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Calm amid the storm
Middle East expert Hossein Shahidi responds to six questions about Israel’s conflict with Hamas and Hezbollah and the prospect of war with Iran


Peyvand Khorsandi
July 20, 2006

Peyvand Khorsandi: President Bush said: “This [the Israeli onslaught against Lebanon] started because Hezbollah decided to capture two Israeli soldiers and fire hundreds of rockets into Israel from southern Lebanon. That’s the cause of the crisis.” Do you agree?

Hossein Shahidi: The question is not whether I agree or not, but whether the parties to the conflict do. According to BBC news reports, which have been my main source of information, Hezbollah’s capture of the two Israeli soldiers was preceded by a steady escalation of tension along the Lebanese-Israeli border over several months and was followed by Israeli attacks on Lebanon. There then came Hezbollah’s rocket attacks on Israel, which in turn were followed by Israeli air, sea and artillery attacks across Lebanon.

For the past few days, attacks by the two sides have been taking place concurrently, albeit on very different scales, depending on each side’s fire power. President Bush’s statement makes no reference to Israel’s actions, placing the responsibility on Hezbollah, who are not going to agree with his interpretation.

More importantly, though, I believe the most urgent task at the moment is not to try to establish who started the fighting, but to end it. Apportioning blame while the fighting continues will merely add to its intensity. Only after the war has ended will it be possible to start a proper investigation into who was responsible for it. The United States has the greatest political and financial means to try to end the war, both in Lebanon and Palestine, and can enhance its ability by ensuring that it is seen as a fair arbiter in the conflict.

PK:Does Israel’s response to the deaths of civilians in Haifa — the promise of more war — belie a willingness, as Israeli writer Uri Avnery believes, to sacrifice even its own people in its pursuit of regime change in Lebanon (if the destruction of Hezbollah and installation of a US-backed puppet government are indeed its aim)?

HS: There is no evidence that Israel is willing “to sacrifice even its own people.” By the same token, the Palestinian and Lebanese fighters could be accused of “sacrificing” the civilian population, an accusation they are sure to deny. Such propositions, which imply cynicism by those engaged in the fighting, ignore the fact that, more often than not, most casualties in wars are civilians.

As far as Hezbollah is concerned, the United States and Israel would like to see the movement, which they regard as terrorist, disarmed and removed from the Lebanese government. They might also want to see a pro-Western president replace Mr Emile Lahoud who has the backing of Hezbollah and Syria. But that would amount to changing the components of the state structure, rather than a “regime change”.

Even if the changes favored by the United States were to come about, it would be wrong to speak of a “US-backed puppet government” in Lebanon. The present government includes pro-Western factions who do represent a large segment of the Lebanese population – Christians, Sunni Muslims and the Druze – just as Hezbollah represents a large segment of the population: the Shia Muslims.

PK: What parallels do you see with what is happening now and Ariel Sharon’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982?

HS: There are more differences than parallels. The one similarity that I can notice is the presence of an armed force along Lebanon’s southern border – Hezbollah now and, in 1982 the Palestinian guerrilla movement, which Israel is trying to neutralize.

The main difference is that this time Israel is unlikely to use its ground troops to occupy Lebanon, having done so in the 1982 at great cost, and having had to withdraw without having gained much. Instead, Israel has been using its air, sea and artillery power to destroy Lebanon’s infrastructure, presumably as a means of alienating and isolating Hezbollah among the Lebanese population.

Another difference is that while in 1982 the Palestinian guerrillas had to leave Lebanon, the Hezbollah fighters are Lebanese citizens and it is difficult to see them forced out of their country.

PK: If soldier-snatching offers Israeli such a worthy pretext for all out military assault, why are Hamas and Hezbollah playing into its hands?

HS: For all practical purposes, there has been a war going on between Israel, the Palestinians and Hezbollah, if not the whole Lebanese population, for some time, and capturing prisoners is not uncommon in wars.

The first Israeli soldier was seized during clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinians in Gaza. The other two were captured during a Hezbollah raid into Israel, with the declared aim of pressuring Israel to free Arab prisoners it holds. Both seizures have also helped raise the morale of the Palestinians and Lebanese against Israel.

Once again, this being a war, each side does what it believes will help it reach its aims. More than anything else, Israel’s assault on Lebanon demonstrates its military ability to do so when it believes the circumstances warrant such action. An “incentive” for the attack would be a better term than “pretext”, which implies that Israel does not really care for the prisoners, but is merely using their capture as an excuse to attack Lebanon.

The Palestinians and Lebanese could have been said to have “played into Israel’s hands” if one could demonstrate that they seized the Israeli soldiers in the full knowledge of what the consequences would be, at a time when they had other options to promote their goals.

Some believe Hezbollah’s capture of the Israeli soldiers was a deliberate provocation. However, although Hezbollah has shown itself to be a very thoughtful force when dealing with Lebanon’s internal politics, it may simply have misread Israel’s motives, believing that the seizure of the soldiers would lead to a negotiated exchange of prisoners, as had been the case earlier when the bodies of Israeli soldiers were exchanged with large numbers of Arab prisoners. Again, wars are often replete with miscalculations, among them the US-led occupation of Iraq which has not gone exactly according to plan.

