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Jonathan Cook: Lebanon a Year After

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    Lebanon a Year After By Jonathan Cook Countercurrents.org This week marks a year since the end of hostilities now officially called the Second Lebanon war by
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 3, 2007
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      Lebanon a Year After
      By Jonathan Cook
      Countercurrents.org


      This week marks a year since the end of hostilities
      now officially called the Second Lebanon war by
      Israelis. A month of fighting -- mostly Israeli aerial
      bombardment of Lebanon, and rocket attacks from the
      Shia militia Hizbullah on northern Israel in response
      -- ended with more than 1,000 Lebanese civilians and a
      small but unknown number of Hizbullah fighters dead,
      as well as 119 Israeli soldiers and 43 civilians.

      When Israel and the United States realised that
      Hizbullah could not be bombed into submission, they
      pushed a resolution, 1701, through the United Nations.
      It placed an expanded international peacekeeping
      force, UNIFIL, in south Lebanon to keep Hizbullah in
      check and try to disarm its few thousand fighters.

      But many significant developments since the war have
      gone unnoticed, including several that seriously put
      in question Israel's account of what happened last
      summer. This is old ground worth revisiting for that
      reason alone.

      The war began on 12 July, when Israel launched waves
      of air strikes on Lebanon after Hizbullah killed three
      soldiers and captured two more on the northern border.
      (A further five troops were killed by a land mine when
      their tank crossed into Lebanon in hot pursuit.)
      Hizbullah had long been warning that it would seize
      soldiers if it had the chance, in an effort to push
      Israel into a prisoner exchange. Israel has been
      holding a handful of Lebanese prisoners since it
      withdrew from its two-decade occupation of south
      Lebanon in 2000.

      The Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, who has been
      widely blamed for the army's failure to subdue
      Hizbullah, appointed the Winograd Committee to
      investigate what went wrong. So far Winograd has been
      long on pointing out the country's military and
      political failures and short on explaining how the
      mistakes were made or who made them. Olmert is still
      in power, even if hugely unpopular.

      In the meantime, there is every indication that Israel
      is planning another round of fighting against
      Hizbullah after it has "learnt the lessons" from the
      last war. The new defence minister, Ehud Barak, who
      was responsible for the 2000 withdrawal, has made it a
      priority to develop anti-missile systems such as "Iron
      Dome" to neutralise the rocket threat from Hizbullah,
      using some of the recently announced $30 billion of
      American military aid.

      It has been left to the Israeli media to begin
      rewriting the history of last summer. Last weekend, an
      editorial in the liberal Haaretz newspaper went so far
      as to admit that this was "a war initiated by Israel
      against a relatively small guerrilla group". Israel's
      supporters, including high-profile defenders like Alan
      Dershowitz in the US who claimed that Israel had no
      choice but to bomb Lebanon, must have been squirming
      in their seats.

      There are several reasons why Ha'aretz may have
      reached this new assessment.

      Recent reports have revealed that one of the main
      justifications for Hizbullah's continuing resistance
      -- that Israel failed to withdraw fully from Lebanese
      territory in 2000 -- is now supported by the UN. Last
      month its cartographers quietly admitted that Lebanon
      is right in claiming sovereignty over a small fertile
      area known as the Shebaa Farms, still occupied by
      Israel. Israel argues that the territory is Syrian and
      will be returned in future peace talks with Damascus,
      even though Syria backs Lebanon's position. The UN's
      admission has been mostly ignored by the international
      media.

      One of Israel's main claims during the war was that it
      made every effort to protect Lebanese civilians from
      its aerial bombardments. The casualty figures
      suggested otherwise, but increasingly so too does
      other evidence.

      A shocking aspect of the war was Israel's firing of at
      least a million cluster bombs, old munitions supplied
      by the US with a failure rate as high as 50 per cent,
      in the last days of fighting. The tiny bomblets,
      effectively small land mines, were left littering
      south Lebanon after the UN-brokered ceasefire, and are
      reported so far to have killed 30 civilians and
      wounded at least another 180. Israeli commanders have
      admitted firing 1.2 million such bomblets, while the
      UN puts the figure closer to 3 million.

