July 18, 2006

The balance of power in the Middle East

The recent attacks by the Israeli armed forces in Gaza and Lebanon is evidence, if anyone needed it, that Israel is the overwhelming military power in that region. The reason it could bomb Beirut and other parts of Lebanon and impose an air and sea blockade on that country is because it can do so without fear of meeting any major resistance. What we are currently witnessing is a demonstration of unmatched power.

Thanks to sustained economic and military support from the US (Israel is the single largest beneficiary of US aid, with about $3 billion annually in aid), Israel not only has developed overwhelming conventional military power over its immediate neighbors in the region, it is even a nuclear power. Estimates give Israel about 100-200 strategic nuclear weapons, well ahead of India and Pakistan, and comparable to England. When this military dominance is coupled with the diplomatic backing of the US, which provides it with cover to prevent any international diplomatic moves against its use of this power, this enables the Israeli government to take military actions against its neighbors that would be unthinkable for almost any other state.

The passive response of the world to the current actions by Israel in Gaza and Lebanon is symptomatic of this situation. The US has vetoed UN resolutions calling for a halt to the attacks on Gaza and blocked international attempts to call for a ceasefire in Lebanon, as requested by the beleaguered government of Lebanon, thus enabling Israel to proceed unchecked.

Other governments that responded to provocations the way Israel has would face immediate condemnation. India and Pakistan have long shared a tense border with Kashmir, where along the 'line of demarcation' it is almost routine to have border incursions and skirmishes of the kind that just occurred in the Middle East. In addition, just this past week we also saw the bombing in India of commuter trains that killed about 200 people. There are strong suspicions being voiced that the perpetrators of this atrocity are Islamic groups based in Pakistan. But India did not unleash an invasion of Pakistan, say by bombing civilian centers like Karachi and Islamabad, because Pakistan is a nation of comparable strength, able to defend itself and even retaliate, and for India to do so would have been to invite worldwide condemnation for over-reacting. This necessitates that the two countries try and talk their way through the tensions.

As another example, the Prime Minister of India (Rajiv Gandhi) was murdered by members of Tamil separatist groups from Sri Lanka. India did not invade and bomb Sri Lanka in response, which it could have easily done if it wanted to because of its overwhelming military superiority, because that would have been a hugely disproportionate response that would have invited immediate worldwide condemnation.

The fact that the US has enabled Israel to do what it likes militarily is perhaps why Israel is so isolated politically. When you have unmatched military power and also no diplomatic constraints, leaders tend to succumb to the fatal temptation of thinking that they can use force to solve political problems, and spurn diplomatic avenues. There is no incentive to try and negotiate long-term political solutions, even though those are the only ones that can promise any kind of peace and justice for all. Because it can so easily unleash military power in response to any provocation, Israel can avoid the necessity of seeking diplomatic and political solutions to the problems in that region.

But despite this clear demonstration of power disparity between Israel and the Palestinians, the myth continues of Israel as the underdog in the region, constantly fearful for its existence. Does anyone (other than the irrationally insecure) seriously think that the actual existence of the state of Israel, the fifth largest nuclear power in the world, is in any danger? To do so is like seriously thinking that al Qaeda can overthrow the US government. Yes, you get the occasional threats and boasts of few people, and some militant groups opposed to the existence of Israel are capable of striking the occasional blow here and there, but they are nowhere close to being a serious threat to the actual existence of the state. No state in the region, however belligerent its rhetoric, is going to actually attack Israel with a view to destroying its existence, because almost the entire world would condemn and oppose and rebuff this attempt, let alone the fact that Israel is quite capable of defending itself without any outside help. The worldwide response when Iraq invaded Kuwait, a far less influential state than Israel, should persuade people that the territorial integrity of Israel is secure.

But the idea of a beleaguered state that is facing an existential threat has always been useful because it enables countries to unleash disproportionate responses to attacks. This has been the practice of many governments in response to even minor threats to its authority. The US has done it with terrorism, creating the feeling that the whole country is in danger in order to dismantle long standing civil rights protections at home and wage war abroad. And now Israel has used it to respond with disproportionate force in Gaza and Lebanon.

In this case, the capture of an Israeli soldier near the West Bank border, and the capture of two soldiers near the Lebanese border, were used as justification for invading Lebanon and Gaza and bombing its cities, resulting in enormous numbers of casualties. The whole of Lebanon is now under siege and blockaded, its airports and highways and residential areas indiscriminately bombed, and its infrastructure in shambles. It is, of course, a given that any nation has the right to defend itself from external aggression but to argue that the capture of one or two soldiers near a tense border is sufficient cause to unleash a massive assault on civilians centers in a neighboring country is to lower the bar for inter-nation warfare to such a low level that almost any country that shares a border with a hostile neighbor will be in a state of permanent warfare.

