(Note: this is just going to be a background post on the whole mess with Israel, Hamas and Hezbollah. Too much is happening for one post, so I'll probably put up another on current developments, like the rocket hitting Haifa, later.)
I have a very, very bad feeling about what's happening in Israel, Gaza, and Lebanon. I am less interested in assigning blame than in figuring out what's actually happening. But to get the blame part out of the way: it's almost never the case, in Israeli/Arab confrontations, that one side is wholly to blame, but in the case of the kidnapping of the two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah, it is. This was Hezbollah's fault, pure and simple. That said, I think that the Israeli response has been disproportionate and in some respects unwise. And that's all I have to say about the blame game, which, in this part of the world, I find a tiresome and pointless exercise.
When Hamas kidnapped the first Israeli soldier, I thought it was just one more instance of a horrible but familiar dynamic in Israeli/Palestinian relations. One of the major obstacles to any sort of resolution of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is that both sides have always been hostage to the rejectionists among them -- the people who do not want peace unless it meets some impossible set of conditions. All someone has to do to derail the peace process is to commit some act of provocation that it counts on the other side not to be able or willing to ignore. Once that happens, all hell breaks loose, and whatever glimmers of hope there might ever have been vanish. The Palestinians are more vulnerable to this, since they have less control over their territory; but the Israelis are not immune to it: witness Ariel Sharon's incredibly stupid little stroll on the Temple Mount. (And no, I am not saying he didn't have a right to go there. I mean, I have been to the al Aqsa mosque, and I'm not a citizen of any relevant country. But just because someone has a right to do something doesn't stop it from being stupid and destructive.)
Time after time, peace initiatives, and even comparatively minor advances, have been blocked by these means. (The classic example is the Dawson Field hijackings, which derailed the Rogers Plan for peace and led to Black September and the deaths of thousands.) When the first soldier was kidnapped, I assumed that this was just one more instance of this hateful and destructive pattern. This still seems to me one possible explanation, but I'm less sure of it now.
At the time, Hamas and Fatah were about to agree on a plan implicitly recognizing Israel. There are all sorts of questions about how seriously to take a merely 'implicit' recognition, and if I were considering how Israel should respond to this, I'd ask them. However, for present purposes, the crucial point is that it was a significant step for Hamas, but one that seems to have been taken by Hamas' leaders within the West Bank and Gaza, as opposed to its external wing, which is (reputedly) much more hard-line. So, "naturally", something happened to undermine that agreement: Hamas militants, reportedly acting on orders from its external wing (and without the knowledge of leaders in the West Bank and Gaza) kidnapped the first Israeli soldier.
And naturally the Israeli government had to respond in a way that made any prospects for peace an awful lot less likely. -- I do not mean to suggest that I think that it's at all obvious what Israel should have done. Not responding to provocations is hard, not only for political reasons but because, if one doesn't respond, the same people who tried to scuttle any prospects for peace before will have every incentive to try to force a response by doing something even worse. That said, I thought that the Israeli response was disproportionate, especially the parts that have led to an impending humanitarian crisis in Gaza:
"United Nations aid agencies said Saturday that Israeli border closings and strikes on civilian infrastructure in the Gaza Strip had brought it to the brink of a public-health disaster and that "civilians are disproportionately paying the price of this conflict."
The U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which helps Palestinian refugees, said the entire Gaza Strip has been without electricity 12 to 18 hours a day since an Israeli strike destroyed the territory's only power plant. The agency said a shortage of fuel for backup generators powering Gaza's wells and sewage pumping plants has cut operations, creating water shortages and a "critical situation" at the sewage plants.
The World Health Organization said that in the last week, cases of diarrhea went up by 160 percent compared with the same period last year, and that fuel stocks for generators powering hospitals and clinics would last two weeks at most. Also, Israel has tightened travel restrictions on Palestinian cancer patients and others referred to Israeli hospitals for treatment, allowing in "only a handful of extremely critical cases" since June 25, the day of the soldier's abduction.
The World Food Program said that flour mills, food factories and bakeries are being forced to reduce production due to power shortages, and that supplies of sugar, dairy products and milk are running extremely low because of limited supplies from Israel."
(See also this article from the Jerusalem Post.)
Meanwhile, Hosni Mubarak had been working with the Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate a way out of this crisis. He claims that a deal had been reached, but that it was blocked by unnamed parties:
"Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak yesterday told the Cairo daily Al Ahram that he had drafted an agreement for the release of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, but that it had been scuttled by outside pressure on Hamas.
"I would not be revealing any secrets by saying I had written portions of a dignified resolution to the soldier crisis," Mubarak said in the interview.
According to the Egyptian leader, Israel promised to release numerous Palestinian prisoners, and Hamas leader Khaled Meshal and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas had both been told. However, the agreement was not implemented due to pressure on Hamas.
