Author Gilbert Achcar on the background to the war:
“Israel is holding a whole population hostage”
Gilbert sent this, with the following note: Here is another interview in English given on July 18 to Socialist Worker, the weekly paper of the International Socialist Organization in the US, and published today
GILBERT ACHCAR grew up in Lebanon, before moving to France, where he teaches political science at the University of Paris-VIII. Among his most recent works are Eastern Cauldron (2004) and The Clash of Barbarisms (2d ed. 2006); a book of his dialogues with Noam Chomsky on the Middle East, Perilous Power, is forthcoming from Paradigm Publishers. He talked to Socialist Worker’s ALAN MAASS about the causes and background of the Israeli assault on Lebanon.
THE U.S. media place the blame for Israel’s attack on Hezbollah, for “starting” the violence? Is that how you view the situation?
WHATEVER ONE thinks about Hezbollah or the operation mounted by Hezbollah–and I do have my own reservations about its appropriateness with regard to its foreseeable consequences–this cannot by any logic justify what Israel is doing.
The killing of the seven Israeli soldiers and the kidnapping of two soldiers was an act of war, and Lebanon and Israel are two countries that are still at war.
Israel regularly encroaches on Lebanon’s sovereignty: it has aggressed the country innumerable times, especially after 1967 (the first Israeli devastating attack on Beirut’s airport took place in 1968); it invaded a small piece of Lebanese territory in 1967 (the Shebaa farms), a big chunk of southern Lebanon in 1978, half of Lebanon in 1982; it then occupied a big part of the country until 1985, its southern part until 2000, and it still holds the stretch of Lebanese territory that it seized in 1967.
Since 2000, there has been an ongoing low-intensity war between Hezbollah and Israel: cross-border skirmishes, covert Israeli action in Lebanon, including assassination of Hezbollah leaders, etc.
But what Israel is carrying out now in Lebanon is massive retaliation against a whole population. It is holding a whole population and country hostage and trying to impose its conditions.
This brutality is most cowardly, because whatever military means Hezbollah–or the whole of the Lebanese state, for that matter–possess are dwarfed by the military power of the state of Israel.
This isn’t some kind of an equal fight, despite the fact that Hezbollah is retaliating with some rockets. One of the world’s mightiest military powers is committing a naked aggression against one of the weakest states in the Middle East, and murdering scores of people.
They have already killed over 200 people in less than one week, and the number keeps growing day after day. The overwhelming majority, more than 90 percent, of Israel’s victims are uninvolved civilians. They are neither fighters, nor even militants; just ordinary civilians, families and a considerable number of children appallingly torn to pieces by Israeli bombs.
Israel is destroying the infrastructure of the country. It is also destroying the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of people. Lebanon is a country where the summer season is very important to thousands and thousands of people–the large proportion of the population that get seasonal jobs in the tourism sector and depend on these earnings for their living for the whole year. And now these people are being fired by the tens of thousands because everybody understands that there won’t be any “summer season” in Lebanon.
If you take all this into consideration and compare it to whatever border operation Hezbollah executed, it is absolutely clear that this has become just a pretext–seized on by Israel, backed by the United States and other countries, to try to impose what they have been attempting to force since 2004.
That year, they had the UN Security Council adopt a resolution calling not only for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, but also for the disarmament of armed groups in the country–meaning, above all, Hezbollah, and secondarily, the Palestinians in their refugee camps.
THE DOUBLE standard of Western media presentations of the situation and the hypocrisy of Israel’s statements are so glaring that they constitute by themselves a moral aggression–for example, the capture of one soldier by the Palestinians becomes Israel’s justification for a murderous and destructive assault on Gaza, while Israel holds close to 10,000 Palestinian prisoners in its jails, most of whom are civilians abducted by Israel in the territory that it occupies since 1967 in total violation of international law.
WE KNOW this double standard well. Noam Chomsky has made it one of his specialties for so many years to denounce the permanent double standards and hypocrisy in the imperial countries and in their media. We are now witnessing an appalling new case of that same double standard.
And the fact is that if this hypocrisy can go unnoticed for an average audience in Western countries, you can be sure that in the overwhelming majority of Third World countries–and, of course, in Muslim countries, and, even more so, in Arab countries–the double standard is conspicuously and outrageously obvious.
That’s why people don’t give any credit to the utterances of Western leaders–to the Bush administration’s talk about democracy and other lies.
Instead, what we are seeing right now is that the hatred toward not only Israel but the United States, and all the other Western countries backing Israel and allying with the United States, is reaching heights which are far beyond what existed before September 11, 2001.
In other words, the United States and the state of Israel are preparing for the rest of the world, including their own populations, nightmarish events, compared to which 9/11, I’m afraid, will be only a foretaste.