And even before this, for a long time now, Israel has responded to attacks from missiles or by suicide bombers by massively retaliating against the Palestinians. Attacks on Israeli territory and settlers by individuals have been used to arrest family members and friends of the alleged perpetrators, bulldoze their family's homes, destroy their farms and communities and villages, and imprison large numbers of people. Such collective punishments violate the norms of justice and proportional response. What is currently taking place in Gaza and Lebanon is another over reaction to an undoubted provocation.

As a result of its power dominance in the region, there is no compulsion for Israel, at least in the short run, to seek a just and permanent solution to the core issue of Palestinian statehood, the very thing that inflames the passions. In fact, the ongoing creation by Israel of settlements in the West Bank is resulting in no viable Palestinian state being possible. What is being offered by Israel to Palestinians is a kind of Bantustan, a Swiss-cheese like entity consisting of enclaves ('cantons') of non-contiguous Palestinian areas, that are broken up by Israeli settlements and roadways that will result in Palestinians having to pass through Israeli checkpoints to go from enclave to another. Bantustans were created in South Africa under the former apartheid regime and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who experienced them first hand, said at a Boston conference in April 2002 "I've been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land. It reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa."

Professor Jeff Halper, an emeritus professor of anthropology at Ben Gurion University in Israel and a peace activist, says that the goal of Israel seems to be to:

establish a tiny Palestinian state of, say, five or six cantons (Sharon's term) on 40-70% of the Occupied Territories, completely surrounded and controlled by Israel. Such a Palestinian state would cover only 10-15% of the entire country and would have no meaningful sovereignty and viability: no coherent territory, no freedom of movement, no control of borders, no capital in Jerusalem, no economic viability, no control of water, no control of airspace or communications, no military--not even the right as a sovereign state to enter into alliances without Israeli permission."

Is it any surprise that Palestinians would reject such a future?

I myself had not realized how bad the situation was until a talk given at Case last year by Professor Halper who explained in alarming detail how the settlement building on the West Bank is surely extinguishing any hope for a lasting peace settlement. He presented detailed maps that showed how what is envisaged by Israel and the US for Palestinians is life under permanent Israeli control. He pointed out that even if the entire West Bank and Gaza were handed over to a Palestinian state, that state would still constitute only about 22% of the total land currently occupied by Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, but what is offered is far less than that.

While there is a huge amount of coverage of the Middle East, most of it is simply a lot of blather about whether the "peace process" is on track or off, dead or alive, and one rarely gets crucial details about actual plans or sees actual maps detailing what is happening in the West Bank and Gaza and what is being proposed for Palestinians. Hence most Americans have no idea about what is being offered to the Palestinians and cannot understand why it is being rejected. They are simply told that the Palestinians are ungrateful for rejecting a 'generous' Israeli offer of land, but are not given the data to evaluate the merits of this offer for themselves.

If we are going to have any kind of resolution to the problems of the Middle East, a viable and independent self-contained Palestinian state has to be created, which will then have a vested interested in building itself in peace. Creation of that state will require the withdrawal of Israel to its pre-1967 borders and the dismantling of the settlements in the occupied territories. If instead what Palestinians are offered is a non-viable state with non-contiguous pieces of land under Israeli control, we are all doomed to an endless cycle of violence that will repeatedly spill over into the rest of the region, and perhaps engulf us all.

Next: Why some people are pleased at the recent upsurge in violence and want an even wider war.


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Excellent post. There is not enough talk about how Israel is killing innocent people and doing it with U.S. made weapons. Israel is the dominant military force, but it is already clear that they are creating more enemies than they kill. Literally millions of innocent Lebanese citizens now hate Israel. A week ago, that wasn't the case.

Posted by PoliticalCritic on July 18, 2006 08:47 AM

It is, of course, a given that any nation has the right to defend itself from external aggression but to argue that the capture of one or two soldiers near a tense border is sufficient cause to unleash a massive assault on civilians centers in a neighboring country is to lower the bar for inter-nation warfare to such a low level that almost any country that shares a border with a hostile neighbor will be in a state of permanent warfare.

For the most part, I haven't been a big fan of Israeli aggression in the middle east. In this case, however, Israel didn't attack Lebanon solely in response to the kidnapping of its soldiers -- Hezbollah is launching rockets across its border with Israel.

