in the U.S., newspapers are now pointing out this pre-planning, especially the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.

WHAT DO Israel and the U.S. want to accomplish with this war?

ISRAEL PUT a plan in action to destroy Hezbollah, break it away from Syria and carry out a new "restructuring" of Lebanon, in the words of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the rest of the Bush administration.

They thought this would be a cakewalk with Israel's massive army--that it would be a six-day war. But they are finding resistance. And people who were upset with Hezbollah are now supporting them.

The U.S. is backing Israel's action with its obvious blocking of all UN resolutions for a ceasefire in order to give Israel time to "degrade" Hezbollah. U.S. officials are essentially saying that Israel is doing our work, too, and the Israelis keep saying that they are also advancing the interests of the American people.

They hoped to implement their plan for a compliant Lebanese government--without Hezbollah and dependent, because of all the destruction, on U.S. and Israeli technology and resources, as well as on cooperating Arab governments who were in on this, too, namely Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

These Arab regimes didn't want to see Hezbollah triumphant either, because they have enough problems with Islamist movements in their own country. The Egyptians and Jordanians have an Islamist movement, and Saudi Arabia has been the source of Islamist movements, but the government doesn't particularly want that radicalism. As a matter of fact, the Saudi ambassador was visited by Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, who congratulated and thanked him for criticizing Hezbollah's action for kicking this off.

Now that there has been massive destruction, massacres and indiscriminate killing of civilians, the Saudis, Egyptians and Jordanians want to look like they're trying to help Lebanon. But, of course, they already made their huge mistake by supporting the U.S. and Israel in this effort.

Whatever happens, Hezbollah has certainly been affected by the Israeli attack, but it will not disappear, and it has shown that the Israelis can't defeat a guerrilla movement. This may well have stimulated much more regional traction for guerrilla movements against Israeli and U.S. designs.

Meanwhile, the Israelis are doing the same thing in Gaza--destroying the infrastructure, kidnapping people, killing people, demolishing homes.

The Israelis think they can finish chewing up Palestine, get rid of the Palestinians, set up client states, break up Syria and Iran and remain the dominant hegemonic power. And they hope that that the U.S. will complete its work in Iraq and then take care of Iran. This is all going to backfire.

In the meantime, the killing machines of the U.S. and Israel are creating such hatred that they will have a quite different effect than expected.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert nonetheless keeps saying that he wants to continue the war and move into Lebanon, up to the Litani River. It's almost like Vietnam, where the U.S. kept saying it was going to win, and killing more and more people, but in the end, it couldn't win against guerrilla warfare.

Guerrilla warfare can't defeat you in an absolute sense, but it certainly can exhaust you and harass you and make your own people want to get the hell out.

IT SEEMS that the U.S. may have made some progress to pull Syria in particular away from the alliance of Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran. What's your assessment?

SYRIA IS pragmatic. Even under Hafez al-Assad, as I mentioned, Syria joined the U.S. coalition against Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War.

The Syrians have always said that they're Arab nationalists; in fact, they feel they are the center of Arab nationalism. The government is more pragmatic, however, and if the U.S. offers Syria a deal--for example, getting Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights or allowing Syria to have some influence in Lebanon--Syria might be tempted, even if the population doesn't find some of these alliances attractive.

But if this goes on much longer, Syria may emerge somewhat strengthened without making a deal.

Syria is still concerned about being attacked by Israel, but at the same time, it doesn't want a guerrilla movement in its country, primarily because Syria has always maintained its secular stance. Hafez al-Assad killed off a lot of Muslims in the early 1980s, and there is a growing Islamist movement in Syria again.

Syria, Iran and Hezbollah also have a pragmatic relationship with each other. The Syrians initially supported the Amal group, the secular Shia group in southern Lebanon from the 1980s, which I mentioned earlier. The Syrians weren't particularly friendly with Hezbollah initially--that happened later, when it was in Syria's interests.

The Syrians also aren't convinced about Iran's long-term commitment to them. Propaganda has worked at trying to sow discontent and suspicion between these groups.

So we don't know which way Syria will go. We have to see which way the situation goes, how much Syria is strengthened by it, and what kind of offer the Syrians get.

The Syrians' major focus is on getting the Golan Heights back, and the Israelis don't want to give it up. The Golan Heights is an important water resource. The Israelis annexed the Heights in 1981, they have 20,000 settlers there, they have a wine industry, skiing and tourism.

THE U.S. has been trying to collaborate in Iraq with predominantly Shiite forces to cobble together a pro-U.S. regime. But the green light that the U.S. gave to Israel over Lebanon is certainly straining that relationship and inflaming anti-U.S. opinion generally in the broader Middle East.

THE SHIA of Iraq, of course, feel terrible about what's happening to Hezbollah. They would like to find a way of expressing their support for Hezbollah, as would al-Qaeda.

But Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, has been very fastidious in declaring Hezbollah a national liberation movement not attached to al-Qaeda or any wider Islamist movement.

He has not put forward any kind of theological idea for a state. He has, in a sense, been rather secular and called for unity of Lebanon. He gets support from Iran in particular, and Syria secondarily, but Hezbollah has grown strong enough to often take actions independent from these two countries.

With regards to Iraq, Hezbollah would be interested in seeing occupation forces out of Iraq, and not necessarily a Shia government or a Sunni government, but Iraq as a sovereign country that was also resisting Israeli and U.S. designs in the region.

People keep wanting to see the sectarian identity as the identity that motivates action, like identity politics. But right now, Hezbollah is more interested in seeing an independent sovereign Iraq that is resisting U.S. and Israeli designs. If that takes the form of a Shia government, then so be it, but that's not the first priority. Resistance is the first priority.

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