Thursday, 20 July 2006

Israel's narrative, Hizbullah's politics: morality, law

Now, I want to present two narratives of Israel's and Hizbullah's actions and then note their centrality to any narrative of politics, morality or law. (You can jump to the note at the bottom for my perspective, which I wouldn't like to present as radical, but which I wouldn't like to claim as orthodox either.)

Adam Boulton relayed that at Prime Minister's Questions, on the 19th of July 2006, Liberal Democrat Leader Sir Menzies Campbell branded the Israeli government's actions "disproportionate". Prime Minister Tony Blair challenged that:
"I agree what's happening in Lebanon is tragic and terrible," he replied to Sir Ming, "But if it is to stop it has to stop by undoing how it started and it started with the kidnap of Israeli soldiers and the bombardment of northern Israel and if we want this to stop that has to stop."
Charles Harb, however, in the Guardian on the 17th of July 2006, had already undermined this narrative of events:
The story reported in much of the western media in the past few days has painted a straightforward picture: Hizbullah's militants suddenly decided to launch an attack against Israel, killed some of its soldiers, kidnapped two, and has bombed Israeli cities.

Israel, acting on its right to self-defence, retaliated by bombing the "infrastructure of terror" in Lebanon. The crisis will end when Israel's terms are implemented: the kidnapped soldiers are returned, Hizbullah is disarmed, and the Lebanese army protects Israel's northern border. This narrative borders on the dangerously naive.

Since Israel's 1996 massacre of Lebanese refugees at Qana in Lebanon, and the end of the 22-year Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000, an agreement between the various parties - sponsored by France, the US, and the UN - has reflected the "balance of terror": Israel would refrain from bombing Lebanese civilian structures, and Hizbullah would not bomb civilian structures in northern Israel.

Although several military operations by the Israelis and by Hizbullah have occurred since 2000, neither side has violated this understanding. In 2004, Hizbullah secured the release of some prisoners held captive in Israeli jails in an exchange with Israel. And Hizbullah's military operation last week falls squarely within that framework.

Israel's immediate reaction broke the established rules of the game by bombing civilian structures across Lebanon, imposing a land, air and sea blockade, terrorising the population, and killing more than 100 civilians in a disproportionate display of power not seen since 1982. Hizbullah then retaliated by bombing northern Israel, in line with the "balance of terror" equations, and the escalation of the conflict has spiralled.

Israel's significant policy shift is linked to domestic politics, psychological factors and power plays. The wider geostrategic implications are more important then the operational details. For the first time in recent history, Saudi Arabian, Egyptian, Jordanian, Israeli and US interests now converge in an implicit alliance to quell Hizbullah.

Reactions by these states in the past few days have been strongly indicative of such a stance, from the Saudi statement implicitly condemning Hizbullah, to the US president's explicit refusal to "rein in" Israel.

US rhetoric last year about spreading "democracy and freedom" in the Middle East was ended when the administration realised that the outcome might lead to governments more in tune with national interests than American ones.

The complacent reaction by US (and, to some extent, European) officials to the widespread election fraud and repression in Egypt as well as the open war on the democratically elected Palestinian government reflect this change. The question is increasingly whether entire populations are being punished for making the "wrong" democratic choices.

The Islamic-led resistance movements are now the only credible forces resisting the US occupation forces in Iraq, the Israeli occupation forces in Palestine, and the dictatorial regimes in the Middle East. They have come of age, and are ready to fill the void left by Arab nationalists of the 1950s and 1960s.

Attempts to divide the movement along sectarian and geographic lines have been given significant airtime in the media, but do not seem to fully reflect the reality on the ground.

The Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Hizbullah are far from being the fanatics some in the west would like to believe they are. They have displayed an increasingly complex and pragmatic discourse, moderated over time and appealing to wider sections of Arab public opinion.

Hizbullah is at a crossroads. It faces a massive Israeli onslaught, hostile international media and Arab regimes, and a potentially hostile Lebanese government. On the other hand, it has broad support among the Arab population across the region.

As one Lebanese analyst argued, Hizbullah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, will either come out of this a hero the like of which the Arab world hasn't seen since Nasser or he will have to step down.

What is happening in Lebanon is a tragedy for a people who have been made to suffer a great deal in the past three decades. A tiny country with a war-weary population and great pride is being made to pay once more for the incompetence of Arab rulers, the arrogance of a superpower and the self-righteousness of the Israeli state.
Recognising the primary concern that is the humanitarian crisis and having let Charles Harb talk, more fully and more fluidly than I could have, about the political situation, even if he has not been as critical of the paramilitaries as I believe he should have been, I want to note something else.

As an archaeologist or cultural heritage worker, specifically one whose primary work is on archaeological ethics and politics, it is unpleasantly interesting and, more unpleasantly still, reassuring, to see the centrality of historical narrative to political practice and, particularly, to the construction of morality and law.

Tony Blair insisted that, "if it is to stop it has to stop by undoing how it started". His constructions of Israel's, Hizbullah's and Lebanon's actions and his moral judgements of them are interdependent; likewise, Charles Harb's constructions and judgements of actions are interdependent, as are all humans'.

For Tony Blair, "it started with the kidnap of Israeli soldiers and the bombardment of northern Israel". For Charles Harb, however, it started with "Israel's immediate reaction [to Hizbullah's "military operation", which] broke the established rules of the game by bombing civilian structures..., terrorising the population".

There are many experiences and narratives of any "event" and even two conflicting ones may both be "true"; for example, male and female war survivors may have had different experiences and may, then, have constructed different (autobiographical and global) narratives.

Still, some narratives may be myopic because of the power of the experiences (like the trauma of victimisation) or lack of other experiences (ignorance of others' victimisations), or fabricated in the interest of ideology (like the public denial of "enemies"' known sufferings) and these ought to be made nuanced or proved false.

The opportunity for archaeologists and historians, is to write responsible narratives that correspond to historical truths and promote social justice; the problem is the powerful's flagrant disregard for either truth or justice. Still, we must persevere; the choice not to is itself a moral act for which we are responsible.

Formatting may have been changed to make it easy to read in a blog.

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