"Israeli Occupation of Lebanon and the Formation of Hezbollah"
by Stephen Zunes
1 September 2000'It is a sad commentary that when there are small steps for peace in the Middle East, it often takes place not because of U.S. diplomacy, but despite it. A case in point is Lebanon, now free from Israeli occupation after 22 years.
Israel first seized control of southern Lebanon in 1978, following a bloody attack by Palestinian commandos on the Israeli coast. With the assistance of a right-wing Lebanese militia'which essentially evolved into a foreign regiment of the Israeli army'Israel controlled a 6-12 mile strip of Lebanon along its northern border, representing about 10 percent of Lebanon's territory.
UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 425, passed soon after the 1978 invasion, and nine subsequent resolutions demanded that Israel withdraw from all Lebanese territory unconditionally. The language of UNSCR 425 was stronger than resolutions addressing other occupied Arab lands, because the others called on Israeli withdrawal to occur after neighboring states provided security guarantees.
Martin Indyk publicly encouraged Israel to remain in Lebanon in contradiction to UNSCR 425. He made this statement while he was U.S. ambassador to Israel and was about to assume the role of assistant secretary of state on Near East affairs. Indyk's comment'with the apparent support of President Bill Clinton'effectively encouraged a U.S. ally to defy resolutions supported by previous administrations. The U.S. openly supported Israel's defiance of the world body through its occupation of southern Lebanon, while simultaneously pushing economic sanctions on Iraq'resulting in the mass starvation of Iraqi children'for its violation of UN Security Council resolutions. Until May, when Israel hurriedly withdrew as its largely mercenary Lebanese proxy collapsed, Israel refused to abide by UNSCR 425.
Rise in Extremism:
With the United States' refusal to support nonviolent means to force Israel to withdraw, and with a historically weak central government, Lebanese formed their own militias to fight the occupiers. The most significant was Hezbollah, a radical Islamic group composed mostly of Shi'ite Muslims from the farming villages adjacent to Israeli-held territory. Even Lebanese who did not agree with the militia's fundamentalist ideology saw them as freedom fighters, trying to liberate their country from a foreign military occupation.
Islamic extremists were never much of a factor in Lebanon prior to the 1982 U.S.-backed Israeli invasion and the subsequent direct U.S. military intervention in support of a rightist Lebanese government installed under Israeli guns. During this period, the more moderate Islamic and secular groups were largely destroyed; Hezbollah filled the vacuum.
This fundamentalist movement, which was responsible for the kidnapping of several Americans and other Westerners in the 1980s, rose from obscurity a little more than eighteen years ago to become one of Lebanon's most powerful political groupings. Hezbollah receives the core of its support from the hundreds of thousands of Lebanese Shi'ites who fled north into the slums of greater Beirut due to years of Israeli attacks.
U.S. officials greatly exaggerated the role of Syria in controlling and supporting Hezbollah. Syria has historically backed the rival Amal militia. The Iranian role was also inflated. These overstatements were largely intended to discredit a genuinely indigenous movement; one which had widespread support for its resistance efforts against a foreign occupation condemned across Lebanon's diverse communities. The group did not even exist until four years after Israel began its occupation and heavy bombardment of southern Lebanon. Thus, Hezbollah is very much a manifestation of U.S. and Israeli policy. The perception of achieving a military victory, while those advocating a more moderate ideology and a diplomatic solution have failed, has enhanced Hezbollah's status.
Targeting of Civilians:
Israel'with U.S. backing'tried for many years to maintain their occupation by force. Israel repeatedly bombed civilian targets throughout Lebanon, targeting bridges, dams, power plants, and other segments of the country's civilian infrastructure far from areas of Hezbollah control. The Israeli military has killed many hundreds of Lebanese civilians in their bombing and shelling attacks, including a 1996 raid on a UN compound sheltering refugees in which more than one hundred civilians were killed. Reports by the UN, Amnesty International, and other investigators indicate that the Israeli bombardment of the shelter was deliberate.
The Clinton administration has repeatedly defended such Israeli attacks, vetoing numerous UN resolutions condemning the violence and questioning the credibility of human rights groups and UN agencies which have exposed the extent of the humanitarian tragedy. Most of the ordinance and delivery systems used against Lebanese were given to Israel by the United States. Successive U.S. administrations have rejected demands by human rights groups that such aid be made conditional on the end of Israeli military attacks against civilian targets.
Through its massive attacks on Lebanon, Israel resorted to the same tactics of which it accuses its Hezbollah enemy: terrorizing innocent civilians in order to influence government policy. Attacks by Arab extremists against Israeli civilians have hardened Israeli attitudes toward the peace process. It is not surprising that in the same way, Israel's attacks against Lebanese civilians, which have resulted in far more casualties, have made it difficult for Lebanon and Syria to compromise further with Israel.
Throughout this period, the U.S. condemned the Lebanese resistance for attacking Israeli soldiers within their own territory even though international law specifically recognizes the right of resistance against foreign occupation. Virtually the only times Hezbollah fired into Israel proper was in retaliation against large-scale Israeli attacks against Lebanese civilians.
In contrast to U.S. and Israeli government policy, public opinion in Israel demonstrated that the majority of Israelis surveyed believed Israel should pull out of Lebanon unconditionally. Rather than being an honest broker in the Middle East peace process, the Clinton administration essentially pushed the Israeli government to take an even harder line than Israel's people recognized was in their best interest. Having lost more than 1,200 soldiers in Lebanon since Israel seized the southern strip of territory 22 years earlier, the Israeli people successfully lobbied their government to withdraw; this despite obstacles the United States placed in front of the UN.
The United States was hoping that enough pressure against Lebanon would force the Lebanese to sign a separate peace agreement with Israel, which would isolate Syria. After the withdrawal, most statements coming out of the administration expressed grave concerns regarding potential instability after Israeli forces left Lebanon. This contrasted with rest of the international community's relief and celebration that the long occupation had ended.
However, despite U.S. efforts to keep Israel in Lebanon, the situation is arguably more stable now. It is unlikely that Hezbollah will launch an unprovoked attack against Israel, even though their opposition to Israel goes far beyond the occupation of Lebanese territory. Israel has also threatened to again use force against Lebanon should Lebanese militias attack Israeli territory.
The experience in Lebanon has helped Israel to recognize that forcibly occupying other people's land does not bring security, even if masked in the euphemism'often repeated by the U.S. media'of a 'security zone.' Just the opposite is true: real security comes from a willingness to live within international standards and to recognize the sovereign rights of one's neighbors. It is unfortunate that the United States has not encouraged its ally to work within these norms.
Stephen Zunes is an associate professor of Politics and chair of the Peace and Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco. The above text may be used without permission but with proper attribution to the author and to the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine. This Information Brief does not necessarily reflect the views of the Palestine Center or The Jerusalem Fund.
This information first appeared in Information Brief No. 46, 1 September 2000.