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Insecurity and Crisis in the Middle East
I’ve been living in Lebanon for several months, and"until yesterday"greatly enjoying the experience. It’s a wonderful county. The people are friendly. The cuisine is amazing. Beirut is bustling. The beaches in Tripoli are as beautiful as any in the world. The caves at Jeita make Carlsbad Caverns look like a trifle. And the mountains here are simply stunning.
Yesterday morning, the armed wing of Hezbollah"the Lebanese Islamic Resistance"killed seven Israeli soldiers and kidnapped two others in two, separate attacks along Lebanon’s Southern border. The kidnapping of Israeli soldiers wasn’t random, and it’s hard to call it "terrorism." The Israeli military is directly engaged in acts of violence against Arab peoples. If Israel can assert a right to use violence to secure political gains, then so too can the Arabs. Hezbollah wants to use the kidnapped Israeli soldiers to negotiate the release of dozens of Lebanese nationals still being held in Israeli prisons today, over six years after Israel’s 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon. Similarly, Hamas wants to use the kidnapping of Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit in Gaza to negotiate the release of hundreds of Palestinian women and children (teenagers) also being held in Israeli prisons.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has refused to discuss the issue of Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners, and has instead demanded the unconditional release of the captive Israeli soldiers. He’s backed up that demand with the reinvasion and massive bombardment of Gaza over these past two weeks, and has now moved his war to Lebanon as well. Israel has reinvaded and reoccupied roughly twenty kilometers of Lebanese territory, imposed a complete air and naval blockade on Lebanon, and bombed Hezbollah positions in the South, a TV station affiliated with Hezbollah, several bridges throughout the country, and the runways at Beirut Airport.
Prime Minster Olmert has told us that "[t]he Lebanese government is responsible. Lebanon will pay the price."
Dan Halutz, Chief of Israel’s Army, has reportedly threatened to massively expand the bombings of Lebanese infrastructure, warning that "[Israel] will take Lebanon 20 years back."
At least twenty-seven Lebanese have already been killed in just one day of Israeli bombings, including ten children.
It’s difficult to feel dispassionate about the deliberate killing of children"particularly when their pictures are plastered all over the television here in Lebanon"but I’ll try.
I’ll try and understand where all of this violence comes from. Some of it comes from racism the notion that all Arabs are natural born terrorists, not worthy of our collective human rights. Some of it comes from greed the desire for geopolitical dominance and territorial cupidity. But much of the violence also comes from fear.
I’m not sure that non-Jews to appreciate the depth of Jewish existential fears. Intellectually, we can understand the travails of the Diaspora, and the almost continuous history of European pogroms. As human beings we can all feel horror in the massive evil of the Holocaust. But that horror is different for Jews. They are emotionally connected to it in a way that I just am not. Given the complete dominance of Israel in the Middle-East"both economically and militarily"Jewish existential fears today seem silly and contrived. However, in my two trips to Israel one of the things I was a little surprised to discover was that those fears, illogical though they may be in this particular context, are very real. Because they are real, any solution to our troubles has to deal with them.
Jewish existential fear has contributed to the refusal of Israel to ever truly negotiate, or even desire to create a just peace with its neighbors. This fear is part of the reason why the only lens Israel sees the Middle-East through is one of dominance and submission. This is the context of the supposed demand that the Arabs "recognize" Israel. It isn’t recognition that Israel really wants, it’s submission to its dominance.
This attitude, much more than racism or religious fanaticism, is what drives the Israeli-Arab conflict. Because Israel refuses to use anything other than violence to try and achieve its political goals, it concretely demonstrates to its neighbors that violence is the only thing Israel will respond to fueling acts of terrorism.
Faced with responsibilities of actually governing, and with specter of a possible civil war between Fatah and Hamas, the recently-elected Hamas government in Palestine was negotiating to "recognize" Israel, and attempting to transform itself (to some degree) from an armed resistance to a democratic political movement. Against this backdrop, Israel and the United States cut off almost all monies to the Palestinian government, seriously damaging their economy. Against this backdrop, Israel asserted its "right" to shell Gaza at will, killing innocent people. Against this backdrop, militants in the armed wing of Hamas kidnapped Corporal Shalit and demanded the release of Palestinian women and children kept in Israeli prisons. Against this backdrop, Israel has reinvaded Gaza, arrested elected members of the Palestinian government, bombed Prime Minister Ismail Haniya’s offices and other government centers, bombed schools and apartment buildings, and has already killed dozens more of Palestinian civilians. Against this backdrop, Haaretz reported on 5 July that Moshe Sharoni, a member of the Israeli Knesset, publicly called for the extermination of over one million human beings living in Gaza. On the floor of the Israeli parliament, MK Sharoni said that, "We need to obliterate Gaza and call it the City of Murderers, the City of Terrorists."