People in the West, especially in the United States, have to become aware of the hypocrisy of their government, and of this total lack of justice and even humanitarian commiseration in dealing with the Arab populations of the Middle East.
They have to become aware of the fact that, for very good reason, the Arab and Muslim peoples are coming to perceive that they are considered as sub-human beings, and that their lives have no value in the eyes of Israel, the United States and their allies.
Therefore, they become receptive to the kind of discourse that comes from the likes of Osama bin Laden–that if our civilian lives have no value to them, then their civilian lives should have no value to us. So we are reaching a completely infernal situation because of the criminal reactionary policies of the U.S. administration and the Israeli government.
WHAT ARE Israel’s goals in carrying out this assault?
STRATEGICALLY SPEAKING, both Israel and the United States consider their main enemy in the Middle East to be not bin Laden or al-Qaeda–these are only minor nuisances in their eyes, if conveniently useful nuisances–but Iran.
There is what they call the Shiite axis or crescent, which has its source in Iran, and goes through the pro-Iranian Shiite forces in Iraq, through the Syrian government, which is allied to Iran, and reaches Hezbollah in Lebanon.
This is why they consider Hezbollah a very important enemy–because with their kind of conception of the world, they see everything through their obsession with what they consider to be their main enemy state. At the time of the Cold War, they used to see everything worldwide in terms of a confrontation with the former Soviet Union. Now, they see everything in the Middle East in terms of a confrontation with Iran.
Besides that, Israel has its own specific reasons for wanting to get rid of Hezbollah, as the organization that played the major role in forcing Israel to withdraw from Lebanon, in 2000. This is an organization that is permanently defying Israel by its very existence, its very presence.
Ever since Israel left Lebanon, there’s been a determination to take revenge on Hezbollah, and we’re now witnessing Israel in the midst of carrying this out, using the pretext of the border clashes.
THE U.S. government denounces Hezbollah as a band of terrorists. What is the actual role that it plays in Lebanon?
THROUGHOUT THE years, Lebanese politics have had a communal dynamic, so you have some kind of identification of communities with this or that political organization. Hezbollah managed to become the main force in the Shiite community, which is the largest minority in Lebanon, where no religious community constitutes a majority.
Hezbollah came to play this role for a variety of reasons. The major one is the role that Hezbollah played in liberating southern Lebanon, where the Shiite community is concentrated, from the Israeli invasion.
But there are other factors. Generally speaking, the rise of Hezbollah’s influence fits into a framework that we’ve seen at the regional level for the last 30 years, where the failure of the left and the bankruptcy of nationalist leaderships create a void in the leadership of the mass movement that has been filled by organizations of an Islamic fundamentalist character.
This was very much propelled by the Iranian Revolution in 1979. The shock wave of the revolution was tremendous in the area–especially, of course, among the Shiites, since Iran is a Shiite country.
The birth of Hezbollah was the result of the conjunction of this shock wave with the conditions created by the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. It was born after the invasion, and its rise was associated with its success in the fight against the occupation.
Another factor is the way that Hezbollah managed to build its social base. Hezbollah was very much backed by Iran from its founding. Tehran trains and funds Hezbollah, and the organization has made clever use of the funds that it gets. It organizes several kinds of social services and a social network, which helps huge numbers of Shiite families.
It also managed to translate the clout built through the resistance in political terms, when it entered the elections. Hezbollah has an important fraction in the Lebanese parliament and there are even Hezbollah ministers in the Lebanese government.
So it’s not a “terrorist” organization, as Washington’s and Israel’s terrorist governments call it. It is a mass party fully involved in the legal political life in Lebanon.
No one in Lebanon, except for a tiny minority of ultra reactionaries, considers what Hezbollah does in confronting Israel to be “terrorism.” The Lebanese government itself considers it as national resistance.
CAN YOU talk about how Israel’s assault on Lebanon is connected to the intensified war on Palestinians since Hamas won control of the Palestinian Authority?
THERE ARE several connections. To be sure, there are connections of a kind that fit into Washington’s conspiracy theory.
Hamas and Hezbollah are both organizations in the same regional alliance. Part of Hamas’s leadership live in exile in Syria, and it has very good relations with Iran. Tehran backs Hamas: when the new Palestinian government was elected, and there was a boycott organized by the Western powers and Israel, Iran was the first country to pledge support for the Palestinians to compensate for that boycott.
The other connection is the result of how Israel’s onslaught on Gaza has been so traumatizing for the whole region.
Whatever the original motivation for Hezbollah’s operation that captured the Israelis–I’m saying this, because Hezbollah’s chief Hassan Nasrallah said that it had been months in the planning–when it took place, it was seen across the whole Middle East as a legitimate and necessary gesture of solidarity with the people of Gaza who are being crushed by Israel. That’s why there was a lot of sympathy for it.
