Sunday, December 03, 2006

Nasrallah's Move

An estimated 800,000 supporters of Lebanon’s Hezbollah leader Sheik Nasrallah filled the streets in Beirut, outside the Lebanese Government offices, on Friday, and stayed the weekend. Tents were set up, and the protestors seemed set to hunker down until the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora resigned.

This protest was expected. Nasrallah had postponed it after the assassination of Lebanese anti-Syrian legislator Pierre Gemayel. But that was two weeks ago. Now, according to pundits, Nasrallah is out to topple the moderate Sunni Moslem Siniora and his Druze and Maronite partners.

Pro-Nasrallah speakers called Siniora a puppet of the French-US alliance. They called for Siniora to resign saying that he did not represent the wishes of the majority of Lebanese. One man, speaking to TV cameras in English said, “Either he goes home, or we will help him go home.”

The danger is that the massive protest outside Siniora’s office will turn violent, and degrade into a new civil war. Of course Israel has been closely watching the developments. Israel’s newspapers talked about an Iranian proxy state forming on Israel’s borders. Reportedly, both Jordan and Egypt, two Sunni Moslem countries, are very concerned about Lebanon turning into a pro-Iranian Shiite government.

There is also a view that the fall of the Siniora government will be another blow to US prestige and influence in the Middle East. Analysts say that should Siniora's government fall UNIFIL will be asked to leave Lebanon, erasing any slight gains Israel has made along the Lebanese/Israeli border.

According to Professor Eyal Zisser, head of the Department of Middle East and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, writing in the Yideot Achranot newspaper, “At this point in time, Nasrallah will also suffice with Siniora's partial surrender to his demands, the highlight of which is the establishment of a new cabinet where Nasrallah and his allies from the Shiite camp will have influence and veto power regarding every decision.”

Israeli politicians have been tossing around various ways to bolster the Siniora government, much to Siniora’s chagrin. Israel has considered moves to boost the Siniora government, like pulling out of the Shaba Farms region, which the UN has said belongs to Israel, but which Nasrallah and his supporters claim is part of Lebanon. Israel has also discussed moves to pull out of the village of Gadjar, which straddles both the Lebanese and Israeli borders. These two areas have been used by Nasrallah as examples of Israeli occupation of Lebanese land.

Some analysts say that the last thing Siniora wants is for Israel to interfere, or even appear to interfere, since Israel is perceived by most Lebanese as an enemy state. Support from Israel would bolster Nasrallah’s claims that Siniora is pro-Israeli, pro-Jewish, pro-American, and anti-Lebanese.

Most experts believe that it is only a matter of time until Siniora is replaced by Nasrallah, or a Nasrallah puppet. This move unnerves Israelis, who see a shifting balance of power in the Middle East.

According to Prof. Zisser, the “US will also have a price to pay, because Siniora's downfall will symbolize the end of its adventure in Lebanon, pointing the way to an American withdrawal from Iraq and the end of President Bush's vision regarding a new Middle East.”

Photographs of Hamas leader, and PA Prime Minister Haniyeh with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were plastered across Israeli papers on Sunday. The implication was that Israel would have to face the alliance of Hamas and the Iranians not only in the North of Israel, where Iran supports Hezbollah, but also in the South, where Iran is apparently courting Hamas.

The cease-fire between Hamas and Israel in the Gaza Strip area has been holding, more or less. Hamas has managed to fire at least one rocket a day into Israel during the week-long cease-fire. According to military analysts these daily rockets are fired by radical groups out to show their resistance to any deal with Israel. Islamic Jihad has stated publically that they do not accept the cease-fire.

In an interview on Israel’s Army radio station, Knesset Member Barakai, the Israeli Arab leader of the Hadash Communist Party, said that as long as the parties keep talking about the exchange of prisoners, the cease-fire would last. Barakai, who has been severely criticized in the past for his visits to Lebanon and Syria, said that the rise of Hezbollah is a natural political development. Barakai’s loyalties to Israel have often been called into question because of his visits to Israel’s enemy states.

When one looks at the overall picture it’s as if the arrows on the map are all pointing, some in bold relief, others still faint, at Israel. Iran seems to be putting her pieces on the chessboard, preparing for an attack on Jerusalem. Nasrallah is only one player, although seemingly a rook, not a bishop or a knight.

The feeling of unease pervades Israel due to these new moves in Lebanon.

Two American tourists, visiting Israel for the 30th time, recently spent a day in the South of the country, touring Ashkelon and Sderot. According to Howard Stein, 80, from New Orleans, “We were in Sderot and it was completely quiet. Nothing moving. No rockets, nothing.” Stein and his wife also visited the fence separating Gaza from Ashkelon. They didn’t feel that the situation warranted much concern, and said they’d be back again next year for another visit.

The visiting tourists put the perspective on the Israeli situation. While Israelis obsess on the smallest ripple on the membrane of tranquility, tourists are a few steps removed, and probably get a better more honest view of the situation. When they visit day care centers and schools where children hide from the rockets, they feel the situation must change, peace must be found, but not at any cost. The idea of the children hiding under tables upsets most tourists. The idea of Arab children suffering is also upsetting, but understandable. “Why don’t they just leave Israel alone,” asked Dorothy Stern.

“Then who would they pick on,” quipped an eves-dropper.

“But it would be good for them, for the entire region. They’d have work. Money, the area would blossom,” she persisted.

One of the problems, they were told, was Arab pride. An observer pointed out to them that middle-class businessmen like Howard had their pride damaged every time they wanted to leave their home and go to another village or city on business. These men were forced to stand in line, sometimes for hours in the hot sun, before arriving at the front of the line. There an 19-year old soldier, harried, nervous, suspicious, a target for a knife, a hand-gun, or a suicide bomb, checks papers.

Usually the experience isn’t pleasant for the middle-class businessman. Sometimes the businessman looks the wrong way, or falls into the hands of a sadistic young man dizzy with the power to control hundreds of the “enemy.” Trigger fingers get itchy, and guns go off when they shouldn’t. Arabs at the borders are sometimes taken around a corner and secretly beaten.

No matter what the experience it is humiliating for the Arab men and women. Arab pride, like it or not, is nearly of paramount importance in the Arab community. As long as these men and women are forced to submit to the superiority of a 19-year old soldier with a gun, their pride will continue to be damaged.

But what are the alternatives? Arab merchants want to cross into or through Israel to do business. Arab women want to visit their families or go to a doctor across the border, sometimes in Israel. These people are forced to endure much worst frustrations that any international traveler at any airport.

Perhaps, said the pundit, if some sort of peace can be achieved, then these border crossings will become like that between the US and Canada. Until then the humiliations will continue, Arab pride will continue to be insulted, while the resentment and drive for revenge will continue. Solve the problem of Arab pride seeking revenge, and you’ll come a lot closer to solving the Arab-Israeli problem.

Not only with the Palestinians, but also on the Lebanese border.