According to the International Herald Tribune:

Israel's military goal is to push Hezbollah away from the border so it cannot strike at Israel, Mr. Regev said. The political goal, he said, is the implementation of a United Nations Security Council resolution, passed two years ago, which calls for the Lebanese government to take control of its southern border and disarm militias, such as Hezbollah.

The Lebanese government has demanded an end to the Israeli air, naval and artillery strikes on Lebanon. The government has also disavowed the cross-border raid by Hezbollah that ignited the fighting. But the Lebanese leadership has said and done little as the crisis has escalated, and the government has not given any indication that it will act against Hezbollah, which receives support from Iran and Syria.

Also, Hezbollah kept up its fire, unleashing more than 40 Katyusha rockets deep into northern Israel on Saturday, and for the first time, striking the resort town of Tiberias.

There are a variety of factors at play: Hezbollah started their attack in response (apparently) to the Israeli incursion into the West Bank (which itself was to recover their soldier kidnapped by Hamas). Israel, in trying to secure their border with Lebanon, is trying to do something that the United Nations should have done, but does not have the power to do.

Basically, I'm not convinced that Israel is entirely in the wrong here. In comparison to the recent India bombing, that was an isolated incident as opposed to a concerted, ongoing attack. Further, Pakistan has been making an effort to reign in their militia groups. It's not entirely clear that Lebanon has been doing the same with Hezbollah (or, indeed, that they even have the capability).

Posted by V on July 18, 2006 10:15 AM

The Islamic extremists do not want their own state. Israel pulled out of the Gaza strip and they are still lobbing artillery over the border into Israel killing innocent civilians intentionally. THEY GAVE THEM EXACTLY WHAT THEY SAID THEY WANTED AND THEY STILL ARE NOT HAPPY. The radical Islam groups want one thing and one thing only: the complete and total destruction of Israel.

Posted by Chad on July 18, 2006 10:54 AM

That was a powerful piece, Mano. I hope it is widely read. I think the "hands off" policy expressed by the U.S. toward Israel has much to do with World War II and the attempted extermination of a proud people. Perhaps Israel has since overcompensated, and perhaps the U.S. has turned a blind eye. I don't have the answers, except to say that now--more than ever--is the time for questions.

Posted by Norm on July 18, 2006 12:43 PM

I agree with Chad, the palestinians don't want their own separate state. They didn't want their own state in 1947 when the UN wanted to split the country into a Jewish and Palestinan state, they didn't want one earlier this year when they elected a terrorist organization in it's municipal elections.

You talk about "life under permanent Israeli control" like it's a bad thing - like the Israeli government is overly oppressive. Arab citizens of Israel, even women, can vote. Arab elected officials sit on the Knesset.

The palestians are supporting terrorism pure and simple. There is no doubt the Israeli government hasn't done everything right, what government does, but the Palestinians should be working within the Isreali government to get things changed, not creating their own state. To quote you from yesterday:

I have long felt that dividing people and nations along the lines of ethnicity or religion is absurd, a relic of ancient tribal histories that should have long ago been rejected by modern people.

Posted by bob on July 18, 2006 05:05 PM


If you are suggesting that the best thing would be for all Israelis and Palestinians to live as equal citizens in the land that now comprises Israel, West Bank and Gaza, I totally agree with you. The quote from me italicized by you indicates exactly this view.

However I have not heard any of the relevant parties propose this or indicate that they would accept it.

Isn't it strange that the only reason this perfectly logical and reasonable solution is not considered is because people have this irrational sense of higher allegiance to their own religion and ethnicity, despite the fact that both are purely social constructs that are almost always determined by the purely random circumstances of their birth?

Posted by Mano Singham on July 18, 2006 10:12 PM


That's exactly what I'm suggesting. Nearly 20% of Israel's current population is Arab. Assimilating another 2-3 million Palestinians would be a difficult task, but not impossible.

As you say I have not ever heard anyone propose this solution. My perception is that the Israeli would be open to such a concept, but the palestians, other Arab countries and the UN would be completely opposed to the idea. The Israelis can't even broach this idea without the world immediately jumping to the conclusion that they are just trying to solidify their holds on the occupied territories.

As far as people having an 'irrational sense of higher allegiance to their own religion and ethnicity', I disagree that this is a strange thing. In fact, it is the basis for all national borders. While diversity is a nice concept, but the fact of the matter is that racial, cultural and religious continuity generally leads to a more peaceful existance.