Like in Lebanon now, Israel used the pretext of the abduction of one of its soldiers in Gaza to hold the whole population hostage and begin a frenzy of destruction and murder that falls into the canons of state mass terrorism of the worst sort known in history.
HOW DOES the war on Lebanon fit with the other wars that the U.S. and Israel are carrying out in the Middle East?
FOR ISRAEL and the U.S., the main enemy, as I said, is the whole alliance, with Iran as the most central part of the alliance. The main target is the Iranian regime, which they want to get rid of, in one way or another.
The Syrian regime is more of a secondary enemy. I don’t believe that there is a real drive toward overthrowing that regime. Israeli officials explain that they don’t wish to see a new Iraq unfolding at their border, because they know that if the Syrian regime were to collapse, that’s what you would get: a chaotic situation that could very much threaten the security of Israel.
Of course, they would like to get the Syrian government to break with Iran. And they want to compel Tehran, too, to abide by their rules. But because they don’t have any confidence in the Iranian regime, they wish that they could overthrow it in one way or another. That’s their basic goal: what they call in Washingtonese “regime change.”
With the prevailing replica of the Cold War imperialist mentality, Hezbollah is presented as a mere agency of Iran. Now, to be sure, it’s no secret to anyone that Hezbollah is closely linked to both Damascus and Tehran. And Hezbollah would have been foolish to undertake its July 12 attack without some degree of coordination with its backers.
So what? Unlike those of the Afghan mujahadeen, when they were fighting against the Soviet occupation of their country, the weapons Hezbollah is using are, of course, not U.S.-made or U.S.-provided!
It is absolutely normal for forces confronted with much more powerful enemies to try to find external sources of support. Hezbollah has to get the means from somewhere to be able to resist.
Or does Washington believe that it is entitled to intervene wherever it wants by the sole right of its “manifest destiny”–for instance, backing today the so-called People’s Mujahedin of Iran in its cross-border attacks against Iran from U.S.-occupied Iraq, after having backed yesterday the far more significant contras against Nicaragua’s government–while Iran has no right to support its correligionists in Lebanon or Palestine. This chutzpah is only exceeded by U.S. complaints against Iranian interference in Iraq, a country under U.S. occupation!
The fact that Hezbollah has links to Syria and Iran doesn’t mean in the least that it is not waging a legitimate national resistance struggle–in the same way that the fact that the Vietnamese were backed by this or that Communist country didn’t mean in the least that they were not fighting for the liberation of their country.
July 22nd, 2006
As the horrors in Iraq and the Middle East continue unabated, the New York Times [permanent link here] provides reports of new Iraqi government figures indicating that the number of civilians killed in recent months in non-Kurdish Iraq is far higher than the figures reported in the press.
The New York Times article is based on a new Human Rights Report from the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq. That report cites Iraqi Ministry of Health figures and those from the Medico-Legal Institute in Baghdad [the Baghdad morgue] which summarize deaths in the first six months of 2006. The crucial paragraph from the UN report:
The reported number of civilian casualties continued an upward trend. According to figures provided by the Ministry of Health, which include counts from hospitals in all Governorates indicate that 1,294 civilians died as a result of violence in May 2006 (among them 58 women and 17 children) and 2,687 were wounded (among them 178 women and 41 children). In June 2006 1,554 civilians died violently (among them 66 women and 30 children) and 3,075 were wounded (176 women and 58 children). The overwhelming majority of casualties were reported in Baghdad. In addition, the Medico-Legal Institute in Baghdad (MLI) separately reported receiving 1,375 unidentified bodies in May and 1,595 in June 2006. The total figure of civilians killed in Iraq, adding the figures provided by the Ministry of Health and the MLI, reaches 2,669 civilians in May and 3,149 in June 2006. According to the Ministry of Health, from January to June 2006 there were 6,826 civilians killed and 13,256 wounded. [Footnote: There were 710 civilians killed in January; 1,055 in February; 1,084 in March and 1,129 in April 2006.] Including the figures of the MLI in Baghdad for the period, the total of civilians killed in Iraq from January-June 2006 was 14,338.
That’s almost 15,000 reported deaths in six months. The report continues:
On 25 June, the Ministry of Health publicly acknowledged information stating that since 2003 at least 50,000 persons have been killed violently. The Baghdad morgue reportedly received 30,204 bodies from 2003 to mid-2006. Death numbering 18,933 occurred from “military clashes” and “terrorist attacks” between 5 April 2004 and 1 June 2006. The Ministry further indicated that the number of deaths is probably underreported. [Emphasis added.]