      At the time, it looked suspiciously as if Israel had
      taken the brief opportunity before the war's end to
      make south Lebanon -- the heartland of both the
      country's Shia population and its militia, Hizbullah
      -- uninhabitable, and to prevent the return of
      hundreds of thousands of Shia who had fled Israel's
      earlier bombing campaigns.

      Israel's use of cluster bombs has been described as a
      war crime by human rights organisations. According to
      the rules set by Israel's then chief of staff, Dan
      Halutz, the bombs should have been used only in open
      and unpopulated areas -- although with such a high
      failure rate, this would have done little to prevent
      later civilian casualties.

      After the war, the army ordered an investigation,
      mainly to placate Washington, which was concerned at
      the widely reported fact that it had supplied the
      munitions. The findings, which should have been
      published months ago, have yet to be made public.

      The delay is not surprising. An initial report by the
      army, leaked to the Israeli media, discovered that the
      cluster bombs had been fired into Lebanese population
      centres in gross violation of international law. The
      order was apparently given by the head of the Northern
      Command at the time, Udi Adam. A US State Department
      investigation reached a similar conclusion.

      Another claim, one that Israel hoped might justify the
      large number of Lebanese civilians it killed during
      the war, was that Hizbullah fighters had been
      regularly hiding and firing rockets from among south
      Lebanon's civilian population. Human rights groups
      found scant evidence of this, but a senior UN
      official, Jan Egeland, offered succour by accusing
      Hizbullah of "cowardly blending".

      There were always strong reasons for suspecting the
      Israeli claim to be untrue. Hizbullah had invested
      much effort in developing an elaborate system of
      tunnels and underground bunkers in the countryside,
      which Israel knew little about, in which it hid its
      rockets and from which fighters attacked Israeli
      soldiers as they tried to launch a ground invasion.
      Also, common sense suggests that Hizbullah fighters
      would have been unwilling to put their families, who
      live in south Lebanon's villages, in danger by
      launching rockets from among them.

      Now Israeli front pages are carrying reports from
      Israeli military sources that put in serious doubt
      Israel's claims.

      Since the war's end Hizbullah has apparently relocated
      most of its rockets to conceal them from the UN
      peacekeepers, who have been carrying out extensive
      searches of south Lebanon to disarm Hizbullah under
      the terms of Resolution 1701. According to the UNIFIL,
      some 33 of these underground bunkers ­ or more than 90
      per cent -- have been located and Hizbullah weapons
      discovered there, including rockets and launchers,
      destroyed.

      The Israeli media has noted that the Israeli army
      calls these sites "nature reserves"; similarly, the UN
      has made no mention of finding urban-based Hizbullah
      bunkers. Relying on military sources, Haaretz reported
      last month: "Most of the rockets fired against Israel
      during the war last year were launched from the
      'nature reserves'." In short, even Israel is no longer
      claiming that Hizbullah was firing its rockets from
      among civilians.

      According to the UN report, Hizbullah has moved the
      rockets out of the underground bunkers and abandoned
      its rural launch pads. Most rockets, it is believed,
      have gone north of the Litani River, beyond the range
      of the UN monitors. But some, according to the Israeli
      army, may have been moved into nearby Shia villages to
      hide them from the UN.

      As a result, Haaretz noted that Israeli commanders had
      issued a warning to Lebanon that in future hostilities
      the army "will not hesitate to bomb -- and even
      totally destroy -- urban areas after it gives Lebanese
      civilians the chance to flee". How this would diverge
      from Israel's policy during the war, when Hizbullah
      was based in its "nature reserves" but Lebanese
      civilians were still bombed in their towns and
      villages, was not made clear.

      If the Israeli army's new claims are true (unlike the
      old ones), Hizbullah's movement of some of its rockets
      into villages should be condemned. But not by Israel,
      whose army is breaking international law by concealing
      its weapons in civilian areas on a far grander scale.

