01 August 2006

Rules of war

One Israeli soldier is captured by Hamas, and two by Hezbollah. All hell breaks out.

To put matters in perspective, the number of Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners held by Israel runs into many thousands. Some have been imprisoned for more than 20 years.

In 1985 Israel freed 1,500 prisoners in return for a handful held by various Arab groups.

Early in 2004, there was another deal. Israel released around 430 Arab prisoners plus some 60 Lebanese corpses in exchange for one abducted businessman and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers. That reduced the total number held by Israel by just under 6%. The 7,500 or so still held at that time included women and girls, about 400 youths and an estimated 300 chronically ill.

Following that bizarre deal Hezbollah gained considerable credibility across the Arab world, having already won admiration in 2000 when it forced the Israeli army out of Lebanon – the only ‘resistance’ organisation to defeat Israel by military action.

Success brings its own reward. Iran, in its own mendacious interest, and with the connivance of Syria, keeps Hezbollah well supplied with increasingly sophisticated weaponry. Such coordination is seen by many as but one of the many predictable consequences of the invasion of Iraq.

Psychotic, reckless and fanatical it may be in the eyes of its enemies, Hezbollah has become an effective underground army and has the support of many Lebanese moderates who, rightly or wrongly, see it as their only means of defence.

Kofi Annan was quick to warn of a serious humanitarian disaster and called for an immediate ceasefire.

America, supported by the UK, did not agree.

We were in fact saying: let the collective punishment continue until Israel has out-gunned its enemies. Let the destruction of Lebanon and Gaza spread for a while longer. Let the death toll of the innocent rise.

While Israeli cities were suffering indiscriminate rocket attacks from Hezbollah, Israel was claiming credit for ordering Lebanese civilians to clear certain areas so that they could pound them with air strikes and artillery.

And even if the refugees could have picked their way through the blocked roads and survived air attacks while they did so, they were also having their homes and businesses destroyed with impunity. And what if they were too poor, too old or too sick to leave? They must remain behind and be buried in the rubble.

Meanwhile the Bush administration was rushing five-tonne laser-guided bombs to Israel and Condoleezza Rice was speaking glibly (if not insanely) of ‘the birth pangs’ of a new Middle East.

Soldiers taken by Hezbollah are ‘kidnapped’. Those held by Israel are captured ‘terrorists’, ‘gangs’ and ‘criminals’, entitled neither to trial nor the protection of the Geneva Convention.

Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay operate under the same ingenious patent.

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