Posted by bob on July 19, 2006 12:16 PM

Assimilating another 2-3 million Palestinians would be a difficult task, but not impossible.

Actually, I'm pretty sure that Israel doesn't want to absorb the Palestinian state. You note that there are 2-3 million Palestinians. There are only ~6 million citizens in Israel. Adding 3 million people would substantially change the country's political and ethnic makeup to the point where it's nolonger actually a Jewish state.

Posted by V on July 19, 2006 01:40 PM

Virtually every government in the Middle East other than Israel execute their own citizens on daily basis for showing any political dissent. Over 25% of the population of israel is Arab and they have the right to vote in honest free elections.If gaza was controlled by lets say Syria and the activites that were going on in Gaza were directed at Bashar al-Asad there is no dought he would exterminate every human being in Gaza just like his daddy did in 1982 at Hama A true racist or biggot does not even realize they are. Mano Singham your are an antisemetic racist.If these countries are willing to murder thei own citizens what would they do to Israel if they could???? This info below is direct from the Lebanese Liberation Party
The Hama Massacre of 1982
Syria's regime brutally massacres it's own people
Credit for: Freedom Fighter (Lebanese Liberation Party). Copyright ©2002. Under their regime's rule, one need only to look at the Hama massacre of 1982 to realize the sheer amount of suffering that the innocent people of Syria have had to endure.

The year was 1982. Hafez Assad, the then dictator of Syria, had banned all other political parties except the Ba'ath (his own). He had them ruthlessly dissolved, their leaders often killed. The free press of Syria had also been outlawed.

The only newspapers that were allowed into circulation were official Ba'ath papers. Needless to say, the people of Syria eventually grew furious with these turn of events. A new political party was formed ... the Muslim Brotherhood.

The New Hama Cathedral in 1982. (Pre-massacre)

Not fearing the dictates of Assad, the Muslim Brotherhood had one major goal: to overthrow the dictator of Syria. They made their presence known and soon enough, people started listening to them.

Seeing the new wave of extreme anti-government sentiment as a threat to himself, Hafez Assad deployed his army with one goal ... to make such an example of the Muslim Brotherhood that no man would ever dare challenge his rule again.

The New Hama Cathedral in 1982. (Post-massacre)

Hama, the aftermath

The residents of a Syrian city named Hama had been more persistent in their criticisms of the dictator than other towns. For that reason,

Hafez Assad decided that Hama would be the staging point of the example he was to make to the Syrian people. In the twilight hours of February the 2nd, 1982, the city of Hama was awakened by loud explosions. The Syrian air force had began to drop their bombs from the dark sky.

The initial bombing run cost the city few casualties. It's main purpose had been to disable the roads so that no-one could escape. Earlier in the night, Syrian tanks and artillery systems had surrounded Hama. With the conclusion of the air bombing run, the tanks and artillery began their relentless shelling of the town.

The cost in human lives was severe. As homes crumbled upon their living occupants and the smell of charred skin filled the streets, a few residents managed to escape the shelling and started to flee. They were met by the Syrian army which had surrounded the city ... they were all shot dead.

Hours of shelling had turned Hama into rubble. The tanks and artillery had done all that they could. The next wave of attacks came in the form of Syrian soldiers. They quickly converged onto the town killing anything that would move. Groups of soldiers would round up men, women, and children only to shoot them in the back of the head. Many other soldiers would invade homes with the orders to kill all inhabitants.

After the majority of the people in Hama were dead, the soldiers began looting. They would take all that they could from the now empty homes. Some were seen picking through the dead civilians looking for money, watches, and rings.

With their mission completed and their pockets filled with loot, the soldiers began to retreat from the city. One would think that would have been the last wave of the attacks. It was not. The final attack on Hama was the most gruesome. To make sure that no person was left alive in the rubble and buildings, the Syrian army brought in poison gas generators. Cyanide gas filled the air of Hama. Bulldozers were later used to turn the city into a giant flat area.

The Syrian government death count was place at around 20,000 people dead ... but the Syrian Human Rights Committee estimates it to be much higher, at somewhere between 30,000 to 40,000 civilians dead or missing.

Hama Grand Mosque in 1982. (Pre-massacre)

Hama Grand Mosque in 1982. (Prost-massacre)

The following is part of the horrific testimony of one survivor:

"I was among a huge number of people, so crowded that we almost could not breathe, and we were taken to Sriheen, where we were ordered to step out of the trucks, so we did as told.

First thing we noticed was those hundreds of shoes scattered everywhere on the ground. It was then when we realized that it meant that hundreds of our fellow citizens were killed and we were next to face the same imminent death.