      As a first-hand observer of the fighting from Israel's
      side of the border last year, I noted on several
      occasions that Israel had built many of its permanent
      military installations, including weapons factories
      and army camps, and set up temporary artillery
      positions next to -- and in some cases inside --
      civilian communities in the north of Israel.

      Many of those communities are Arab: Arab citizens
      constitute about half of the Galilee's population.
      Locating military bases next to these communities was
      a particularly reckless act by the army as Arab towns
      and villages lack the public shelters and air raid
      warning systems available in Jewish communities.
      Eighteen of the 43 Israeli civilians killed were Arab
      -- a proportion that surprised many Israeli Jews, who
      assumed that Hizbullah would not want to target Arab
      communities.

      In many cases it is still not possible to specify
      where Hizbullah rockets landed because Israel's
      military censor prevents any discussion that might
      identify the location of a military site. During the
      war Israel used this to advantageous effect: for
      example, it was widely reported that a Hizbullah
      rocket fell close to a hospital but reporters failed
      to mention that a large army camp was next to it. An
      actual strike against the camp could have been
      described in the very same terms.

      It seems likely that Hizbullah, which had flown
      pilotless spy drones over Israel earlier in the year,
      similar to Israel's own aerial spying missions, knew
      where many of these military bases were. The question
      is, was Hizbullah trying to hit them or -- as most
      observers claimed, following Israel's lead -- was it
      actually more interested in killing civilians.

      A full answer may never be possible, as we cannot know
      Hizbullah's intentions -- as opposed to the
      consequences of its actions -- any more than we can
      discern Israel's during the war.

      Human Rights Watch, however, has argued that, because
      Hizbullah's basic rockets were not precise, every time
      they were fired into Israel they were effectively
      targeted at civilians. Hizbullah was therefore guilty
      of war crimes in using its rockets, whatever the
      intention of the launch teams. In other words,
      according to this reading of international law, only
      Israel had the right to fire missiles and drop bombs
      because its military hardware is more sophisticated --
      and, of course, more deadly.

      Nonetheless, new evidence suggests strongly that,
      whether or not Hizbullah had the right to use its
      rockets, it may often have been trying to hit military
      targets, even if it rarely succeeded. The Arab
      Association for Human Rights, based in Nazareth, has
      been compiling a report on the Hizbullah rocket
      strikes against Arab communities in the north since
      last summer. It is not sure whether it will ever be
      able to publish its findings because of the military
      censorship laws.

      But the information currently available makes for
      interesting reading. The Association has looked at
      northern Arab communities hit by Hizbullah rockets,
      often repeatedly, and found that in every case there
      was at least one military base or artillery battery
      placed next to, or in a few cases inside, the
      community. In some communities there were several such
      sites.

      This does not prove that Hizbullah wanted only to hit
      military bases, of course. But it does indicate that
      in some cases it was clearly trying to, even if it
      lacked the technical resources to be sure of doing so.
      It also suggests that, in terms of international law,
      Hizbullah behaved no worse, and probably far better,
      than Israel during the war.

      The evidence so far indicates that Israel:

      * established legitimate grounds for Hizbullah's
      attack on the border post by refusing to withdraw from
      the Lebanese territory of the Shebaa Farms in 2000;

      * initiated a war of aggression be refusing to engage
      in talks about a prisoner swap offered by Hizbullah;

      * committed a grave war crime by intentionally using
      cluster bombs against south Lebanon's civilians;

      * repeatedly hit Lebanese communities, killing many
      civilians, even though the evidence is that no
      Hizbullah fighters were to be found there;

      * and put its own civilians, especially Arab
      civilians, in great danger by making their communities
      targets for Hizbullah attacks and failing to protect
      them.

      It is clear that during the Second Lebanon war Israel
      committed the most serious war crimes.

      Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in
      Nazareth, Israel. He is the author of the forthcoming
      "Blood and Religion: The Unmasking of the Jewish and
      Democratic State" published by Pluto Press, and
      available in the United States from the University of
      Michigan Press. His website is www.jkcook.net

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