PK:What do Hamas, Hezbollah and the Israelis each hope to gain from all this and how achievable are their objectives?

HS: Anyone who has the right answer to this question will deserve at least a Nobel Prize, if not beatification. Each of the three parties has declared aims, which need to be examined in detail by reading their publications and which one cannot summarize without opening one to charges of bias and distortion. The parties must also have practical goals more in line with what they can achieve at any given time, but these change all the time and are not easy to keep track of.

The continuation of the fighting makes the question even more difficult to answer because at times of war when the warring forces’ ideals are overshadowed by their desire to kill each other. For this reason, too, I would say that the highest priority at present is to end the fighting and get all parties to speak about what they want and how they think it can be achieved. This can only come about with credible international support.

PK:What role is Iran playing in the current situation and how long before it becomes embroiled?

HS: Iran’s ties with Lebanon are historic, going back to the Safavid times when Shia scholars were taken from what is Lebanon today to Iran to propagate the Shia Moslem faith that had been declared Iran’s official religion. In recent times, Iranians opposed to the Shah based themselves among the Lebanese Shias in the 1970s and helped found their first political organization, Amal. After the 1979 Revolution, the Iranian government has helped Shia groups in Lebanon and elsewhere. Irrespective of whether Iran has or has not supplied Hezbollah with weapons, Hezbollah would have gained weapons from some source anyway. Various governments and political organizations or factions in the region, including Israel itself, receive military support from a variety of sources.

Some have said that Iran has been using Hezbollah as a means of pursuing its own interests by putting pressure on Israel and the United States. Hezbollah, however, while openly declaring its close ties with Iran, insists that it is an independent, Lebanese force that makes its own decisions from the point of view of what it regards as Lebanon’s interests.

In any case, at the present time, the main issue is not who gets guns from where, but how the guns are used. As a pacifist and an opponent of capital punishment, I personally deplore even the killing of soldiers. But even those who approve of that will not condone the killing of Israeli civilians in Hezbollah rocket attacks. Nor can any degree of hostility between Iran and the United States and Israel justify Israel’s large-scale destruction of Lebanon in order to hit Hezbollah as a presumed “Iranian proxy”.

The Israeli attacks on Gaza, for their part, will only increase hostility between the two sides, rather than subdue the Palestinians. Whether Iran does become involved in the current conflict depends on how long the fighting goes on, how far it expands and, especially, on whether Israel attacks Syria. With Israel’s actions already causing protests worldwide, and the possibility of international action to stop the war, an Israeli attack on Syria does not seem plausible. So Iran too could keep itself out. Expanding the scope of the fighting does not seem to be in any one’s real interest.

PK:What can be done?

HS: First of all, the fighting needs to be brought to an end. If the war does not come to an end soon, but goes on until Hams and Hezbollah are defeated, future generations in Palestine and Lebanon are bound to include people who will try to take revenge for what’s happening to them now, just as today’s Palestinian and Lebanese fighters were shaped by the circumstances in which they have been born and raised over the past few decades.

There also needs to be an exchange of prisoners, under international supervision, followed by a thorough investigation in to the causes of hostilities. This investigation would have to involve the United States listening to Hamas and Hezbollah, rather than boycotting them and believing that they will go away.

There then needs to be international aid for the Palestinians and the Lebanese to rebuild their devastated infrastructure, built over the past 10 years at great cost and with much hope for a better future.

In addition to all this, as a journalist and communications teacher whose only tools are words, I would say that all the parties concerned should be encouraged and helped to talk and listen to each other. At present, in ignorance, prejudice and hatred reign over our region, with various communities unable to find anything good to say about each other, each believing that the elimination of the other is possible, and only a matter of time. However, this has not been “achieved” during 60 years of war, and does not seem “achievable” without the use of nuclear weapons – which thankfully no one seems ready to use.

Greater communication among all nations in the region can show to them that they have to share the same land and resources. In the words of the Iranian journalist, Mr Ahmad Zeidabadi, even assuming that Israel is an “illegitimate child”, there is no justification for killing it. Such a “child” needs to be adopted and nurtured for its and the common good. Israel too would be much better served realizing that it is another Middle Eastern state, fated to share the same land and sky with its Arab neighbors, and that its vast technological resources would be better used to help improve the lives of its Arab neighbors, for Israel’s own benefit as well as theirs. Anyone who can work out how this is to be done would also deserve beatification. But it is well worth pursuing and will not mean starting from scratch. Only a few years ago, the Arab countries did offer to recognize Israel, a move Iran is also reported to have supported. This, however, was not taken by Israel or the United States. The fact that the offer was made can be taken as a good omen and the basis for hope that something similar will come back again. There is no other rational option. The world is too small for people to go on killing each other, thinking they can get away with it.

Hossein Shahidi is Assistant Professor of Communication at the American University of Beirut. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.

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