Against this backdrop, the New York Times reported on 9 July that Palestinians living in Gaza support rocket attacks against Israel because those attacks create a "balance of fear." Muhammad Abu Oukal, a college student in Gaza, was quoted as giving a representative opinion when he said, "Why should we be the only ones who live in fear? With these rockets, the Israelis feel fear, too. We will have to live in peace together, or live in fear together."
Fear and dominance are also the context we must use to understand Israel’s conception of fighting wars for peace. On the surface this formula seems absurd. After all, war is supposed to be the defined opposite of peace. You literally can’t fight a war for peace. But it isn’t peace that Israel is after. Again, it’s submission. And it is possible to beat people into at least temporary submission. But"morality aside"it would take much more violence than Israel is currently willing to use to beat the Arab peoples into submission. Israel would have to be willing to kill hundreds-of-thousands of human beings in the Middle-East, if not millions, in order to force the others into submission. Even then, short of starting up Auschwitz again and this time populating it with Arabs"it’s unlikely that any submission imposed through violence would be permanent.
Arabs are human, and humans make poor slaves.
Countries throughout the Middle-East all struggle with internal and external political and religious conflicts between different religious and political groups, as well as between conservative and liberal members within each of these groups. In large part because of the insecurity each feels, these groups maintain a cohesive internal identity that tears against their larger national and regional identities. Because of their insecurity, Arabs and Jews all too often view their world through dominance and submission relationships.
Insecurity is what drives the political force of Hezbollah as well as of Israel and Hamas. Because of historical oppressions and violence against Shia’a Muslims, Shia’a here in Lebanon see their future security as dependent on maintaining a united political and military front. Lebanese Sunnis, Christians, and Druze have all made a similar reckoning for themselves.
In Lebanon, there were mass celebrations six years ago when Hezbollah finally succeeded in driving the Israelis out. But that "victory," based as it was in violence, has not resulted in peace only in further insecurity. Today, Israel has reinvaded and bombs Lebanon at will. Today, most other Lebanese are uncomfortable with the power that Hezbollah has acquired for itself through its resistance movement.
I don’t know to what degree the Israeli government is serious when it blames the kidnapping of its soldiers equally on Hezbollah, the Lebanese government, Syria, and Iran but lumping all of these groups together is bizarre. The current Lebanese government is dominated by the coalition of Sunnis, Christians and Druze who forced Syria to end its occupation of Lebanon last year. Their only short-term option to disarm or control Hezbollah would be to restart the Lebanese Civil War something that Israel may want, but can hardly condemn the Lebanese for not equally desiring.
Why would anyone possibly want war? Non-Shia’a here in Lebanon are equally cursing both Israel and Hezbollah. Hezbollah for taking unilateral action that has plunged all of Lebanon into crisis, and Israel for its continuing racism and violence against all the Arabs. The fear, insecurity, and anger generated by the current round of violence promise to come back around to plague us all with increasing anxiety and aggression.
There is a way out of this seemingly perpetual crisis there is a way out of both the internal and external conflicts that ravaging our lives. Our way out begins with a proper understanding of peace and violence. The opposite of violence is not peace. The opposite of violence is community. Peace is simply the natural state of healthy communities. And the fundamental problem with violence is that you can’t create community using it.
Today, Israel dominates the Middle East. For the foreseeable future, Israel will continue to dominate the Middle East. But neither Israel nor the Arabs"in Palestine, Lebanon or elsewhere"will ever truly be secure until they build healthy communities within their borders, and across borders with each other.
If there will be peace in our world, then we must all learn to live with one another. You can’t do that by shelling beaches, kidnapping soldiers, invading other countries, occupying and oppressing other peoples, setting off car bombs, destroying public infrastructures, or sending out suicide bombers. You can’t create community by massively bombing densely populated civilian centers whether they’re in Gaza, Beirut, or Tel Aviv. The most common lesson of this war, as with all wars, is that so long as any of us feel unsafe, all of us will actually be unsafe.
There is a cycle of violence, of attacks on both Arab and Jewish peoples here in the Middle-East that create insecurities and fears in both peoples which in turn leads to more violence against each other. For peace to even become a possibility, then this cycle of attack, retaliation and escalation, must be completely ended.
If you’re afraid of someone, or angry with them, your first step in correctly dealing with those emotions is to talk to them, to get to know them. This is the meaning of community, and it’s echoed in our religious traditions:
"Come now, let us reason together," says the LORD. "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool." (Isaiah 1:18)
"O Mankind! We created you from a single pair of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other (not that you may despise each other)" (Qur’an 49:13)
RAMZI KYSIA is an Arab-American essayist and peace activist. He spent a year in Iraq with Voices in the Wilderness, the Chicago-based predecessor to Voices for Creative Nonviolence (http://www.vcnv.org). He is currently living in Lebanon, and working on a book about his experiences.