We were searched afterwards, and any cash or watches were taken off us. Then, the elements of the Syrian authorities ordered us to move forward towards a deeply dug trench, which stretched long. Some of us were ordered to go to another nearby trench.

When I stepped forward to my spot by the trench, I saw the pile of bodies in their still tainted by running blood, which horrified me so much that I had to close my eyes and I had to contain myself to avoid falling off.

As expected, streams of bullets were fired towards us and everyone fell in their blood into the trenches, whilst the ones who were inside the other trench got shot inside the trench where they stood.

" The survivor went on: "My injury was not life threatening and God granted me survival by inspiring me to wait patiently till the murderers left the premises and I ran despite my injuries. I was divinely saved from that fate whereas the injured could die under the weight of the other bodies most definitely."

Amnesty International reported:

"Some monitors stated: old streets of the city were bombed from the air to facilitate the introduction of military forces and tanks through the narrow streets, like the al-Hader street, where homes were crushed by tanks during the first four days of fighting.

On February 15th, after days of intense bombardment, Defense Minister General Mustafa Tlass announced that the rebellion was put out, but the city remained under siege and surrounded. Door-to-door searches along with extensive arrests continued during the next two following weeks, while various news leaks talked about atrocities committed by the security forces and

mass killings of innocent city residents. It is not easy to know what did exactly occur, but Amnesty International mentioned news of a mass execution of some 70 people outside the city hospital on February 19th and the annihilation of all residents of

the al-Hader area on the hands of the Defense Brigades (Saraya el-Defaa) on the same day. Other reports talk of using containers of cyanide gas to kill all inhabitants of buildings, where rebels were suspected of residing. Also, people were grouped in the military airport, city stadium, and military camps and were left there without shelter or food for days."

The following are some very telling excerpts from the Syrian Human Rights Committee report on the Hama massacre:

"It is rather impossible for a writer to paint a picture of the massacres committed against women and newborn children or to describe the methods used to murder members of the same family, one after another right before the eyes of the ones to follow the same fate.

They would cut the guts of a baby while his mother held him, and then fire a stream of bullets onto her to prevent her from giving birth to another future opposition member. They would fire right on the head of an elder, while he murmured a prayer after what he had just witnessed.

Children would scream asking for their mom, or grandfather just to be answered with a stream of bullets killing them all. A family would fall in a pool of their blood, but not for long, because soldiers would set everything ablaze after ransacking the house for any valuables and cutting the hands and ears off in their crazed rush to loot the jewelry worn.

Not one store escaped theft, ransacking or bulldozing, no mosques escaped destruction, nor any minarets remained erect in Hama during that tragic month, even churches were not spared and suffered a similar fate."

"The regime violated the most basic rights of its people, starting with the right to live and ending with the citizenship rights, motivated only by its utter hatred towards Hama and its citizens because they opposed the regime most when compared to other Syrian cities." "The Syrian regime deals with its citizens by utilizing state terrorism, because it has given up on its duty as a preserver of lives of its citizens and a protector of their properties, honor and dignity."

To know more about this regime :

Read the Syria's Terrorist War on Lebanon and the Peace Process book.


Posted by on August 20, 2006 11:22 PM

your an anti semetic racist
israel is attacking hamas and hizbolla with extream restraint and only aiming to kill terorists who hide around civilians to gain international condemation of israel when they accidentlly kill a civilian around them they dont give a crap about there own people they just want to kill as mant jews as they can and you see they send hundreds of rockets a day on civilian citys and no one is condeming them only israel

Posted by awesome on May 19, 2008 05:03 AM

Great Article - people are going off topic. The response was completely disproportionate - Rocket attacks from Hamas or Hezbollah barely kill anyone - they are pinpricks on Israeli society which further fuels there fear that they will be "exterminated". And most of all - these were diversionary attacks, the real fighting took place between the IDF and Hezbollah inside Lebanon. The problem is that Lebanon is a strategical point in the middle east in terms of it's resources point between the other ME states.

I'm sure Mossad would have told the government that their is barely a threat, but just like the US government on Iraq, the Israeli government wants to show the Middle East what will happen if there is any resistance against it's regional hegemony.

Also - talking about things that happened in 30 years ago is rediculous - do you also remember Sharon ordered the massacre of 2000 innocent Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, didn't think you did

Posted by Marc Leb on August 25, 2009 07:15 PM

They have been fighting for centuries. Why would they stop now?

Posted by Sara Myers on December 13, 2010 05:12 PM