People forget that the state of Israel was itself forged, in the midst of its War of Independence, from a compendium of armed groups — the Haganah, Palmach, Etzel, Lechi, and others. Many of these had illustrious histories — and some had terrorist tendencies. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first leader, realized that the independent existence of these armed groups was incompatible with the survival of Israeli society. He brought them all within the central authority of the state. Those who resisted were defeated at every turn — their leaders arrested, their organization banned, their movements crushed. Because all Israelis wanted democracy, Israel was able to establish a monopoly of violence with the near universal support of its citizens.
But in the Arab world central authority more often depends on universal fear of a dictatorship’s secret police. The choice they face is often not one of democracy vs. mob rule, but rather mob rule vs. tyranny. This helps us to understand the recent history of Lebanon.
When Israel withdrew from south Lebanon in 2000, Syrian tyranny was the ultimate authority in the war-torn country. After the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, the U.S. and France drove Syria out of Lebanon, pushing for a democratic transition. But the transition, which seemed to get off to a good start, soon faltered. The minority Hezbollah would give up neither its arms nor its areas of local support. So, with support from the local populace, mob ruled nested in Lebanon.
The eggs are now hatching. In the service of Iran, Hezbollah has triggered a cross-border war with Israel. In so doing, Hezbollah undoubtedly committed several crimes under Lebanese law — kidnapping, murder, and possibly treason. That these crimes have been endorsed by all the Hezbollah leadership, including Hezbollah ministers in the current government of Lebanon, demands an effort by the government of Lebanon to prosecute them. Instead, Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora refuses to move against Hezbollah, crediting them with the liberation of Lebanon from Israel, and referring to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah as “a hero.” What Saniora has not yet understood, and we must make him learn it, is that sovereignty is both an obligation and a right.
Lebanon should heed the example of Gaza, which has gone from the frying pan of occupation into the fire of mob rule. Now overrun by rampaging wild-eyed 22-year-olds armed to the teeth with Kalashnikovs, rockets, and high explosives, Gaza has become a nightmare of violence and lawlessness. Soon, Lebanon may look the same. And one cannot blame Israel for defending itself, any more than a police officer can be charged with murder in a case of suicide-by-cop.
This is why the West’s habitual urgings to Israel — that it negotiate, that it end the occupation, that it exercise restraint — are so misguided. They only distract attention from the real obstacle to peace, which is the failure of the Palestinians and Lebanese to embrace the rule of law. It is the social diffusion of violence in these societies that makes the occupation untenable — but also an end to it unfeasible. It renders the peace process pointless. And it impels the Arabs to maximize their civilian casualties, and blame them all on Israel.
Consider the perpetual exhortation that Israel negotiate with the Palestinians. Israel can always find some group of marginally congenial Arabs to regale the world with promises and high-sounding platitudes. The problem is that when these supposed “partners for peace” (such as Palestinian “President” Abu Mazen) go back and try to impose the agreement on the armed groups (Hamas, Islamic Jihad, even Fatah’s own Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades) the invariable response is “we respect the will of the majority, but there will be no monopoly of violence.”
Now here is the fatal contradiction in the entire Palestinian position, the one thing that makes a peaceful settlement of the conflict impossible. If there is no monopoly of violence, there can be no central authority, and if there is no central authority, no one can claim to represent “the Palestinians.” If at least there were a dictatorship, as in Egypt, Israel could negotiate meaningfully because at least it knows that its negotiating partner can deliver on his promises. But because there is no Palestinian who can claim to bind his community to any settlement, who cares what any one Palestinian has to say? Why would the U.S. send high-level envoys? To talk to whom? Abu Mazen? He can’t even be held to the most self-interested of the promises he makes. And the same, apparently, goes for the prime minister of Lebanon.
Hence the historic choice Israel faces now, which is to continue ruling the territories indefinitely, or withdraw unilaterally to whatever borders it thinks it can defend. And here we come to another of the West’s misguided suggestions to Israel: Negotiate a withdrawal from the territories. Because of the chaos of mob rule among the Palestinians, the occupation is clearly untenable. Unfortunately, the alternative is not even possible.
To fill the void left by Israel’s disengagement from Gaza last year, the Palestinian “Authority” agreed to secure the borders and establish general law and order. These undertakings broke down the moment that Israel left. Weapons began to flood into Gaza, wild gun battles raged in the streets, rockets started flying into southern Israel, and Israel has now found it necessary to reoccupy parts of Gaza. All this was entirely predictable. The Israelis would have to be insane to withdraw from the West Bank under these circumstances — with or without negotiations. As Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza shows, there are no borders Israel can defend if on the other side there is the chaos of mob rule. And as Lebanon and Gaza both show, no separation wall can protect against missile terrorism.
It is plain to see that groups like Hamas and Hezbollah — and their Syrian and Iranian masters — need the occupation, and will do anything to maintain its logic. As long as they can goad Israel into causing civilian casualties, they will be able to keep the conflict alive, without ever having to accept the ultimate defeat: peaceful coexistence with Israel. It is the infernal legacy of Yasser Arafat, playing itself out in every generation, like a Koranic doom.
And this brings us to yet another of the West’s eminently unhelpful suggestions to Israel: Exercise restraint. This admonition has always struck me as both perverse and insulting. The Israelis are democrats and humanists like us — they don’t need anyone lecturing them about civilian casualties. Indeed, the Israelis are far more worried about Arab civilian casualties than are the Arabs themselves. Besides all the reasons the Israelis have to worry about them — reasons both moral and expedient — the entire strategy of the terrorists calls precisely for getting Israel to inflict as many civilian casualties as possible. Their strategy is suicide terrorism on a social scale. Both Hamas and Hezbollah intentionally fire missiles from densely populated areas so that Israel will kill civilians when it retaliates, because that inflames the Arab world, and helps turn world opinion against Israel.
We feel deeply for the civilians on both sides whose lives have been and will be ruined by this war. But if Israel’s enemies choose to use civilians as human shields for attacks against it, they and not Israel are guilty of war crimes. It is Hezbollah and the Palestinian terror groups which should be held up for international condemnation when they force Israel to conduct military operations in civilian areas. Israel cannot be expected to make up for its enemies’ lack of concern for their own civilian casualties. The purpose of military strategy is to win.
In the meantime, if the international community demands anything of Israel, it should first demand that Lebanon enforce its own laws against the terrorist Hezbollah. And if any international force is to be sent, local law enforcement should be its primary mission. In the meantime, the United States should leave no doubts that it stands with Israel in this fight.
— Mario Loyola is a former assistant for communications and policy planning at the Department of Defense.