The New York Times compares these new figures to those from sites using news sources to tally dead. They allegedly compare the UN figures to those from the “Iraq Coalition Casualty Count,” a site whose server is down at the moment, but, from all accounts, appears to count “Coalition Casualties” not Iraqi civilian deaths. Is it possible that they are in fact referring to Iraq Body Count? I’m no at all clear as these numbers seem low for IBC.
The Times seems very confused. In the version of the article on the New York Times web site as I write it says:
”The totals represent an enormous increase over figures published by media organizations and by nongovernmental organizations that track these trends.
The Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, an independent Web site that uses news reports to do its tallies, reported that at least 738 died in June, and another 969 the previous month.”
However, in the version archived by Antiwar.com, the second sentence reads rather:
The Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, an independent Web site that uses news reports to do its tallies, reported that at least 840 Iraqi civilians died in June, compared with an all-time high of 1,100 the previous month.
In any case, the new figures, an undercount as they undoubtedly are, demonstrate that the death rate is increasing at an alarming rate. It seems apparent that Iraq is in a full-fledged civil war. Barring some miracle, the death rate will undoubtedly escalate further as the various sides escalate their attempts at ethnic cleansing and the seizure of territory.
July 19th, 2006
Harpers reports on the U.S. suppression of unfavorable stories by embedded reporters. [“I Was a Mouthpiece for the American Military”] In particular, they describe conversations with “former senior TV producer for Reuters who worked in Iraq between 2003 and 2004.” This producer describes being given free access to investigate stories favorable to the U.S., such as accounts of insurgents attacking civilians.
But when the stories might be unfavorable to the U.S., she was not allowed to investigate. In particular, attempts to investigate accounts of civilians killed by U.S. forces were invariably suppressed:
”Every few days, she said, she would receive a call from the Reuters bureau in Baghdad and discover that reporters there had heard, via local news reports or from the bureau’s network of Iraqi sources, about civilians being killed or injured by American troops. But when she asked to leave the compound to independently confirm such incidents, her requests were invariably turned down.
‘Reuters had an armored car,’ she told me, ‘and we wanted to go out on our own, but I would ask the PIO [Public Information Officer] for permission and he would say he needed to get more information before we could go. Hours would pass, it would get dark—and in the end we were never able to get to the scene.’ Even getting an on-camera comment from a military spokesman was impossible in such cases, she said.”
Note that this account is relevant to the debate about the accuracy of Iraq Body Count’s estimates of Iraqi civilian dead, as well as their detailed statistics on who was killing whom. As we critics have repeatedly said, the U.S. managed the media to reduce reports of civilians killed by Americans, thereby leading to an overestimate of the proportion of the dead killed by insurgents. IBC, as usual, hardly acknowledges this. For example, in their Press release Iraq Death Toll in Third Year of Occupation is Highest Yet they state:
”Although what has been described as ‘sectarian violence’ undoubtedly contributes to a growing proportion of deaths, the last year’s total includes 370 known civilian deaths from military action by US-led forces and 2,231 from anti-occupation activity against coalition and Iraqi government targets.”
Note that there is no mention of possible bias in these figures, while their very precision lends them an undeserved aura of accuracy. There is, of course, the word “known,” but, in the absence of any emphasis or explanation, it is more than likely to be passed over by most readers.
This producer goes on to describe how total and yet ridiculous this news management was:
”The height of absurdity came when the Tikrit compound came under serious attack one evening and the producer was asked by the Reuters bureau in Baghdad to phone in a report on the situation. “We couldn’t find out anything [from the U.S. military],” she said, so Reuters had to cover the fighting from Baghdad, despite having a TV producer and reporter on the ground at the compound in Tikrit.”
Unfortunately, I doubt Reuters reported that their reporter on the scene was unable to report anything due to the lack of cooperation of the U.S. military. Perhaps if that had been reported nightly, the result would have been different.
The producer also heard regular torture of suspects, but, as she was kept in the other room, without film coverage, her reports never reflected what she heard:
”The producer frequently filmed foot patrols and nighttime raids. She said that for the latter, the military and the embedded journalists would drive for long stretches in pitch darkness. The raids themselves, she said, were blurry and confusing, and afterwards soldiers would round up suspected insurgents and sympathizers for interrogation. It was routine for the producer to wait in one room of a house while detainees were questioned in another. “Not always, but there were times when I would hear detainees screaming during the questioning,” she said. “I’m not sure what was happening but they were screaming loudly—they weren’t just being slapped around.” Because she obviously was not permitted to film the interrogations, none of that material could be included in her pool feeds.”
Unfortunately, the U.S. efforts to control her reports were totally successful:
”During her 45 days in Tikrit, she told me, she didn’t file a single story critical of the American project in Iraq. ‘There was no balance,’ she said. ‘What we were doing wasn’t real journalism.’”
July 8th, 2006