“THIS mortifying war”, as a columnist in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz describes it, was supposed to destroy Hezbollah quickly. But it has now entered its fourth week and far from being destroyed Hezbollah is proving more than a match for the Israeli army.
This is something totally new, no Arab army able to withstand Israeli might for so long. While the Arab street has been electrified, Arab leaders, clients of the United States, look on despondently. For nothing has made them look more impotent. Even in that citadel of silence, Saudi Arabia, there have been small demonstrations in support of Hezbollah.
On Wednesday the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, in a stern TV broadcast (shades of Churchill?) said that Hezbollah had been crippled. The same day Hezbollah fired more than 200 rockets into Israel, the highest number since this war began, giving a new meaning to the idea of crippling.
Hezbollah knows how to fight. Even though the Israeli army, desperate to salvage something from this conflict, has launched a massive assault across the Lebanese border, and its air force is carrying out round-the-clock bombings, Hezbollah is standing its ground. No Arab army has successfully done this except once before when Hezbollah forced the Israeli army to withdraw from South Lebanon in 2000, and now again when Hezbollah is giving the Israeli army its toughest time since the founding of the state of Israel. And this is a guerrilla organization whose hardcore fighting strength is no more than 5-6000.
There is talk of the Israeli army wanting to advance up to the Litani River. Nothing would suit Hezbollah better because the more the Israeli army is extended the more vulnerable it becomes to Hezbollah guerrilla attacks.
And so, not surprisingly, we are seeing subtle changes of mood and atmosphere. Even the tenor of western reporting is beginning to change. Until a few days ago BBC and CNN were sounding no better than mouthpieces of the Israeli foreign ministry (not to mention Fox News which always sounds like the mouthpiece of the Israeli army.) They were simply unwatchable. Now when Israeli claims and propaganda are measured against the actual performance of the Israeli army on the ground, we can detect the first stirrings of scepticism.
In the Security Council we are now hearing the first reports of progress towards some kind of a ceasefire resolution. The US and Israel wanted it differently: the smashing of Hezbollah before any ceasefire was put in place. But with Hezbollah refusing to crack and international condemnation of Israeli atrocities growing, even the US is being compelled to modify its position.
Even that most hardline of neocon nuts, the US’s UN ambassador John Bolton, has had to soften his utterances about Hezbollah. (On Wednesday, the BBC’s UN correspondent could scarcely hide his astonishment when he was reporting Bolton’s “almost emollient” remarks about Hezbollah. For someone like Bolton this is little short of heresy.)
All this is part of something larger happening across the broad sweep of the Muslim world. I can do no better than quote Robert Fisk, widely respected across the region for his outstanding reporting:
“You heard Sharon, before he suffered his massive stroke, he used this phrase in the Knesset, you know, ‘The Palestinians must feel pain.’ This was during one of the intifadas.
“The idea that if you continue to beat and beat and beat the Arabs, they will submit, that eventually they’ll go on their knees and give you what you want. And this is totally, utterly self-delusional, because it doesn’t apply anymore. It used to apply 30 years ago, when I first arrived in the Middle East. If the Israelis crossed the Lebanese border, the Palestinians jumped in their cars and drove to Beirut and went to the cinema. Now when the Israelis cross the Lebanese border, the Hezbollah jump in their cars in Beirut and race to the south to join battle with them.
“...the key thing now is that Arabs are not afraid any more. Their leaders are afraid, the Mubaraks of this world, the president of Egypt, King Abdullah II of Jordan. They’re afraid. They shake and tremble in their golden mosques, because they were supported by us. But the people are no longer afraid. Whether this is because they’ve grown tired of being afraid — you know, they say once you lose your fear you cannot be re-injected with fear, you can’t start being frightened again — or whether it’s because our western forces are now at war with Islamists, not with nationalists.”
Mark this distinction. Nationalist and secular forces, including the PLO, have been discredited. They were not up to the task before them. They became corrupt and soft. And so their place was taken by Islamist forces which are now the only elements in the entire Muslim world struggling against Israel and the US (two sides, sadly, of the same coin).
Islamists are battling Israel in Gaza, Islamists engaging Israel in Lebanon, Islamists fighting the US occupation in Iraq, Islamists battling the American-propped Karzai puppet government in Afghanistan, Islamist guerrillas fighting the Pakistan army to a standstill in North and South Waziristan and an Islamist regime in Iran standing up to the US and providing support to Hamas and Hezbollah. Syria which is secular alone bucks this trend. But even Syria finds itself in alliance with Islamist forces.
So note the spreading arc of turbulence: from the shores of the Mediterranean to the borders of Pakistan this entire region in ferment, the arrogance and stupidity of American policy fanning the flames of unrest and revolt.
Hezbollah already is a symbol of defiance far beyond the confines of Lebanon, its leader, Sheikh Hasan Nasrallah, arguably the most popular figure in the Islamic world today. So what will the Israeli aggression against Lebanon, and American policy supporting it, achieve? Hezbollah will still be around. But with the one big difference that more youngmen and women will be ready to join the Islamist cause, more people holding up Hasan Nasrallah as an icon of resistance.
Personally I find myself in a strange position. I am as secular in my thinking, if not more than most other people. I was born a Muslim but as is not uncommon in any religion, I count myself among those who have never been very particular about observing the rituals of the faith. Indeed, some of my personal habits are such as not to accord with anyone’s definition of correct Muslim behaviour. I also don’t like the intrusion of religion into politics and find the average maulvi’s ready stock of pomposity and hypocrisy amusing.
My secularism, however, collides with an unpleasant reality: the picture of the Islamic world in thrall to American power, Muslim elites dancing to America’s tune, Muslim countries little better than satellites orbiting around the US. I see this in my own country where there is too much American influence, much of it of the wrong kind. If the Muslim world is to progress, this bondage has to be broken.
Even democracy won’t come to the Muslim world unless this influence is overthrown. It’s one of the biggest myths of our time that America wants democracy to flourish in the lands of Islam. How can it when democracy doesn’t suit its interests? If we have popular governments in Muslim countries the first thing they will demand is an end to American hegemony.
The Americans were happy with the Shah, they can’t abide democratic Iran. They can’t abide Hamas which is the elected representative of the Palestinian people. They can’t abide Hezbollah which has a representative status in Lebanese politics. Democracy in the Muslim world and the interests of American foreign policy just do not mix. That is why any kind of popular movement in the Muslim world finds itself on a collision course with US interests.
Now if we take it as correct that American domination of the Islamic world is not a good thing and deserves to be resisted, it becomes hard for so-called secularists like myself to close their eyes to the uncomfortable fact that the only forces resisting this domination, often successfully, are those which, in some form or the other, draw their inspiration from Islam.
Savour then the irony of it. The “war on terror” was meant to fight and contain radical Islam. Instead, the Bush administration has turned out to be its biggest supporter, through its arrogance, lies and blind support of Israel giving radical Islam an impetus it could never have hoped to achieve on its own.