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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher - July 31, 2006

Q. How will the accidental death by bombing of some 60 Lebanese civilians at Qana early Sunday morning factor into Israel's ceasefire and international force considerations? Q. What will an international force for southern Lebanon look like? How will it function?

Q. How will the accidental death by bombing of some 60 Lebanese civilians at Qana early Sunday morning factor into Israel's ceasefire and international force considerations?

A. The Qana disaster has increased and accelerated a variety of international initiatives to attempt to impose a ceasefire on the fighting and introduce an international force. In particular, it has strengthened the hand of those who accept the Hezbollah version of a ceasefire, to be invoked prior to imposing restrictions on Hezbollah such as disarmament and distancing from the Lebanon-Israel border. Lebanese PM Fuad Siniora, for example, was obliged by the extremely graphic media portrayal of the Qana victims on Arab TV to demand an immediate and unconditional ceasefire and temporarily reject a visit by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who continues to oppose a ceasefire that is not linked to restrictions on Hezbollah and does not introduce a peacemaking (as opposed to peacekeeping) force in accordance with Chapter 7 of the UN charter.

For the Olmert government and its supporters in the US administration and (quietly) in the Arab world, the disaster brings into focus a major dilemma. Hezbollah is a proxy of Iran. Its fundamentalist Shi'ite Islam celebrates martyrdom, and its sensitivity to losses among its supporters differs radically from that of Israel, the West and the more moderate versions of Sunni Islam. If Israel is indeed engaged in a kind of opening round of a broader regional and even global confrontation with Iran, then failure to pursue its war aims on account of sensitivity to Lebanese (primarily Shi'ite) civilian casualties incurred in the course of pursuing Hezbollah targets could have far reaching consequences for the broader confrontation.

Hezbollah was firing Katyusha rockets from the vicinity of the building in Qana that was bombed; in general, Hezbollah uses the supportive Shi'ite population of the South as cover. Its rocket units are highly mobile and its ordnance often scattered in mosques and private homes. In order to attack Hezbollah emplacements effectively and in real time, the IDF repeatedly told the civilian population to abandon their villages, including Qana. But many have not done so, not the least because IAF bombings have made it difficult, dangerous and expensive to travel north, and because facilities in Beirut (where hundreds of thousands of southern Shi'ites have indeed traveled) are inadequate and the Sunni and Christian populations there are less than welcoming.

Widespread attacks from the air on Hezbollah emplacements have also been invoked to spare Israeli ground troops, who are at a disadvantage when encountering Hezbollah guerillas heavily dug in and fortified in the midst of Lebanese civilians. The heavy IDF casualties in close quarter battles at Maroun al-Ras and Bint Jbeil led to an escalation in IAF "softening up" attacks that endanger more civilians. If the world is shocked by Lebanese civilian casualties, Israelis quite understandably begin to ask questions first and foremost when the army suffers heavy losses.

Clearly, the IDF has adopted a far more flexible attitude toward collateral civilian deaths in this war, in both Lebanon and Gaza, than previously. If, prior to the war, a legitimate target would be passed over because a handful of civilians were nearby, now that same target is attacked even if dozens of civilians are liable to be hurt. This undoubtedly blurs the boundaries of moral equivalency that have hitherto enabled Israel to argue that its terrorist enemies deliberately target Israeli civilians while Israel does not attack Arab civilians--blurs, but does not obliterate, since Israel continues to avoid attacking civilians when no military target is involved. In effect, Israel is saying to the civilized world: if you want to fight militant Islamists and win, you will end up killing a lot of their civilian supporters, too. If you don't fight and don't accept the ethical and moral compromises that are called for, you will lose a lot more than your ethics and morals.

This explains Israel's reluctance to acknowledge the Qana disaster as a turning point in the war (as an earlier and similar Qana disaster was in the 1996 Operation Grapes of Wrath), and its readiness to invoke no more than a temporary suspension of attacks from the air. It also explains ongoing Israeli and American insistence that a ceasefire be part of a package that effectively "defangs" Hezbollah, and that an international force be devoted to peacemaking and not just peacekeeping--i.e., that it be empowered to use firepower to enforce its edict and that it be equipped accordingly and be large enough to fight if necessary.

Notably, in the early hours of Monday, July 31, Israel's temporary cessation of air attacks appeared to have engendered a Hezbollah cessation of rocket attacks (except for five rockets that landed near Kiryat Shemona). Hezbollah, in other words, might be taking the initiative to convert Israel's partial and temporary ceasefire into a permanent one that meets the approval of the Europeans, Arabs and others who do not insist on Jerusalem's and Washington's conditions.