"Then Hamas was pressured and entities I do not want to name intervened in the mediation. This blocked the impending agreement," Mubarak said."
The unnamed parties are thought to be either Syria or Iran. The news that the deal had fallen apart broke yesterday. Now Hamas is talking with Mubarak about restarting the negotiations, but it's completely unclear that this will work, given the abductions by Hezbollah.
So the basic outlines of this, as I understand it are as follows: Hamas and Fatah were about to make some limited progress, involving Hamas backing down a bit from its refusal to recognize Israel, when the first soldier was abducted. Israel responded forcefully. Negotiations were about to secure an end to this crisis when two things happened: first, unnamed parties blocked the deal, and second, Hezbollah abducted two more soldiers. Now Israel has again responded forcefully, and the conflict has expanded into Lebanon.
A few points about this. First, the abduction of the first soldier had to have been planned for a while. The tunnel through which Hamas reached him was "almost a kilometer long", and digging it is thought to have taken months. It is also exactly what you'd do if you wanted to put Israel in a real, serious predicament. Israelis tend to have, to their great credit, a fierce loyalty towards their soldiers, and to regard each soldier as though he or she were their own child. They recognize that soldiers are killed in wartime, but the idea of abandoning them to captivity is hard for them to bear. (At least, this was true while I lived there. There are a lot of things that might have changed in the ensuing 20 years, but I suspect this is not one of them.) So the fact that of all the things Hamas and Hezbollah might have done, they chose to kidnap Israeli soldiers makes me think that this was not only very well planned logistically, but also very precisely targetted psychologically.
And if the Hamas abductions had to be well-planned on logistical grounds alone, the Hezbollah attacks had to be a very deliberate act of escalation because of the nature of Hezbollah. Hezbollah is a very disciplined force, and its members would not, I think, act without direction at a time like this.
This is ominous -- much more so than, say, rockets being lobbed into Israel, or even suicide bombers. Those might be freelancers. These are calculated. And that's bad news.
Second: who is behind this, and why? There are, I think, two ways to look at it. On the one hand, the Hamas abduction and the Hezbollah abductions might be independent. In this case, the most likely explanation for the Hamas abduction is the one I gave above, and the Hezbollah abductions are an opportunistic follow-on, possibly motivated by Hezbollah's desire to show that its military wing still has a point now that Lebanon is (or was) turning into a normal country, or possibly dictated by Iran or Syria for reasons of their own.
Another, more ominous possibility is that the two incidents were planned together. And, of course, this is completely possible. Hamas and Hezbollah are both funded by Iran and Syria. Either Iran, Syria, or both could easily have planned both incidents. And that's a scary possibility.
In either case, it's clear that Iran, Syria, or both are now quite seriously involved. One or both countries more or less had to be the power that blocked the deal that Mubarak brokered to end the Hamas crisis. Hezbollah would, imho, never have done what it did without the approval of one or (more probably) both countries; since Hezbollah is a very disciplined group, as I said above, the likelihood that someone was freelancing strikes me as roughly nil.
I don't know what the point of it is, but I have a really bad feeling about it.
Third: Gary said in comments that "the Hezbollah action was meant to take advantage of Israel's pre-occupation with Gaza." This seems to me right, unless the two were planned together. But I also think that it's meant to take advantage of the fact that the US is, at the moment, incredibly badly situated to do anything about this. We are stuck in a quagmire in Iraq, which has not only removed any credible threat of military action from our arsenal of responses, but also placed our soldiers in a position where either Iran or Syria could very easily harm them. They are all, one might say, hostages to Iran and Syria: not at all defenseless, but always vulnerable. Either country could make our situation in Iraq vastly worse than it now is; because we have placed ourselves in their power in this way, we have a lot less freedom of action than we would have otherwise.
Moreover, both Iran and Syria currently have one less threatening neighbor to worry about, and thus while we have damaged our own freedom of action, they have greatly enhanced theirs. (And I have to say again: one way to view the war in Iraq is as the complete undoing of decades of largely successful efforts to contain Iranian influence in the Middle East. We might as well have handed them regional influence on a silver platter.)
Finally, we currently have an administration that simply does not know how to do diplomacy. For all the talk about how Bush has now embraced diplomacy, I haven't seen any sign that this administration has any skill at it whatsoever, or that this 'embrace' involves anything more than the realization that the one tool this administration does like to use -- military force -- is off the table for now. And even if the administration had some skill at diplomacy, it has so thoroughly squandered the respect it would need to draw on at a moment like this that it would be very unlikely to succeed. And all of that is without taking into account the fact that the administration still has its large Cheneyite faction that does not believe in diplomacy at all, and works to undermine it at every turn.
This is very, very bad.