BOSTON — Israel's war with Hizbullah shows no sign of relenting, despite the extraordinary human and economic costs on both sides of the border.
More than 400 Lebanese have been killed, at least 17 Israeli civilians have been felled by rockets that threaten the northern third of Israel, Lebanon's infrastructure has been decimated, and many poor Lebanese (mostly Shiite Muslims) are now homeless.
Both belligerents are attacking indiscriminately. Hizbullah's weapons are notoriously inaccurate and more likely to kill innocent civilians than soldiers. And Israel has targeted noncombatants in southern Lebanon as though the area were a free-fire zone. Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz as much as admitted his contempt for noncombatant immunity when, according to Israeli army radio on July 24, he ordered the destruction of 10 multistory buildings in the Shiite-inhabited suburbs of Beirut for every rocket hitting Haifa.
With the Bush administration providing diplomatic cover, Israel is playing for time. Israel's premise is that the longer its war continues, the more it will wear down Hizbullah. The Israeli military is fighting intense battles to capture border villages with a view to re-creating a buffer zone. Hizbullah fighters, honed by two decades of Israeli occupation, are defending their soil fiercely.
Despite international demands for a cease-fire, and the anguished pleas of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice insists that conditions need to be "right" before the US will endorse one. But the idea that time favors Israel's goal of disarming Hizbullah is dubious for five reasons:
•Hizbullah is wellprovisioned with weapons, and it is unlikely that the group could be completely disarmed. Southern Lebanon is filled with hills, valleys, and caves, not to mention villages where weapons can easily be cached. Moreover, Hizbullah enjoys widespread support in the south. The Shiite Muslims who predominate there revere Hizbullah for pressuring Israel to withdraw in 2000.
•Hizbullah precipitated the war by crossing into Israel to capture two soldiers, and many Lebanese are furious that Hizbullah provoked Israel. Israel has hoped to reinforce Lebanese alienation from Hizbullah, but Israel's prolonged and vengeful response is fostering new hatred for Israel and its US protector. Recently, an-Nahar, the respected Beirut paper and no fan of Hizbullah, featured a cartoon showing Dr. Rice trying to quell Lebanon's war fires with an eye dropper.
•An international force is no magic solution whether it deploys independently or in conjunction with the Lebanese army. Many soldiers in the army are Shiites, and they are more likely to applaud Hizbullah than to disarm it. As for the international soldiers, what will happen when Israel, with a robust record for recidivism, raids Lebanon, kidnaps or kills Lebanese, or attempts to prevent Lebanese from returning to their homes in a unilaterally imposed buffer zone? Hizbullah draws many of its members from the south. Will they be excluded from their own villages? The record of intervention in Lebanon reveals that even the well-intentioned may become part of the problem.
•For both the US and Israel, Hizbullah is an extension of Iranian influence. Yet, it is likely that Iran is going to be a major beneficiary of Israel's new war in Lebanon. To the extent the Shiites feel they were singled out for attacks, Iran will be seen as a stalwart coreligionist ally. And given the extraordinary destruction in the Shiite suburbs of Beirut, Iran will have a further entree by providing materiel assistance and financial aid.
•Support for Hizbullah is growing in the Arab world with every day that it confronts Israel. In Iraq, the parliament has spoken out forcefully against Israel's campaign, and last week Ayatollah Ali Sistani issued a powerful fatwa (religious opinion) condemning the attacks on Lebanese civilians and infrastructure and calling on all Shiite clerics to take action. Rice had to scratch Egypt off her itinerary because of swelling support for Hizbullah there. In Arab countries with a large Shiite community, sectarian sentiment is being fueled by the fighting in Lebanon.
Rather than continuing dawdling diplomacy it would be prudent for the US to embrace a cease-fire. Demilitarizing Hizbullah, and perhaps integrating its militia wing into the Lebanese army, is a tough challenge with a cease-fire, but impossible if the war continues. Instead of the victory promised the White House by Israel, this war is fostering the results that it was supposed to defeat.
• Augustus Richard Norton is professor of international relations and anthropology at Boston University.