From Israel's standpoint, a ceasefire that precedes rather than follows upon the return of its soldiers kidnapped by Hezbollah and the removal of Hezbollah from the South is not likely to be stable and effective. The US appears to agree. Hence a ceasefire resolution that might be passed this week by the UN Security Council will not necessarily end the actual fighting until conditions such as these are met by Hezbollah.

Q. What will an international force for southern Lebanon look like? How will it function?

A. Notably, this is the first time in memory that Israel itself has actually advocated an international force. This reflects Israel's understanding that the government of Lebanon is too weak to impose its sovereignty on the South alone, and its resolve not to get involved again in a military occupation of the South. But the issues of sequencing and mandate--peacekeeping or peacemaking--are not the only dilemmas involved for Israel in the international force idea.

Everyone agrees that the UN Security Council should authorize the force. But Israel and the US prefer a NATO or mixed force to a UN force. This poses the question, what sort of countries should be represented on the force. Should it include, for example, Arab units (none have volunteered thus far)? Non-Arab Muslims (Turkey appears to be interested)? Will Sunni Muslims that participate (Turkey, Indonesia, Arab countries) become targets for the Shi'ite Hezbollah, thereby exacerbating already acute Sunni-Shi'ite tensions? The force most capable of deploying quickly is the NATO reaction force. But NATO might want to see Arabs and/or other Muslims alongside it to avoid the impression of neo-colonialism. On the other hand, the Turks (NATO members and Muslims) are considered the original colonialists in countries like Lebanon, where they ruled for some 400 years.

One thing is clear: the US (and UK) will have, at best, a token presence in the international force. Israel, for its part, would prefer the force to be commanded by the French; this choice reflects the impressive enhancement of Israeli-French strategic cooperation and consultation in recent years.

Then, too, where does the force deploy? Only in southern Lebanon, or in the Bekaa Valley as well, in order to interdict shipments of Iranian arms from Syria? If the latter, will the force be authorized to confront Syrians as well as Lebanese?

Should there be a time limit on the mandate of the force? Most participants, and particularly the Europeans, will object to an open-ended mandate, lest it perpetuate the problems in Lebanon rather than solving them. On the other hand, given that the Lebanese government is too weak to restrain Hezbollah alone and that the Lebanese Army, which itself is 50 percent Shi'ite, is incapable of patrolling the South on its own, how long will it take for the international community to strengthen these institutions and leave? Indeed, is this a feasible task without enlisting the help of, say, Syria, and if so, how can this be accomplished under current circumstances, when Syria is part of the problem?

Another critical aspect of the international force's terms of reference concerns the parties it is authorized to negotiate with. Will Hezbollah be among them? If so, doesn't this pose the danger of undermining the Lebanese government and rendering the entire enterprise self-defeating? If not, how will the force supervise the removal of Hezbollah from the South and support a Lebanese government effort to disarm it?

Four days ago, the Lebanese government approved the "Siniora Plan" for a ceasefire and an international force. The five Shi'ite ministers in the government, including two from Hezbollah, concurred with the plan. It describes a series of steps to be taken, beginning with a ceasefire, then moving on to the return of the displaced to their homes, and followed by a prisoner swap, Israeli withdrawal from the Shebaa Farms in favor of a UN contingent, Israel turning over a map of the minefields it left in the South when it withdrew in 2000, deployment by the Lebanese Army to the South and an expanded role for a UN force in the South. The Lebanese Army, adds the plan, would henceforth maintain a monopoly of arms in Lebanon. (As noted above, Siniora reverted at least temporarily to the demand for an unconditional ceasefire in response to the Qana disaster.)

While Hezbollah's agreement appears to be a step forward, the sequencing and content of the plan seem to reflect short-term Lebanese political interests rather than the strategic need to neutralize Hezbollah. Israel and the US fear that a plan that begins with a ceasefire and sequences all other measures to follow will end with nothing but a ceasefire, and a short-lived one at that. They reject the idea of a UN contingent and a prisoner swap, arguing that the UN can provide the mandate but not the force and that Hezbollah has to unconditionally release the two Israeli soldiers whose abduction launched this war. They also remind the Lebanese that Hezbollah has to physically leave the South of the country, and cannot simply be absorbed into the Lebanese Army and left there, as the plan implies (an expedient adopted in Iraq for a number of Shi'ite militias, with unhappy results).

The history of international forces interceding between Israel and its Arab neighbors is a mixed one. To be successful, an international force needs a clear mandate, and should be monitoring a stable agreement between two state actors, such as Israel and Egypt or even Israel and Syria, that are interested in the success of the agreement and capable of delivering on their obligations and responsibilities. The government of Lebanon does not fit this description. Hence, under the very best of circumstances, placing an international force in southern Lebanon is a risky business for all concerned.